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Legislature Questions the Security of University Research

February 18th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Following the firing of six cancer researchers at Moffitt Cancer Center in December for failing to disclose their ties to China, the State House set up a select investigative committee.

The Committee was told most universities rely on self reporting of conflicts Tuesday.

Tuesday was also Gator day at the State Capitol.

One of the first things UF President Kent Fuchs bragged to onlookers was how many research dollars are coming into UF.

“It went up seven percent over any past record. $929 million. Our goal is a billion dollars,” said Fuchs.

Research at Florida universities is a multi-billion dollar business.

State lawmakers want to know how the universities are protecting their work.

“To deal with potential foreign meddling in our research institutions,” said Rep. Chris Sprowls.

The University of Central Florida has seen one researcher indicted and another flee to China.

“We were very engaged with the FBI,” said UCF Vice President of Ethics and Compliance Rhonda Bishop.

Since the 2016 arrest, the institution has developed a list of red flags.

“Are they potentially receiving funding from a foreign government? Are there undisclosed affiliations with foreign entities?” said Bishop.

While the Chairman would not let the question about ongoing investigations be answered in public he invited committee members to inspect documents privately.

Whether there’ll be legislation this year remains an open question, but we’ve been told securing research will be a multi-year effort.

The reason: It’s complicated.

“I think most of us think if somebody is involved in a secret agreement with a foreign county that they work with and they haven’t told us, that certainly they could get fired. I think the Universities say well, if there’s tenure, we have to go through this process. That’s a problem,” said Sprowls.

But perhaps not for much longer.

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E-Verify Legislation Continues to Morph in the Senate

February 18th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Requiring all businesses to check their employees immigration status through the federal E-verify system is a top priority of the Governor.

E-verify legislation passed through its second Senate committee Tuesday morning, but the bill sponsor said much more work is needed.

The legislation continues to morph as it moves through the Senate.

An exemption for the agriculture industry was added and then removed.

Now an option for employers to use an alternative immigration check has been added.

“This essentially is taking us back to the honor system,” said Senate sponsor Tom Lee.

In its second committee stop supporters made a case for public safety.

“Illegal aliens on average murder 428 people in Florida every year,” said Robert Windham with Floridians For E-Verify Now.

And opponents warned of economic impacts.

“This measure if passed, would significantly add to Floridian’s food bills,” said Kathy Bird Carvajal with the American Business Immigration Coalition.

Senator Lee said it comes down ensuring businesses don’t take advantage of illegal workers.

“Just for cheap labor, just to make a buck to stick in their pocket and you know it’s just not okay,” said Lee.

Under the bill all businesses would have to begin checking all new hires’ immigration status by July 1st, 2022.

The bill still has one more committee stop in the Senate.

Lee said serious changes need to be made before it passes, specifically he said allowing businesses to use an alternative immigration check kills the intent of the bill.

“You know we’ve got like I said a lot of cooks in the kitchen and some of them are not coming out of the closet to talk on the record about it,” said Lee.

And if it stays, he doesn’t see a path forward with the Governor.

“I think he’d veto it and I’d tell him to veto it,” said Lee.

If Lee is successful the House would likely also pass the legislation, as it has done in years past.

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Gators Take Over the Capitol

February 18th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

It was Florida Gator Day at the State Capitol Tuesday and there were plenty of orange and blue balloons and booths touting the Universities accomplishments.

Head Football Coach Dan Mullen joked that since UF has been moving up academically in national rankings, he has to work extra hard to make sure the UF is still known for its football.

“I know we went from number eight up to number seven in academics last year, and so we went from seven to six, because I’m always trying to make sure we just stay ahead. I gotta make sure we’re still know as a football school, some, not just purely academics. I’m trying to keep the football ahead of academics so I’m hopefully going to put the pressure on Dr, Fuchs and everybody at the University that they have to get to number two next year. We’re trying to get to number one in football, so if we keep that same trend going, hopefully we’ll do it,” said Mullen.

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Law Enforcement Pushes Back Against Proposed Criminal Justice Reforms

February 18th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida Sheriffs and Police Chiefs are pushing back against proposed criminal justice reforms including a bill that would allow judges to divert from mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases and another that would increase the amount of gain time prisoners could earn to get out early.

Law enforcement unveiled a study which concluded prisoners incarcerated on drug convictions had an average of 36 prior charges and 18 prior convictions.

They also found 85 percent of the inmates had committed prior violent crimes or burglaries.

“These are he criminals that will potentially end up back in your neighborhoods and communities if some of the legislation that has been proposed passed. You know for the life of me I don’t see how putting more of these repeat offenders back in our communities before they’re reformed is going to make our communities safer,” said Gary Hester with the Florida Police Chiefs Association.

