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VisitFlorida Sets Sights on Eco-Tourism Market

August 16th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Florida continues to see record breaking tourism numbers, but with all that travel comes the potential for carbon emissions and damage to the environment.

The state’s tourism agency is trying a new approach, targeting eco-tourists.

At the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab about 30 miles southwest of the state’s capital, co-founder Jack Rudloe told us the whole operation would be in serious trouble without a key element.

“Volunteers are critical to Gulf Specimen,” said Rudloe.

Some volunteers are local.

Others travel as far as Canada.

“It’s a vactation for them and also in the winter time the snow birds get out of the freeze,” said Rudloe.

With a record 68.9 million visitors coming to the Sunshine State in the first half of this year alone, VisitFlorida, the state’s primary tourism agency, has launched a new initiative that could help organizations like the marine lab.

Its new online portal aims to attract eco-tourists, steering them towards volunteer opportunities like the ones at the Marine Lab

“VisitFlorida is finally moving a little bit off the center of Disney and all of the other great big attractions and Mickey Mouse, to what we really have here in Florida,” said Rudloe.

For those who aren’t ready to commit their vacation time to volunteering, VisitFlorida’s online portal also highlights eco-tourism destinations and tips for reducing your vacation’s carbon footprint.

Conservationists like Aliki Moncrief with the Florida Conservation Voters point out when the environment is healthy, so too is Florida tourism.

“Most people come to Florida with an expectation of spending some time outside, spending some time in nature,” said Moncrief.

And teaching green lessons to Florida visitors spreads the ideas across the world when vacationers return home.

To learn more about eco-tourism destinations in Florida, click this link.

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Guardianships Under Investigation

August 16th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The state is investigating its own Office of Public and Private Guardianships following the opening of two criminal investigations into the conduct of an Orlando area court appointed guardian, but some believe the alleged misconduct is an ongoing statewide problem.

FreeEarnestine.com is Doug Franks’ ode to his mother.

Franks fought the guardianship system four and a half years trying to free his mother.

She died in 2016.

The same year Franks convinced lawmakers guardians need to be regulated.

“There is nothing that can make up for the time that I was deprived from my mom,” said Franks. “Nothing!”

Since the legislation took effect, the state has investigated 764 allegations.

Both the Attorney General and FDLE say they are investigating an Orlando guardian

“We currently have an active investigation into Rebecca Fierle and her business and how she conducted her business,” said Jeremy Burns with FDLE.

Fierle resigned and withdrew from a hundred cases after she filed a do not resuscitate order against a client’s wishes.

“And that’s just one of thousands I’m sure in the state of Florida that are doing the same thing,” said Franks.

Kathleen Zargaros of Tampa told us a similar story about her mother shortly after the law passed.

“She was forced into guardianship based on lies, then she was forced into hospice,” said Zargaros.

The Governor has also ordered a probe of the state office regulating guardians.

“And I told them to pursue it vigorously,” said Franks.

Doug’s mother Earnestine died 45 days after he won her freedom.

“We had a fantastic 45 days,” said Franks. “The day my mom passed was…is the best day of our lives.”

The Governor has told his agencies they have six months to come up with legislation and administrative actions to fix the problems with guardians.

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Florida Dems Deploy Voter Hotline

August 16th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s primary election for state offices is just over a year away, but Florida Democrats are already asking voters to call a new hotline they claim is designed to combat voter suppression.

Florida Democratic Chair, Terri Rizzos said they want to hear from anyone caught up by new restrictions on felons voting as well as other problems.

“Also they have attempted to restrict voting on college campuses. So these are the kind of things we need and those kinds of things plus restricting the number of days for supervisors of elections to mail vote by mail ballots,” said Rizzos. “These are the kind of things we want to be working on.”

If you know of problems, no matter which party in which you are registered, the number Democrats want you to call is: 1-833-VOTE-FLA (1-833-868-3352).

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Floridians Supportive of a Florida Candidate for Presidency in 2024

August 15th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

While most people haven’t even started to focus on the 2020 election, a new poll tested how supportive Floridians are of a 2024 Presidential race involving either the Governor or Florida’s two US Senators.

Many believe all three could vie for the Presidency.

Famed pollster Tony Fabrizio was polling for a business client.

He and decided to tag on one question: Who is Floridians favorite son for President in 2024? Governor Ron DeSantis, US Senator Marco Rubio, or US Senator Rick Scott?

