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State Looks to Washington for Cat Fund Help

February 27th, 2009 by flanews

The state is turning to Washington for financial protection against a major hurricane. Senator Bill Nelson filed legislation today to create a limitless line of credit to back the state’s catastrophe fund. As Whitney Ray tells us, the proposal comes as 12 billion dollars of the state’s cat fund nears its sunset.

Hear it Here: State Looks to Washington for Cat Fund Help

Fears of a major hurricane hitting Florida have driven insurance companies to seek massive rate hikes. State Farm decided the risk was too high and is dropping all its policies. Other insurers worry the state’s catastrophe fund isn’t strong enough to weather the big one.

Experts say if a major hurricane hits one of Florida’s bigger cities it could drain the cat fund and bankrupt the state.

If the big one hits, the state could be out 50 billion dollars. Florida Senator Bill Nelson filed legislation that would help Florida avoid bankruptcy. Nelson wants Washington to extend an unlimited line of credit to Florida if the Cat Fund goes belly up.

“The federal government would lend to the Cat fund the cash it needs at fair market interest rates in order that the Cat Fund in Florida could function properly,” said Nelson.

12 billion of the 22 billion dollar Cat Fund is set to expire this year. The state will have to bond to cover any amount above the Cat Fund’s worth. Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink said relying on bonds is risky.

“If the credit markets are really bad, like they are right now, and we can’t go out and bond, than we have to get cash from somewhere and the only place to get cash is the federal government,” said Sink.

Experts say the possibility of a major disaster in Florida isn’t a question of if, but when, but how the federal government will respond to the looming crisis is still unclear. Part of Senator Nelson’s bill would create a pool of states with Cat funds to create a bigger pot of cash when Mother Nature strikes.

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

Affordable Housing Grant

February 27th, 2009 by flanews

Florida will receive a million dollars from a federal grant to improve low income rental properties around the state.

The money will go to repairing five thousands of the state’s 250,000 subsidized rental properties. If the homes fall into shambles, the Federal government will no longer pay the subsidized rent and many families would have to look for another place to live. Florida Housing Finance Corporation Spokesman Steve Auger said money will help the state’s most needy.

“These properties serve Florida’s most vulnerable citizens, those with disabilities, and our folks, the working families at the low end of the pay spectrum. It’s real critical as part of Florida economic infrastructure that those families have a decent place to lay their heads at night,” said Auger.

Even though many of the properties are more than 20 year old, housing experts say it’s much more cost effective to repair the houses than to build new ones.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Brody Family Seeks Relief

February 27th, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

A 29-year-old Broward man and his family are in Tallahassee seeking justice. The family has already won a 30 million-dollar verdict for injuries caused by a sheriff’s deputies, but as the sign of the times, as Mike Vasilinda tells us, the family is being told the economy is too tough to settle.

Hear it Here: Brody Family Seeks Relief

Eleven years ago Eric Brody was a happy healthy college bound 18-year-old hoping for a career in broadcasting. Today he is confined to a wheelchair and his broadcasting career, a distant dream.

In 1998, Eric was plowed into by an off duty Broward Sheriffs Deputy. A court awarded his family 30 million dollars for Eric’s loss and his care. Now his family is in Tallahassee trying to collect. The Brody family lawyer says the county’s insurance company is fighting the payment.

“They’re up here on Eric’s case, telling legislators that if you pass this claims bill, then you’re going to put 100 law enforcement officers out of work,” Brody family attorney Lance Block said.

But lawyers believe insurer TIG has acted in bad faith and the insurance company, not taxpayers, are on the hook for the cash.

The family has million dollar medical and legal bills. Mother Sharon believes Eric would be more active if had he gotten therapy.

“If he got the regular therapy everyday, I think his speech would be a little better. But it’s still very hard to understand him, even for us,” Eric’s mother Sharon Brody said.

“At this moment, he’s getting no therapy or very little therapy because there’s no funding for the therapy,” Charles Brody, Eric’s father, said.

Eric’s mom and dad have been full-time care givers, and they wonder who will care for their son after they’re gone. Without cash from the insurance settlement, Eric will likely be cared for by taxpayers.

A call to the lobbyist for the insurance company fighting the claim was not returned.

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

Florida Prepaid Founder Fights Tuition Increase

February 26th, 2009 by flanews

The founder of Florida’s Prepaid College Plan is fighting a proposal to allow all state universities to increase tuition 15 percent a year. The fear is that the increase could make the prepaid plan too expensive for Florida families. As Whitney Ray tells us, families who locked in rates before July 2007 don’t have to worry about increases, but people shopping for a prepaid plan will be paying more.