Those supporting the reforms have argued the changes would not apply to repeat offenders or violent felons.

Law enforcement countered that at least one provision, which would set a maximum jail sentence of one year for simple possession, could result in light sentences for some who would otherwise do hard time.

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Newly Enfranchised Felons Rally at the Capitol

February 18th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

About 300 felons, many of whom earned the right to vote back after the passage of Amendment 4 in 2018, rallied at the State Capitol Tuesday afternoon.

Lead by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the theme of the advocacy day was “Our Vote, Our Voice, Our Time”.

As the legal battle challenging whether payment of fines and fees should be required for felons to have the right to vote back plays out in the courts, the group is calling on the Governor and Cabinet to reform the clemency process to help speed up the rights restoration process for former inmates.

“We do not have to solely rely on the implementation of Amendment 4 to expand democracy in this great state. We do not have to rely on the implementation of Amendment 4 to expand opportunities for jobs that will stimulate our economy, that would allow us to carry our fair share of the tax burden. Right? Then that would allow us to create safer communities,” said FRRC Executive Director Desmond Meade.

Last year the Coalition announced it would be launching a campaign to help felons pay off fines and fees they owe so they can vote.

More information on how to apply for assistance can be found at FloridaRRC.com.

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Resignations Demanded of Statewide Domestic Violence Board

February 17th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Directors at the majority of the state’s domestic violence shelters are calling for the resignation of the statewide board that administers their funding after documents raised questions about the CEO’s compensation.

Writing they are shocked and concerned, 26 Domestic Violence Center directors are demanding the resignations of the Board overseeing the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Over the last three years, the board paid CEO Tiffany Carr $7.5 million.

The money may have come from a questionable pay to play scheme.

Florida law requires membership in the coalition to receive state funding, but The Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence was also requiring local centers to return a portion of their annual budget to a fund not required by law.

“What was silent in the statute was whether there had to be a payment for membership status,” said Meg Baldwin with Refuge House.

Each of the 42 shelters were required to pay annual dues based on the funding they received from the state through the Coalition.

“I have been concerned about the implication that you somehow have to pay to be eligible for public funding,” said Baldwin.

In the case of the Refuge House, which serves eight North Florida counties, the annual dues were roughly equal to ten percent of what the shelter received each month from the state.

“I don’t know if it was illegal, but it is against Federal policy, it is against state policy and it’s just plain wrong that domestic violence centers have to pay to play,” said State Senator Aaron Bean.

The arrangement has caught the intention of the Governor’s Inspector General Melinda Miguel, who is looking into whether or not any laws were broken.

“On it’s face its not really clear. It’s not clear yet. We’ve not received those records,” said Miguel.

The dues payments did not come from state funds, but money raised locally.

In the case of the North Florida center, it paid $10,000 in annual dues while receiving about a $100,000 a month in state funding.

Last year the state sent more than $46 million through the coalition.

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LGBTQ groups Fear Unintended Consequences From the ‘Parents’ Bill of Rights’

February 17th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

The ‘Parents’ Bill of Rights’, passed by a Senate Committee Monday, lists a wide range of rights parents have over their children.

Many like the right to not vaccinate your child, and the right to object to educational materials and courses like sex ed are already in state law.

“The bill is covering rights the parents already have, which is why it’s unnecessary, except for the additional language,” said Lakey Love with the Florida National Organization for Women.

But LGBTQ groups protested the bill ahead of the hearing, arguing its language is overly broad.

“It’s a broad requirement for schools to disclose all records relating to the student and there’s no balancing there,” said Jon Harris Maurer with Equality Florida.

Their main concern is the bill could lead to school guidance counselors having to disclose students’ sexual orientation or gender identity to their parents.

“This bill takes away the right of queer and trans kids to even have their own personal identification with themselves, the right they have to tell their parents about their queerness and their transness in their way,” said Delilah Pierre with the Florida Coalition for Trans Liberation.

They also fear it would make it easier for parents to object to nearly anything taught in schools.

“Things like civil rights or LGBTQ rights or anything like even history on the Holocaust,” said Maurer.

The bill also specifies a health care practitioner who provides a medical procedure on a minor without written consent of a parent may be fined up to $1,000 and face a year in prison.

Senate sponsor Kelli Stargel said the intent of this bill is clarity, so parents will have a single place in law to see what rights they possess.

“We already have the right to know what’s happening within the course of that day, report cards, progress, disciplinary actions. All this bill is doing is putting it all in one area called ‘Parental Rights’. It’s not changing what we’re currently doing today,” said Stargel. “Parents already have rights, we’re just making sure that they’re being protected, watched and actually followed.”