With his approval ratings soaring, DeSantis won hands down.

“And I think the positions he’s taken have established him as a national leader,” said Morton Kline with the Zionist Organization Of America.

And the Presidency was clearly on a lot of minds during the Governor’s trade mission to Israel.

”And I really hope and pray that he seeks national office sometime in the future,” said Kline.

At a luncheon, the Governor sat next to big time GOP donor Sheldon Adelson.

His wife Miriam Adelson praised DeSantis profusely.

“Ron is a warrior,” said Miriam.

After meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli media asked DeSantis is he would consider a bid for President.
“Ah, Certainly not in 2020. You can guarantee that,” said DeSantis.

2024’s election is still more than five years away.

Both DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio will face voters in 2022, and would have to win to be viable for the Presidency.

Long time GOP strategist Mac Stipanovich says a lot can happen in five years.

“And as the poll numbers for Senator Scott and Senator Rubio tell you, the better people know you, the less they’re gonna like you,” said Stipanovich.

Rubio has already run once, and insiders in both DeSantis and Scott camps aren’t ruling it out.

An advantage for Governor DeSantis is that he can be in a Florida media market every day as the campaign heats up.

Scott and Rubio won’t have that luxury.

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First Hearing Scheduled in Amendment 4 Lawsuit

August 15th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The first hearing in a Federal case challenging the law that requires felons to pay all fines, fees and restitution before being eligible to vote has been set for October.

The decision that comes out of that hearing could have a major impact on who is eligible to vote in the 2020 presidential election.

1.4 million felons were initially expected to have their voting rights restored under Amendment 4, but those hopes were diminished when the Legislature passed the law tying financial obligations to restoration.

Lawsuits were filed almost immediately.

“Let’s just hope all of that is expedited so people have some clear direction before the 2020 election,” said Clemency attorney Reggie Garcia.

A Federal Judge will consider two key issues in the case in a hearing set for October 7th.

First, if the financial requirements should be temporarily blocked while the case makes its way through the courts as requested by the plaintiffs.

Second, possibly dismissing the case altogether, which was requested by the Governor and Secretary of State, who have argued the issue should be decided by the State Supreme Court.

Despite roughly 400,000 felons voting rights hanging in the balance of the case, political analysts are split on whether a decision would impact the 2020 election.

“It would certainty have an impact,” said GOP strategist Mac Stipanovich.

Stipanovich said Florida’s tight elections can be easily swung one way or another.

“Statewide elections whether for Governor or for President are decided by tens of thousands of votes not hundreds of thousands of votes,” said Stipanovich.

Democratic strategist Steve Schale said he believes partisan concerns are overblown.

“When you look at the demographics of people who fall into this universe of people they’re as diverse ideologically, racially, gender-wise as Florida is,” said Schale. “So I think some of the politics of who this benefits has been overplayed. I’m not sure that there’s a real 2020 impact politically.”

Depending on the outcome of October’s hearing an official trial could come as early as Spring of 2020.

Whichever side loses will likely appeal, pushing a final resolution even closer to the General election.

In the meantime, the Governor has asked the Florida Supreme Court to determine if fines, fees and restitution are required by the amendment approved by 64 percent of voters.

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Social Security Turns 84

August 14th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Social Security is celebrated its 84th birthday Wednesday.

Implemented in 1935, the program distributes hundreds of billions of dollars to seniors and people with disabilities throughout the nation each year.

Seniors throughout the state held birthday celebrations for the program that more than half a million Floridians benefit from.

Their motto: Cut the cake not social security.

“This is the kind of legislation that makes America great,” said Terry Joe Chapman with the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans.

For retirees like Barbara DeVane, Social Security is a lifeline.

“It’s all that stands between me and poverty and I’m not alone,” said DeVane.

Advocates for retirees said one of their greatest challenges is dispelling the myth that today’s youth will never see the benefits of the program.

FSU student Sasha Moore told us she was unsure if the program would survive until her retirement.

“I haven’t been taught anything about it. It’s just like hearsay,” said Moore.

Another student, Justin Baldwin, said he was preparing for the worst case scenario.

“That’s just kind of how I live my life you know? I’m not really relying on it,” said Baldwin.

Bill Sauers with the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans said the program is self sustaining.