Hear it Here: Florida Prepaid Founder Fights Tuition Increase

Jennifer Meale bought a Florida Prepaid College Plan for her daughter Ivey at the beginning of 2007. Months later the state gave five universities permission to raise tuition 15 percent a year.

“I think we missed it by about six months and we’re locked into the rate we signed up for in the plan,” said Meale.

Right now, universities that charge a differential tuition above the normal rate don’t receive any extra money from students on Florida’s Prepaid Plans. The University System’s Board of Governors voted to allow state colleges to collect those lost dollars from the Prepaid Plan. The plan still needs legislative approval.

“The University System will in fact be getting as much as three billion dollars over the next 24 year that Prepaid doesn’t have to give them under the current arrangement, but the contract holder, not one dime more out of contract holders,” said BOG Spokesman Bill Edmonds.

But people buying a plan after the 2007 cutoff date have to buy an extra plan to cover the differential tuition increases. A proposal to allow all 11 state colleges to raise tuition rates 15 percent a year could make prepaid plans unaffordable for some families.

Jennifer Meale said if the plans get more expensive, she would consider buying a lesser plan for any future kids.

“We may only do half if we have more kids, but we may get it for everyone, so we’ll have to look at it when we have more kids,” said Jennifer.

The proposed increase comes as enrollment in the plan is down 15 percent. The Prepaid College Board refused our request for an interview to talk about how the proposed 15 percent increase would change the price of their plans.

Posted in State News | 5 Comments »

State Sponsors Anti-Drinking Contest

February 26th, 2009 by flanews

The Florida Department of Business Regulation is hosting a statewide video contest for student ages 14 to 20 as a creative attempt to convince students not to drink on Spring Break. Students are being asked to send in their most creative 30 second video clip explaining why they won’t drink on spring break. Spokeswoman Jennifer Meale said the Department of Business Regulation is trying to reach kids before they get in trouble with the law.

“Our division of alcoholic beverages and tobacco has agents who go out every spring break and enforce state law and issue citations to underage drinkers. This year we want to get ahead of spring break and actually help underage kids realize why they shouldn’t be drinking and share that message with each other before they’re on the beach being offered a beer,” said Jennifer.

Contest winners will receive Best Buy gift cards and will have their videos posted online. For more information you can go to www.myfloridalicense.com/dbpr/Why_Not.html

Posted in Children, Criminal Justice, State News | No Comments »

Philip Morris Fights Tobacco Tax

February 26th, 2009 by flanews

Tobacco giant Philip Morris is stepping up efforts to kill a plan to raise the state tobacco tax a dollar.

In March lawmakers will consider the increase. The increase could generate an estimated 750 million dollars in state revenues. The money would be spent on health care. Philip Morris opposes the tax increase and is presenting an alternative plan. Spokesman David Sutton says the state could raise millions by taxing smaller tobacco companies the were left out of the state’s tobacco settlement.

“They’re not paying the tobacco settlement fee that all the other manufacturers, including Phillip-Morris USA, are paying. It’s about 50 cents a pack, we pay now to the state. They are effectively paying zero. On that particular piece, we think a fee of about 40 cents would be appropriate for them to level that playing field in Florida and give the state that revenue towards healthcare reimbursement,” said Sutton.

Smokers are already facing a 61 cent federal tax increase. The state’s tobacco tax hasn’t been raised in Florida since 1990.

Posted in Health, Legislature, State Budget, State News, Taxes | No Comments »

Teachers Disciplined

February 26th, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

Each year, 600 of Florida’s teachers are disciplined for everything from sexual misconduct to abusive behavior. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, four dozen teachers were disciplined today on charges that they fondled students or were culturally insensitive.

Hear it Here: Teachers Disciplined

Only a small percentage of Florida’s teachers are disciplined each year, but when their cases reach the Education Practices Commission, it’s serious business.

“This is a case of under the influence in school,” DOE attorney Bonnie Wilmot said.

“Ms. McQueen paid two people, or at least one person, to have two grades changed,” Ron Stowers, DOE attorney said.

Forty-four teachers were disciplined by the commission on Monday. They included a Pinellas county teacher who told a middle school student to go back to Africa after the student  failed to stand for the pledge of allegiance.

“He disciplined him and it sounds like he disciplined him inappropriately,” commission chairman Dennis Griffin said.

A half dozen teachers failed to even respond to the commission. At least one was in jail. Leniency was not on the agenda.

“We request that Mr. Black’s Educator’s Certificate be permanently revoked, and that he be permanently bared from re-application,” DOE attorney Miki Presley said.

“We would like to recommend that his Florida Educator’s Certificate be permanently revoked,” Wilmot said.

Some teachers were allowed to remain in the classroom, but only after admitting they had problems and agreeing to remediation, which often included college level ethics classes.

“It’s about getting the person back on the right track so that they can do an affective job,” commission member Mark Strauss said.