The bill has just one more committee stop in the Senate and will be heard by its final House committee Tuesday.

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Crime Victims Arrive at Capitol for Week of Advocacy

February 17th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

400 victims of crime from across the state arrived in Tallahassee Monday ahead of a planned week of advocacy at the state Capitol.

This is the third year in a row victims have organized in hopes of expanding victims rights and lobbying for criminal justice reform.

Aswad Thomas with Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice said last year the group achieved some success.

“We were able to extend the time limit for victims of crime to file for the state’s victims’ compensation program from one year to three years. We also extended the time limit that’s needed for victims to file a police report in order to be eligible for the program from 72 hours to five days,” said Thomas.

A rally is scheduled for Wednesday, where victims say they will unveil their 2020 legislative goals.

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DEO Says Panhandle Relief is On the Way

February 17th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Help is on the way for victims of Hurricane Michael in the Florida panhandle according to the State Department of Economic Opportunity.

The agency said it’s on course to accept and distribute nearly a billion Housing and Urban Development relief dollars that will go towards rebuilding lost homes and businesses.

In the meantime, DEO Executive Director Ken Lawson said DEO will be holding public hearings throughout the week to ensure as soon as the money is made available from the Federal government it will go where it is most needed.

“We’re receiving close to a billion dollars from the Federal Government so there a process that takes time. We have to be transparent, be accurate and accountable. But regardless of how much time it takes the Federal Government, we at the state at DEO are going to make sure we do everything as quickly as possible to understand the needs, provide that in-state action plan so when we do get the money from the Federal Government we can put it on the street,” said Lawson.

DEO did not give a specific timeline for when it expects the funds to be made available.

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Domestic Violence Shelters Raise Concerns Over Funding

February 14th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s 42 locally operated domestic violence shelters remain concerned about continued funding after the Governor ordered an investigation into the statewide nonprofit that transfers money from the state to the local level.

It made for a bittersweet Valentines Day at the Refuge House, which provides services to victims of domestic violence from eight North Florida counties.

“The concerns of many of the program directors across the state are acute,” said Director, Meg Baldwin.

In 2004, lawmakers said funding for local shelters would be distributed by an unnamed nonprofit.

In 2012 they specifically named the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence as that agency.

FCADV was the sole conduit of $46 million in state funds to local shelters.

“The wellbeing of survivors of domestic violence depends on their being the strictest integrity at every level,” said Baldwin.

The Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence paid its former CEO $761,000 a year.

She may also have gotten as much as $7 million over three years in other compensation.

Until this week, the nonprofit refused to turn over financial documents to the state.

State Representative Scott Plakon is the House sponsor of legislation that will take FCADV out of the status as the sole conduit for funding.

“This whole organization is a cascading train wreck of apparent corruption and abuse of taxpayer dollars,” said Plakon.

All 42 shelter directors will be meeting by phone on Saturday.

They want to make sure those on the front line aren’t painted by the alleged sins of the statewide administrator.

The House Public Integrity committee has already voted to subpoena FCADV board members and staff.

The Full House will vote to issue the subpoenas next week.

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Gun Safety Bill Stalled in the Legislature

February 14th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

On the second anniversary of the Parkland school shooting, the Governor ordered flags to be flown at half-staff as a sign of respect for the victims.

Following the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High school shooting, state lawmakers banned so-called bump stocks and anyone under 21 from owning a gun.

They also implemented stronger red flag laws and created a mandatory three day waiting period for all gun purchases from licensed dealers.

All week in the Capitol lawmakers have walked by photos of Parkland victims, but the display seems to have done little to inspire support for additional gun restrictions.

Advocates had high hopes of getting increased background checks this year, but the effort is running into some serious opposition.

The main proposal would require background checks at public venues like gun shows.

It also strengthens gun storage laws and creates new requirements for private sales.

Initially, Senate Sponsor Tom Lee was optimistic.

“We need four Republican votes would be my guess in the Senate to pass a bill and it would shock me if we don’t have four Republican votes for common sense gun safety,” said Lee in January.

But the bill stalled after passing its first committee.

And as session reached its midpoint, Senate President Bill Galvano signaled the bill still had many obstacles to overcome.

“It is very clear that it’s an uphill battle. It’s difficult even within the chamber, but it’s even more difficult across the way,” said Galvano.

Despite the change in tone, 2nd amendment groups like the NRA aren’t letting their guard down.

“Anytime a bill’s sponsor is pessimistic about passage of a massive gun control bill it’s a good thing, but we’re never fooled by rhetoric,” said former NRA President Marion Hammer. “We continue to watch, we continue to work and we continue to fight.”

