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Stimulus Money in Jeopardy

January 30th, 2009 by flanews

Florida may lose a billion in federal education dollars because it is cutting too much school money from the state budget. The House version of the Economic Stimulus Package bans states from colleting some education dollars if school funding levels aren’t meet. As Whitney Ray tells us, Florida educators are traveling to D.C. to ask the Senate to lift the restriction.

Hear it Here: Stimulus Money in Jeopardy

Under the House version, Florida is still eligible for 2.3 billion dollars to be used for low income students and to renovate schools.

As Florida’s schools wait on Washington for stimulus money, questions about the state’s commitment to education are being raised. School spending in Florida is at a four year low, and advocacy groups are outraged.

“Schools are being closed all over Florida because of this, because the legislature has failed to support education,” said Doug Martin, a spokesman for Florida AFSCME.

But bailout money from Washington may be cut by a billion dollars. The House stimulus package penalizes Florida because state education funding has fallen to the 2004 level.

Education groups from Florida are in Washington DC this weekend to lobby US Senators to lift the restriction.

Florida TaxWatch says US lawmakers are kicking the state when it’s already down.

“It’s a certain amount of insult to injury, and that injury is because of deteriorating economic conditions. Florida is experiencing something it never has in its history and that’s a decline in its general population and a significant decline in its student population,” said Dominic Calabro, the President of Florida TaxWatch.

And fewer students, means fewer dollars for schools, but on top of losing enrollment money, state lawmakers cut per student spending by 140 dollars in January.

Posted in Education, Legislature, State Budget, State News | 1 Comment »

Embattled Speaker Steps Down… For Now

January 30th, 2009 by flanews

Under mounting pressure from constituents, fellow lawmakers, and investigators, embattled House Speaker Ray Sansom is temporarily stepping down as leader of the Florida House.

Earlier today Miami Republican Rep. J.C. Planas publicly called for Sansom’s resignation. A Leon County Grand Jury is investigating Sansom for funneling more than 25 million dollars to a Destin college, then taking a six figure job with the school. House lawmakers have also called for a special investigator to review Sansom’s dealings with the school.

Sansom notified House members of his decision early Friday. His office released this statement.

“Effective immediately, I have decided to recuse myself from the exercise of my duties as Speaker of the House of Representatives. Ongoing legal proceedings have temporarily created an inability for me to carry out my responsibilities as Speaker. Under the House rules, during this temporary inability, Speaker pro tempore Larry Cretul will exercise all the duties, powers and prerogatives of Speaker.”

“I know Larry will manage the House with distinction and it will be an honor for me to serve under him at this time, until any legal proceedings I face are resolved. The allegations and reports associated with these proceedings have caused my family grave pain and this has prompted my decision. I expect positive outcomes and am confident that when the facts are known, my honesty and integrity will be confirmed,” said Sansom.

Governor Charlie Crist, who has been reluctant to speak against the speaker, released this statement.

“I respect Speaker Sansom’s difficult decision today. There is important work ahead of us in the upcoming session, and I am eager to work with members of the House and Senate to address the challenges facing Floridians,” said Crist.

Investigations into Sansom’s dealings with the college will likely carry on for months.

Posted in Charlie Crist, Education, Elections, Legislature, Sansom, State News, Voting | No Comments »

Speaker Cretul?

January 30th, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

The Tallahassee lobbyist community is abuzz this Friday with talk of an imminent resignation by House Speaker Ray Sansom. Miami Republican Rep. J.C. Planas today publicly called for Sansom to step down.

Sansom is under investigation for funneling more than 25 million dollars to a Destin college, then taking a six figure job with the school. He also sent 6 million for an emergency operations training center that looks suspiciously like a hanger a big GOP contributor want to build.

An apparent deal is in the works for Sansom to resign the Speakership but remain in the House. The logic…I didn’t do anything wrong but the honor of the House is too important and I have to take care of my family. Rep. Larry Cretul, R-Ocala would take over as a “care taker” Speaker, leaving a path for Sansom to return should investigators or the grand jury not come up with anything. An alternative to Cretul is Rules Chairman Rep. Bill Galvano of Bradenton. Galvano lost the Speakers race to Sansom.

Insiders say it would not be appropriate for Speaker in waiting Rep. Dean Cannon of Winter Park to assume the job early. The same is true for Rep. Will Wetherford.  Cannon is not returning phone calls, at least so far today. Neither is House spokesperson Jill Chamberlain.

Posted in Children, Education, State News | No Comments »

Florida College Students Leave 24 Million Untapped

January 29th, 2009 by flanews

Paperwork is the only thing standing between 22-thousand college students and 24 million federal dollars. The students qualify for Pell Grants to pay for college but aren’t claiming the money. As Whitney Ray tells us, the University System’s Board of Governors wants to raise awareness of the grant program to increase student enrollment.