“Want to know if your child’s teacher has ever been in trouble? It’s available on line.”

The internet has also brought new problems. One of the most common offenses these days is downloading pornography on school computers.

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

Powerball Boosts Lottery Sales

February 25th, 2009 by flanews

The state’s new Powerball game is cannibalizing other lottery games but boosting overall sales, funneling an additional 31.5 million dollars to schools in just two months. As Whitney Ray tells us, jackpot fever is driving people to choose Powerball over the Florida Lotto in hopes of a bigger payout.

Hear it Here: Powerball Boost Lottery Sales

Don Heath has been playing the Florida Lottery since it’s inception in 1988. When the state began selling Powerball, the allure of a bigger jackpot changed Don’s spending habits.

“I dropped the amount I played on lottery to play more of the Powerball, the money is bigger,” said Don.

Sales for the first Powerball drawing in Florida totaled more than 7.5 million dollars. One of every four dollars that went to traditional games, now goes to Powerball.

“We expected some cannibalization of games and the amount of decrease has been slight compared to what we expected,” said Florida Lottery Spokeswoman Jackie Barrieros.

Cash 3, Play 4, and Fantasy 5 have seen slight decreases, but remain the Lottery’s strongest games. Lotto sales are down eight percent but scratch-off sales are actually up ten. Still, the draw of a big Powerball jackpot drives players fantasies about hitting it big.

“I would take care of my grandma, my aunts. Really just take care of the family,” said Shalinus Pye.

“I have a couple of charities I would give to, and I would make sure for my family,” said Don.

So far no Florida players have hit the big Florida jackpot. Despite the lack of a jackpot winner, Florida has more Powerball prize winners than any other states. 12 Floridians have won cash prices of 200-thousand dollars; four have won a million.

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

Gas Station Chain Pays the Piper

February 25th, 2009 by flanews

The American Red Cross will now have more money to help families in crisis, thanks to a gas station chain’s settlement with the state.

Flash Foods settled with the Attorney General’s Office after being accused of gas price gouging. 16 Flash Foods stations hiked prices as Hurricane Ike moved through the Gulf of Mexico in September. The money will go into the Disaster Relief Fund. Red Cross CEO David Chayer said the extra cash will help feed Florida families in crisis.

“We can serve up to 13,000 meals a day with $40,000. We can open and staff two shelters for two weeks to provide comfort from the storm, a safe place to sleep, and a warm place to stay for families,” said Chayer.

The state is still working on 16 other gas price gouging investigations stemming from Hurricane Ike.

Posted in Gas Prices, State News | No Comments »

Housing Sales Up, Prices Down

February 25th, 2009 by flanews

Falling real estate prices are driving an increase in existing home sales.

From December to January, Florida home sales rose 24 percent. Prices are down 33 percent in the same time period. The median price of a home in Florida is down to 140,000 dollars. Florida Association of Realtors Spokesman John Sebree said the market is great for first time home buyers.

“It’s been a buyers market for a couple of months, and you know they always say you’ll never know when you’ve hit the bottom until it’s past you but I think home values will continue to fall. The existing home prices are down again this month but they’re probably not going to be able to go much further.”

Right now first-time homebuyers can receive an 8,000 dollar tax credit as part of a stimulus package plan to revive the real estate market.

Posted in Housing, State News | No Comments »

AG Hotline Swamped With Calls

February 25th, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

Calls from people who have been scammed by companies offering to help lower debt or save their home have more than doubled to one state hotline. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, officials also expect a rising crime rate to start showing up in statistics.

Hear it Here: AG Hotline Swamped With Calls

A sign promising consumers they can erase bad credit for a fee hangs as a reminder in the Attorney Generals Call center.

Calls here used to average 300 a week, but have been rising steadily.

Two days this week they hit 650. Many are about foreclosures, debt loads and worries about companies claiming they can help. A new state law says the companies can no longer ask for money up front, but many still do.

“We’re getting calls from consumers who are being charged, 1200, 1800, 2000 dollars for companies who are claiming they are going to modify the loan with a lender,” call supervisor Jack Hagadorn said. “But when they find out later on that the company has never contacted the lender, and they are now in foreclosure.”

A lot of callers are at their wit’s end.

“Most people are so very upset, they feel like they’re going to be losing their homes, that they’re asking questions,” Bethan Dillon, a hotline operator with the office, said.

And the calls keep coming.

The experts say that the one thing that companies promising to raise your credit score or get you out of debt, have in common is that they’re preying on people’s fears.

John Robinson is unemployed and says the offers sound tempting.

“I have had some thoughts that it might be a good idea,” Robinson said. “But then again, they always told me follow your first mind, not everything that falls out of the sky.”