Even if the bill were to pass the Senate, convincing the House and the Governor would likely be a daunting task.

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Governor Orders Investigation into Head Anti-Domestic Violence Organization

February 13th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s 42 Domestic Violence Shelters are on pins and needles as the state opens two investigations into Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the non-profit the funnels state money to the shelters.

In a strongly worded memo, Governor Ron DeSantis ordered his inspector general Melinda Miguel to look into the spending practices of the FCADV.

“The coalition’s compensation, their spending. A Look at whether or not there has been any reasonable grounds to determine whether a crime has occurred,” said Miguel.

Former CEO Tiffany Carr was paid at least $761,000 a year, but there were other perks that could drive that number much higher.

“A number of records were provided already but we still need a lot more,” said Miguel.

Under state law the Department of Children and Families is required to send all state money, $45 million a year, through the Coalition.

“It puts the department in a very difficult position,” said DCF Secretary Chad Poppel.

We spoke Poppel as he left the Governor’s office Thursday.

“A vendor can basically tell us they are not going to agree to our terms and we have to give them the money anyway,” said Poppel.

Sen. Aaron Bean is moving legislation to give DCF control of the funding.

“My immediate priority is to pass this bill,” said Bean.

The House will take a rare step subpoenaing more records and all of the coalitions board members.

“We need to get to the truth. For twenty months we’ve been stonewalled, not being given any information,” said Rep. Tom Leek, who chais the House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee.

Attorney Mark Herron was hired by the FCDAV Wednesday.

“Interface with the committee as well to do an internal investigation into what went on,” said Herron.

Local shelters said they depend on monthly checks from the coalition to keep running and assert any delay in those checks could result in fewer victims being helped.

Also under investigation is a contract provision between local shelters and the coalition that required the shelters to pay dues twice a year to the coalition.

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House Committee Approves New Union Requirements

February 13th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Union employees in Florida would have to reauthorize their union membership every three years under a bill that cleared its final House committee Thursday morning.

Sponsor Representative James Grant said the bill is intended to make it easier for workers to opt out of a union without fear of retribution.

But Marshall Ogletree with the United Faculty of Florida argued it’s not the unions workers fear.

“I will tell you this, the fear is over management. The fear is not over the union. I talk to people every day that are afraid to step up because they’re fearful. You don’t get promotions by being in a union,” said Ogletree.

Other union reps who spoke at Thursday’s meeting expressed concerns over the cost of having to reach out to all union members to remind them to reauthorize their membership.

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Lawmakers Want to Cut Communications Tax

February 13th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

When you download a movie, watch cable or satellite TV or use your cell phone, you are being taxed by state and local governments to the tune of $1.6 billion a year.

Rates vary depending on location and device, but big business in Florida and Florida TaxWatch are applauding a House effort to lover the tax by $60 million this year.

“Besides the sales tax there’s probably no tax that could be cut that would affect more people. Just about everybody pays it somewhere and most people pay it multiple times. So we think it’s long overdue,” said Kurt Wenner, VP of Research at Florida TaxWatch.

Businesses pass the tax on to consumers, but the legislation doesn’t guarantee that any tax savings by business will also go to consumers.

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Higher Ed Bill Proposes University Mergers and Scholarship Cuts

February 12th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Two state universities could be merged with UF and FSU and sweeping changes to scholarships for private universities are part of a controversial higher education package passed by a House committee Wednesday.

New College would be merged with FSU and Florida Polytechnic University with UF.

Sponsor Representative Randy Fine said it comes down to cost.

“We could educate ten students at one of our other schools in many of these cases for what we are spending at these schools,” said Fine.

Florida Polytechnic argued the higher cost comes with a higher return on investment.

“Three times better than the average university state system,” said Florida Polytechnic Trustee Robert Stork.

New College did not speak on the legislation.

The bill would also cut financial aid to as many as 30,000 private university students.

It would limit the $2,800 a semester EASE grant to only those who qualify for financial assistance.

“The idea is: Is it a good use of tens of millions of dollars, which is what it costs, to subsidize wealthy kids to go to private schools?” said Fine.

But students like Brenda Guess who attends Keiser University in Sarasota said they fall in the middle.

“There’s a gap for the need-based and then there’s the families that currently are above that threshold. We’re there because we’re actually working. So don’t take that away from us,” said Guess.

While both the mergers and the EASE grant cuts received flack from Republicans and Democrats alike, the bill passed and is now headed to the House floor.

One part of the bill supported by everyone on the committee would allow students who receive the Medallion Bright Futures Scholarship have 100 percent tuition covered at state or community colleges.

If they maintain a 3.5 percent GPA, they would then qualify for 100 percent tuition at a state university as well.

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