Hear it Here: Florida College Students Leave 24 Million Untapped

FAMU Sophomore Dwayne Pearce depends on student loans and a federal Pell Grant to pay for school. The grant is worth 4,400 dollars a year.

“It helps out a lot because if I didn’t, I’d have to take out another loan. So I’d be in more debt,” said Dwayne.

Out-of-state Freshman Lori Sanders would still be in Ohio if she never applied for a Pell Grant.

“Without it I would probably still be in Cleveland, Ohio. Not here at school. I would definitely be in a state college in my state,” said Sanders.

In Florida 22,000 college students are leaving Pell Grant money in Uncle Sam’s bank account. A study by the state’s university system found the qualified students never applied, leaving 24 million untapped.

One reason students could be missing out on the federal grant is this 11-page application full of household income and tax questions.

The study claims many students don’t know how to answer the questions and some simply aren’t aware the grants exist.

“There many students who just aren’t educated about the process, who come in late in the process and didn’t, either take advantage of or get all the materials they needed. There are a lot of students who are reluctant to disclose income,” said Board of Governor’s Assistant Vice Chancellor Dan Cohen-Vogel said.

For some, a Pell grant could make the difference between attending college or the school of hard knocks. The State’s University System’s Board of Governors will begin working with high schools and colleges to raise awareness about the grants. The money is awarded based on family incomes and students can qualify for a full or partial grants.

Posted in Education, State News | 12 Comments »

Florida One Step Closer to Billions in Federal Help

January 29th, 2009 by flanews

Florida is one step closer to receiving federal dollars for road construction, education and health care.

Wednesday the House passed the 820 million dollar economic recovery package. If the House plan makes it to President Barack Obama’s desk, Florida could see as much as 29 billion dollars in economic growth. Four million would go to health care programs. AARP lobbyist Leslie Spencer said Florida needs the money to help seniors who could see cuts to services in Florida’s March legislative session.

“I think we could see real cuts to direct services. During the last round of budget cuts they reduced rates to providers, but we could see real cuts to services that help people stay in the community. In some instance it could be a case of life and death for many of our members,” said Spencer.

The US Senate will take up the stimulus package next week.

Posted in Economy, Education, Health, State Budget, State News, Transportation | 1 Comment »

Redistricting Amendment Approved

January 29th, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

One Panhandle State House District looks like a lobster claw, stretches over 15 counties and 170 miles. Today the Florida Supreme Court approved the language for a 2010 proposed Constitutional amendment that would require state lawmakers to draw  compact, contiguous districts that respect political boundaries and do not favor or hurt incumbents. Supporters say the approval is a major step forward for the initiative.

“You take all these minorities and put them into one area,” Thom Rumberger, the Chairman of Fair Districts, said. “Or you take all the Republicans and put them in, or you give a guy a Democrat seat so the Democrats have a safe seat. It’s a numbers game, a computers game.”

Supporters must now gather just less than 700,000 signatures to get the measure on the 2010 ballot. If they make it, sixty percent of those voters must approve for it to take effect.

Posted in Legislature, State News | 1 Comment »

In the Race for US Senate, More Out than In

January 29th, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

Open US Senate seats are a rarity. Mel Martinez decided against a second term two months ago, yet as Mike Vasilinda tells us, the lack of big name candidates stepping up is a surprise.

Hear it Here: US Senate Race

The two latest casualties in the U.S. Senate race are Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum and Democrat Congressman Allen Boyd. Both have said no.

They join two of the state’s heaviest hitters, Jeb Bush and CFO Alex Sink, who are also out.

Only Miami Congressman Kendrick Meek and state Senator Dan Gelber have taken the plunge.

But what about Charlie Crist? Asked if he could see himself in the race the day Gelber announced, he left the door open.

“Not today,” Crist said.

Later the same day, he brushed aside the same question.

“I’m not really thinking about politics,” Crist said. “I’m thinking about our budget. I’m thinking about what I have to do.”

Charlie Crist has a luxury that no other candidate considering the Senate race has, and that’s that he is so popular, he can take a year to make up his mind.

Florida GOP Chair Jim Greer says until the governor sends a clear signal, the GOP field will be slim.

“I don’t think he’s ever closed the door or opened the door,” Greer said. “Most importantly he’s focusing on being Governor of Florida. And at the end of the day, Charlie Crist is going to play a very important role in who becomes the next United States Senator from Florida.”

With a 67 percent approval rating, Governor Charlie Crist will stay in the drivers seat until he makes up his mind…and everyone will be in the back seat.

Waiting in the GOP wings is former House Speaker Marco Rubio….complete with a web site that looks very candidate-like but never mentions an election. Also posturing: Connie Mack, who’s father held the seat and two term Sarasota congressman Vern Buchanan. On the Democrat side, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio is seriously considering.