“The more people you have involved the lower the cost and the risk for everyone involved,” said Sauers.

Baby boomers are projected to see smaller payments by 2035, but Sauers said even that could be avoided by raising the current cap.

Annual earnings above $132,900 aren’t subject to the 6.2 percent social security tax.

“Raise that to $250,000 we would have enough money to pay 100 percent benefits for ever and ever. Amen! Plus have money to expand it,” said Sauers.

As of 2019 retiring at age 66 comes with a maximum payout of $2,861 a month.

More than 578,000 Floridians received nearly $325 million through Social Security in 2017 alone.

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36 Counties Have a Guardian Program Going into the 2019 School Year

August 13th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

An interim statewide grand jury report found many schools were not following state law that requires an armed presence in every school, but more than half of Florida’s 67 counties are beginning the school year with a program that puts non-sworn armed guardians in schools.

The Department of Education reported the school year is beginning with 36 counties that have now adopted the Guardian Program.

Some allow teachers to be armed, but the majority limit gun carrying to non-classroom personnel.

“We will not have any teachers with weapons on them on our campuses,” said Gadsden County School Superintendent Roger Milton.

Gadsden County guardians trained for a total of 196 hours during the summer, which is 52 hours above what is required under state law.

One of those who underwent the training was Milton himself, who also has a grandchild in the Gadsden school system.

“I wanted to see exactly what the training consisted of,” said Milton. “I wanted to lean more about the officers and the instructors that was providing the training.”

Gadsden County Sheriff Morris Young first resisted the idea, then quickly realized it was the the only way to protect every school with the resources available.

“This gives us a level of security on campus, equipped and ready to handle a major situation,” said Young.

In Gadsden County, 31 people applied to be guardians.

Only 13 made it past the original screening, and only eight passed the final course.

Both the Sheriff and Superintendent are confident guardians like Temperance Blocker will come through if they face a crisis.

So is she.

“Yes, I’ve been well trained to do so. I’m physically and mentally prepared,” said Blocker.

In the end, the Sheriff Young said the guardians are there for one reason alone.

“To keep our children safe,” said Young.

And the Department of Education expects more districts will follow suit.

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Circuit Judge Strikes Blow to Teachers Unions in Case Against Membership Requirements

August 13th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

As students around the state make their way back into the classrooms, Florida teachers unions are coping with a defeat in their case against a law requiring them to maintain 50 percent membership or else face a recertification process.

The law passed in 2018 law requires teachers unions to undergo a mandatory re-certification vote if they fall below the 50 percent threshold.

Circuit Court Judge Angela Dempsey upheld the requirement at face value in a summary judgement issued Friday.

“We lost round one, but there’s many more to go,” said Tom Brooks, an attorney representing unions in the suit.

Now the case goes to trial where teachers unions hope to prove the law unconstitutionally singles them out.

“The Legislature has passed a statute that has a completely irrational basis,” said Brooks.

The author of the original certification language Rep. Scott Plakon said in 2018, he was concerned teachers unions weren’t meeting the needs of all their members.

“There’s a number of unions in the state that have a very low percentage of the bargaining units that actually pay dues and I would interpret that as they’re not being responsive to their members,” said Plakon.

In the summary judgement, judge Dempsey cited the state’s teacher shortage as justification for the unique requirement, explaining the state has a legitimate interest in keeping teachers satisfied with their representation.

Despite the law having been in effect for a full year, no teachers unions have so far failed to attain 50 percent membership.

Brooks said even prior to the law’s passage there was an existing decertification process, but teachers rarely, if ever, invoked it.

“It hasn’t happened,” said Brooks. “Under this law, not a single employee has to say ‘I don’t want to continue the union’.”

Based on those facts, unions believe the Legislature’s true intent was to hurt unions, not help teachers.

We reached out to the Department of Education for comment, but did not receive a response.

The current Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran was House Speaker when the law was passed in 2018.

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Governor Invokes Rarely Used Power Asking for Justices Opinion

August 12th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Governor Ron SDeSantis is invoking a rarely used  power, asking the state Supreme Court whether the voter approved restoration of voting rights also includes the payment of all fines, fees, and restitution. The request may be an effort to short circuit a federal lawsuit.

In a four page letter, the Governor is asking the Supreme court whether it believes the voter approved amendment restoring a felons right to vote also requires paying all fines, fees, and other financial obligations. 