The call volume at the hot line is so high, some callers are being asked to leave a message or go to a web site.

If you have a concern, the number to call is 1-866-966-7226. The web site is www.myfloridalegal.com.

Posted in Business, Criminal Justice, Economy, State News, Unemployment | No Comments »

Unemployment Benefits Going Up

February 24th, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

The half million Floridians collecting unemployment benefits are getting a raise. The money is contained in the stimulus package signed into law. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, those receiving benefits don’t have to do anything…but wait a few weeks.

Hear it Here: Unemployment Benefits Going Up

A half million Floridians receiving unemployment will soon see an extra twenty-five dollars in their checks. Statewide, that’s an extra 345 million dollars going into people’s hands by the end of the year. The raise caught some…like Vivian Cromartie, by surprise.

“Food, utilities, you know, basic living expenses,” Cromartie explained what she would spend it on.

“I bet it will,” she said when asked whether it will make a difference in her budget.

For others with more means and more bills, the extra cash isn’t going to be a game changer.

“It’ll probably get me a tank of gas. Well, not even a tank of gas, a half a tank of gas. It will not affect me either way,” unemployed truck driver Russell Hass said.

The 25-dollar increase is across the board, whether recipients are receiving the max weekly payment of 275 dollars, or just half that amount.

The good news for those receiving unemployment is that you don’t have to do anything, but wait for the money.

The increase is retroactive to this past Sunday, but the state says that it could take until late March to get into people’s hands.

“So they’ll get a lump sum payment for the additional 25 dollars per week raise that they’re getting from the federal government,” Victoria Langley Heller with the Agency for Workforce Innovation said.

The increased payments have no effect on businesses or the tax rate they pay for unemployment compensation.

Unemployment is paid every two weeks. The maximum payment will now be 300 dollars for each week, and the additional 25 dollar payments are only authorized though December of this year.

Posted in Economy, State News, Unemployment | 2 Comments »

Grand Jury Investigates

February 24th, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

A Leon County Grand Jury spent part of the day listening to prosecutors describe the business dealings of soon to be former House Speaker Ray Sansom.

Samson is being investigated for taking a six figure job with Northwest Florida College after funneling more than 25 million dollars to the hometown college, helping the college trustees meet out of the sunshine, and for funding a six million dollar airplane hanger through the college for a contributor.

Sansom was sacked as House Speaker by his colleagues after he tried to step down temporarily. A new Speaker will be sworn in when lawmakers begin their annual session on March 3rd.

Posted in Sansom, State News | No Comments »

Council to Reduce Black Inmate Population

February 24th, 2009 by flanews

One out of every five Floridians is African American, but blacks make up about half of the state’s prison population. A coalition of lawmakers, department heads, and civil rights activists are looking for ways to keep black men out prison. As Whitney Ray tells us, the group wants to increase the high school graduation rate and reach black teens before they end up in state prisons.

Hear it Here: Council to Reduce Black Inmate Population

“Michael” is a 19 year-old who asked us to conceal his identity. He’s been in and out of jails and detention centers since he was 12. Last month he was shot.

“I didn’t really have nobody at home, nobody I could just chill with at home, that’s why I ran the streets and what not,” Michael said.

Michael is just one of thousands of black men the state is trying to keep out of the system. The Attorney General’s Council on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys wants to change the gang culture enticing young black men.

“Many see it as a way of life. This is there opportunity to go out and find money and find wealth through illegal means,” said Emery Gainey, the AG’s Director of Law Enforcement Relations.

The group released a report highlighting the high arrest and death rates facing black men in Florida. Graduation rates are also an obstacle for the group. According to the report for every black teen who graduates high school on time, another one doesn’t.

Florida’s Secretary of Juvenile Justice Frank Peterman wants to improve education programs in the state’s detentions centers.

“If we can get to them now and begin to change some of their patterns, change some of their thought patterns and carve a new groove in their brain there and say this is really the way you ought to be doing things,” said Peterman.

The state council wants to set up branches in all 67 Florida counties. The branches would focus on educating communities about the problems facing black youth and provide mentoring services for kids struggling in school.

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

State Looks to Faith Groups for Help

February 24th, 2009 by flanews

The state is turning to ministers for help rehabilitating Florida’s struggling youth. The Department of Juvenile Justice launched a chaplaincy program today to recruit men and women of all faiths to volunteer in state detention centers. DJJ Secretary Frank Peterman said the program will give teens in the system someone they can trust.

“It gives them a sense of calmness, a sense of security, and a sense that there’s going to be somebody there regardless of the issues on a regular basis. Sometimes they’re not getting that in their own home,” said Peterman.

The department hopes to expand the Chaplin program to serve teens out on probation and serving home detention sentences.

Posted in Children, Criminal Justice, State News | No Comments »

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