Posted in Charlie Crist, Elections, McCollum, State News | No Comments »

Enrollment Down in Florida Prepaid College Plans

January 28th, 2009 by flanews

The clock is ticking for parents who want to lock in the price of college tuition for their children. Open Enrollment in Florida’s Prepaid College Plans ends Saturday. As Whitney Ray tells us, enrollment in the plan is down 20 percent.

Hear it Here: Enrollment Down in Florida Prepaid College Plans

Thomas Superfine is a senior at FSU. Without prepaid tuition or bright futures, he works two jobs to pay for school.

“I’ve had to diminish my course load in order to pay for my education. So I’m taking fewer classes each semester, and I’m ultimately going to be here a longer time,” said Thomas.

Freshman Sarah Kolb on the other hand has a Florida Prepaid College Plan and isn’t concerned about tuition.

“I don’t worry about it at all. I just pay for other things instead, like books,” said Sarah.

Florida prepaid plans allow parents to lock in the price of tuition. Parents who bought into a plan 18 years ago will save 8-thousand dollars by the time their kid graduates.

The plan could become even more cost effective soon as lawmakers will consider allowing state universities to raise tuition as much as 15 percent a year.

So far this year, enrollment in the plan is down 20 percent. Plan spokesperson Diane Hirth said it’s too early to know how many more will enroll before the deadline.

“We’re a state agency. We’re not trying to make a profit. Our enrollment will go up and down each year and a lot of families are making tough budget decision and we’re just encouraged that we have this options that out there for families. It’s still very affordable,” Hirth said.

All money paid into the plan is backed by the state. The deadline to enroll online is midnight on Saturday. The website is www.myfloridaprepaid.com.

Posted in Children, Economy, Education, State News | No Comments »

Health Care Cost Could Double

January 28th, 2009 by flanews

The cost of insurance premiums and co-pays could double by 2016 according to a report released by the Florida Public Interest Research Group.

The Florida PIRG report claims wasteful spending by hospitals and insurance companies will lead to higher cost for patients. The report claims one out of three dollars spent on health care fuels profits for special interest groups. Florida PIRG Spokesman Brad Ashwell said the Florida Legislature should look at way reduce wasteful spending when it meets again in March.

“Our health care system is in crisis. We have to do something immediately. There’s no silver bullet and we ought to attack this problem with a number of different fronts. So this report looks at a number of different solutions,” said Ashwell.

A few solutions being proposed are raising the cigarette tax to cover state health care spending, and requiring private insurance companies to spend more money on patient care and less on negotiations with hospitals and special interest groups.

Posted in Health, Legislature, State News | 1 Comment »

AG Honors Law Enforcement Officer of the Year

January 28th, 2009 by flanews

The state is honoring 13 of Florida’s finest. Law enforcement officers from different agencies and jurisdictions received awards for their outstanding achievement.

Florida’s Attorney General’s office sponsored the ceremony and selected an Officer of the Year. This year Lieutenant Michael Howell of the Walton County Sheriff’s Office won. In October, Howell arrested two men after he found three million dollars worth of cocaine in their vehicle.

“All of us have family members that have been affected by drugs. To take that amount of narcotics off the street, that may fall into the hands of loved ones or children or whoever, it just a fabulous feeling,” said Howell.

Apart from the drug bust, Howell also made 48 other arrests last year.

Posted in Criminal Justice, Highways, McCollum, State News | No Comments »

McCollum to Seek Re-Election

January 28th, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

Saying there is still more to do, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum this afternoon indicated he will seek re-election “unless circumstances change”. 

Unanswered is the question of which circumstances could change that would cause him to reconsider. Speculation is that if Charlie Crist were to seek the Senate seat, the Attorney General would likely run for Governor.

Here’s McCollum’s full statement:

“Over the past several weeks since the announcement of Senator Mel Martinez that he would not seek re-election, I have given considerable thought to the possibility of running for his United States Senate seat.
The people of Florida have given me the honor of serving them as their Attorney General. Our team has made great strides combating internet child predators, gangs and mortgage and Medicaid fraud, and in providing consumer protection. But there is more to do.
Unless circumstances change it is my intention, at the appropriate time, to announce that I will be seeking re-election as Florida’s Attorney General.”

Posted in State News | No Comments »

State Farm Pullout Poses Challenges

January 28th, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

The decision of State Farm Florida to stop selling coverage for homes, condos, renters, boat owners and others, continues to reverberate in the halls of the state capitol. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, the company’s decision will likely result in the state run insurer taking on more risk.

Hear it Here: State Farm

There are 1 point 2 million potential new customers for upstart insurance companies or the state run insurer Citizens. State Farm plans to drop the policies over the next two years. The Florida Insurance Council says most but not all will find insurance with private companies, many of them new to Florida.