It’s a question justices themselves asked of sponsor Jon Mills when deciding if the amendment could go on the ballot back in March of 2017..

“All matters. Anything a judge puts in a sentence” Mills told the court.

“So it would also include the full payment of any fines?” Asked Justice Ricky Polston,, to which Mills replied: “Yes sir.”

Clemency attorney Reggie Garcia is quick to point out the implementing law allows felons to ask a judge and state attorney: “To either waive these financial obligations completely, or convert them to community service” says Garcia.

The ACLU and the League of Women Voters are challenging the amendments implementing law in Federal Court. They say in part it violates the 24th amendment which prohibits a poll tax. 

With a Federal lawsuit already filed, some believe the Governor’s letter asking for an opinion is an attempt to get a state court, the Supreme Court, to make a decision before a Federal court rules.

Human Rights Attorney and FSU Law Professor Mark Schlakman thinks having a state court rule on a state constitutional question is a good idea.

“One might surmise that if any entity is to interpret the Florida Constitution as a result of the amendment becoming affective, that that authority should be the Florida Supreme Court” says Schlakman.

The request for the courts opinion is rare. Governors have asked the court for advice just 8 times since 1989.

And the last time the court was asked for an opinion was in 2010 by then Governor Charlie Crist. It had to do with the Governor’s authority to fill vacancies in the judiciary.

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20,000 Books Banned by DOC

August 12th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

 

The Florida Prison system bans more than twenty thousand book titles. Some are banned because of extreme content, others because of certain advertising. But one book titled “How to get our of Prison Early” is also on the forbidden list. Author Reggie Garcia was told its because the book names two inmates specifically. He says the ban is unnecessary.

Sot: Reggie Garcia

Author

“I think, and I don’t say this as a negative, but I think it’s a mid level committee of some librarians and others that aren’t lawyers, and given the first amendment, and I would think we would want to provide information if for nothing else they’ve got all the idle time to entertain inmates, inform them, let them know some things they can do when they get out and train them so they don’t commit new crimes when they get out.”

Garcia says he has asked the Department of Corrections to reconsider the decision to ban his book.

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Study Finds Hospitality Wages Lagging

August 9th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s tourism and hospitality industry employs one point five million people, but as Mike Vasilinda tells us, a new study from Florida State suggests the industry pays the lowest wages in the US economy.

Dr. Tarik Dogru’s first job was as a busboy in Turkey. He’s spent much of the last two years of studying more than a decades worth of national wage data. His conclusion: Hospitality pay checks aren’t keeping pace with the rest of the economy.

“When overall wages in the economy goes up by one percent, or one dollar, the hospitality wages only go up by point eight, or eighty-one cents”, says Dogru.

 

The PhD researcher says paying less in the short run makes for bigger profits. “But in the long run it makes it difficult for them to retain and attract people.”

What the study doesn’t take into account is tipping. That’s because keeping track of tips is near impossible. In cities like New York, Chicago, or Seattle attempts to phase out tipping have failed.

“So it’s a great place to start” says Jerry Parrish, the Chief Economist for the Florida Chamber. Parrish says hospitality jobs pay better in Florida than most other states.

“In leisure and hospitality, Florida workers make eighteen hundred dollars more than the 

Average worker in the US, and they don’t pay state income tax here.”

Q:”So its a good job here?”

“It some cases they certainly are. Even more importantly is often its a path to a good job.” 

And the one thing the researcher and economist agree upon. Hospitality jobs are usually temporary and just like the PhD researcher, often a first job. 

The Chambers Chief economist also says two out of five people who start in hospitality end up with jobs making six figures, in part because of the people skills they learn.

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“Substantial Assistance” Agreement could lead to more Indictments

August 8th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

UPDATE: WASTE PRO PROVIDED THE FOLLOWING STATEMENT ON FRIDAY, AUGUST 9, 2019:

STATEMENT FROM WASTE PRO

Friday, August 9, 2019

“From the beginning of the Maddox investigation, Waste Pro has cooperated fully with the prosecution and law enforcement authorities involved. The company has not been accused of or charged with any wrongdoing. Linking us, or confusing us, with any other business that has been named, or to imply or say otherwise would be inaccurate and slanderous. “

Sara BradySpokesperson, Waste Pro

Governor Ron DeSantis is expected to officially remove a Tallahassee City Commissioner after pleading guilty to three counts of public corruption, But a yet to be made public agreement calls on the former Mayor and Commissioner and a long time lobbyist to offer substantial assistance making future cases.