“Yes they’re sound. Most of them are,” Sam Miller with Florida Insurance Company said. “First of all, most of them were around in 2004, 2005 and they survived those hurricanes.”

The state says this is not a time for State Farm customers to panic.

“There’s no immediate effect,” Ed Domansky with the Office of Insurance Regulation said. “The office has 90 days to approve or disapprove the plan, and even beyond that, the company will be providing 6 month’s notice before any nonrenewals will take place.”

State Farm placed full page ads in every major Florida daily paper. The ad thanks customers and places the blame for State Farms departure on regulators who turned a deaf ear to rate hikes.

State Farm has effectively muzzled their agents, refusing to let them talk to the media. But off camera, we were told the phone traffic has been constant, with a lot of concerned customers.

State Farm customers are being told to reach out to other insurance agents in the community and to check the state’s web site shopandcomparerates.com. In almost every county, State Farm is not the lowest provider.

The state has 90 days to approve State Farms plan to leave. It could seek to modify it.

Posted in Business, Insurance, State News | No Comments »

Crist Vetoes Spending Cuts

January 27th, 2009 by flanews

Florida’s schools, hospitals and prisons will have less money to get through the fiscal year that ends June 30th. Governor Charlie Crist signed a budget reduction package Tuesday. The package includes 1.1 billion dollars in spending reductions, but as Whitney Ray tells us, the cuts were deeper before Crist used his veto pen.

Hear it Here: Crist Vetoes Spending Cuts

Public schools won a small budget battle Tuesday as Governor Charlie Crist vetoed 29 million dollars in education spending cuts. 23 million health care dollars were spared. So was environmental spending. Crist also saved probation officers from the budget ax.

“In the area of public safety, I’m preserving 16.2 million dollars and preventing the layoffs of 118 probation officers,” said Crist.

The Florida Police Benevolent Association is applauding the vetoes. The group says cutting the positions would have jeopardized public safety.

“The Probation officers are very happy with his decision. He’s always said he’s the public safety governor and he proved it with this restoration of funding,” said PBA Spokesman Matt Puckett.

All together Crist saved 90 million dollars from being cut. The Governor is keeping a 10 million dollar business loan program aimed at creating jobs.

Crist defended the program House Democrats say should be put off till the economy improves.

“I think it really will make a difference to small businesses having the opportunity to hire more people and create more jobs for Florida’s economy,” said Crist.

In the end, even some the winners are losers. Schools will still lose more than 400 million dollars. Health care and public safety agencies will have to tighten their belts…and drivers will see an increase in traffic fines to help save courts and prisons.

The legislature passed a 300 million dollar buffer. Crist cut into 90 million of that, leaving the state 210 million dollars ahead for the year.

Posted in Business, Charlie Crist, Children, Criminal Justice, Economy, Education, Environment, Health, Highways, Legislature, State Budget, State News, Transportation, Wildlife | No Comments »

AG Says Calls Sansom Meeting with College “Questionable”

January 27th, 2009 by flanews

Florida’s Attorney General says Northwest Florida State College Trustees may have violated sunshine laws when they meet in a private building with House Speaker Ray Sansom.

The meeting was held at FSU in March and advertised in a Destin newspaper. Just weeks after the meeting Sansom steered 25 million state dollars to the school. Six months later Sansom took an administrative job there. McCollum sent a letter to the trustees about the possible violation.

“I sent a letter to the trustees expressing concern that the way they conducted this meeting, noticed it, etcetera, was very questionable and I cited for them the various provisions about what they should be doing to comply to the appropriate laws and then reminded them that the enforcement of those laws were in the hands of the state attorneys and therefore that may or may not be an issue for them in the future if they don’t comply,” said Sansom.

McCollum also sent a copy of his findings to two State Attorneys. A Leon County Jury will meet February 17th to look at whether the Trustee’s or Sansom have violated the law.

Posted in McCollum, Sansom, State News | No Comments »

Crist: Florida Wins the Super Bowl

January 27th, 2009 by flanews

Governor Charlie Crist isn’t taking sides in Sunday’s Super Bowl matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals.

Instead Crist says Florida will be the winner. The game will be played in Tampa this year. Crist says the worldwide coverage could bring tourist to the Sunshine state, granted we have good weather.

“I’m rooting for Florida. I’m glad it’s in Florida. I’m glad that it will have such a positive impact. You know when you watch the Super Bowl there are shots of where ever the Super Bowl is being held, that go around the globe and those shots are going to be of Florida so I think it’s a great opportunity to showcase the Sunshine state and I hope we have great weather and I believe that we will,” said Crist.

Crist says he’s planning on attending the game, but he hasn’t bought a ticket yet. By the way the tickets he’s pricing are about a thousand bucks a piece.

Posted in Charlie Crist, State News | No Comments »

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