Moments after disgraced former Mayor and city Commissioner Scott Maddox plead guilty to three charges of public corruption, the US Attorney Larry Keefe announced he was stepping up his game.

“We would  not be establishing this public trust unit, if we not pursuing all sorts of leads  in all sorts of places that I simply can’t share with you, said Keefe.”

The plea agreement signed by Maddox and long time lobbyist Paige Carter Smith references a sealed agreement about future cooperation. Maddox’s lawyer Stephen Dobson would say nothing.

“I’m not making any comments about that.”

But Erwin Jackson, the property owner who took corruption charges to the city commission nearly a decade ago says its going to get ugly before it gets better.

“Anyone who has had dealings with Scott in the last 20 years, including a few people down in Miami probably aren’t going to be sleeping very well because he’s coming after them says Jackson.”

Jackson expects six to eight more indictments. The current investigation began in 2015, but insides say they don’t expect it to take that long for the next shoe to drop.

In the meantime, newly elected City Commissioner Jeremy Matlow wants the cities contracts with at least two companies at the center of the bribery allegations voided.

“You’re not going to keep those contracts if that’s how you got them” says Matlow.  “So if they are currently being paid, they need to be cancelled and we need to start over.”

And while the indictments reference Tallahassee business dealings, both Maddox and Carter Smith had business dealings statewide, which means prosecutors could cast a wide net.

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CFO Honored for Hurricane Michael Claims Work

August 8th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida Taxwatch today honored Florida CFO Jimmy Patronis for his efforts to help Hurricane Michael victims settle with their insurance companies. More than one hundred forty seven thousand claims were filed. Nearly twenty-one thousand claims remain open. The CFO says he will hold what he calls an insurance village in Panama City on August 16th and 17th to push for settling more claims.

“You know, these are the complicated claims” says CFO, Patronis, so please come out. Sometimes you may have a difficult representative, a pa (public adjuster) that maybe feels like the negotiation process needs to go a little further. But I want closure for our citizens claims, so maybe this Insurance Village will put more pressure on all parties to come to conclusion.”

One factor in the unresolved claims is that many insurance companies came in with low ball estimates that resulted in lawsuits.

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Red Flags and Threat Assessments

August 7th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida is considered by some to be the best model in the nation when it comes to red flag laws.

The laws allow a judge to take away a person’s guns for up to a year if they have made credible threats.

Between March of last year when the state passed red flag legislation and August 5th, 1,707 people have had their weapons taken temporarily by a court.

“It’s working extremely well,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri

Gualtieri, who is also President of the Florida Sheriff’s Association, is a big supporter of the law.

“And, there’s no doubt in my mind that the we have prevented violence because of it,” said Gualtieri.

Governor Ron DeSantis likes the policy as well, but thinks when it comes to mass shootings, threat assessments identifying politically motivated and other threats, could be more effective.

“And you have some people who are just crazy and there’s no clear motivation. So I think you have to be familiar with all those kinds of threats and have the warning signs identified and do something about it,” said DeSantis.

Research by the Department of Law Enforcement shows that most mass shooters displayed four or five markers that should have been identified in a threat assessment.

“Get the right people in the room, sharing the right information, you can see a person that’s on this pathway, and hopefully intercept that person,” said FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen.

On August 1st, the State launched a threat assessment portal for schools and law enforcement to share information.

That information is confidential.

Under the same law passed after the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglass, every school in the state must have a threat assessment team in place when the school year begins later this month.

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Governor Declares August 7th ‘Florida Purple Heart Day’

August 7th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Governor Ron DeSantis proclaimed August 7th as Flordia Purple Heart Day.

The Governor announced the proclamation as he took part in the unveiling of a purple granite monument at the National Cemetary outside the state capital to honor past, present and future purple heart recipients.

World War II veteran Major John Haynes is one of the men who made the monument a reality.

“And we hope that that this monument that we have installed here on these hallowed grounds here today will be a reminder to all American citizens of the very steep costs, not only monetary, but in blood that our veterans have paid for our freedom,” said Haynes.

The Governor is a former Navy JAG officer who served in Iraq and earned a Bronze star.

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