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Cigarette Tax Moving Forward

March 31st, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

The Federal Cigarette Tax officially goes up tomorrow, and today in Tallahassee, a plan to hike the state fee for all tobacco products got its first hearing. Although the tax has some powerful enemies, Mike Vasilinda tells us you have to read between the lines to know what’s going on.

Florida brings in just over 400 million from the cigarette tax, but it spends more than a billion on smoking related heath care. In tough times, the disparity is making a cigarette tax fair game.

Advocates who have been pounding the halls are finally sensing victory. They argue even if the tax goes up by a dollar, it would still be cheaper to smoke in Florida than many other states.  Senate Finance and Tax Chairman Thad Altman says it is a heath care user fee you don’t have to pay.

“You can choose not to use tobacco products,” Altman said. “Or let’s say you smoke two packs a day, you could smoke a pack and a half a day and this fee wouldn’t even touch you.

Cigars and smokeless tobacco could also see new taxes. But there are power enemies.

“The position of the chair of the Finance and Tax Council is I am not in the mood to increase taxes on the people of the state of Florida who can no longer afford their mortgages,” Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff (R-Ft. Lauderdale) said.

When it comes to taxes, Tallahassee is a place of nuances.. Just because the House Finance and Tax Chair is opposed to the tax, doesn’t mean the whole House leadership is.

Even the Governor, who says he hates taxes, appears to be choosing his words carefully.

“I’m not particularly fond of any taxes. User fees may be a different item,” Governor Crist said.

While to governor appears to be warming to higher cigarette taxes, he says he wants cigars left alone.

Posted in Business, Charlie Crist, Economy, Legislature, State Budget, State News, Taxes | No Comments »

Laid Off Farm Workers Want Unemployment Benefits

March 31st, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

About 60 farm workers from across the state walked the hallways of the state capitol Tuesday.

They came to make lawmakers aware that many are out of work and unable to receive unemployment.

“In particular, a lot of our people are seasonal workers and other workers in other industries have laid off a lot of people,” farm worker Dirso Moreno said. ”The unemployment benefits are not always available to them because they don’t count the unemployment that last three months, most of the time. So they don’t qualify, they don’t have enough weeks to qualify for benefits.”

Lawmakers have been debating whether to change some requirements for receiving unemployment, but have balked at the cost, which is just over four hundred million dollars.

Posted in Business, Economy, Legislature, State Budget, State News | 1 Comment »

Stimulus for Florida Schools

March 31st, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida has yet to apply for federal Stimulus money for schools.

The application is expected to arrive this week, and the Governor Charlie Crist says the state is ready to respond quickly. He likened the process to applying to a college.

“You know, our commissioner in Florida is ready to do it, we just need to have the formal application so we can fill it out,” Crist said. “It’s kind of like getting accepted to college, you have to have the application get in the mail to you, before you can apply. We’re waiting for the application, as soon as it comes we’re ready to send it back.”

Florida is counting on about 2.2 billion for schools. Without the cash, they will face steep cuts.

Posted in Charlie Crist, Children, Economy, State Budget, State News | No Comments »

Kids Week at the Capitol

March 31st, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

The capitol was filled with thousands of posters, brightly colored children’s hand prints and lots of young voices this week.

Thousands of advocates from across the state have come to push for more money, better insurance for kids. State Representative Bill Galvano says the presence of all the children is a wake up call for lawmakers.

“So often we get tied up in spreadsheets and other issues that are not as important as taking care of the little ones in Florida,” Galvano said. “We see these hands and the multicolors and these advocates and children, people giving their heart to make a better quality of life for our youth. Its a reminder that we need to stay focused.”

This week is the 14th annual Kids Week at the Capitol.

Posted in Children, Education, Insurance, Legislature, State Budget, State News | No Comments »

Development in Cape San Blas

March 31st, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

People who own property on Cape San Blas may soon be able to apply for building permits. Development has been stymied when the state redrew erosion lines. Under a compromise that is being debated in a House committee on Wednesday, anyone who ons property would be able to build, but sponsor Jimmy Petronis says they would have to self insure.

“What this will do is it will ensure the citizens of Cape San Blas, with passage of this local bill, will have the ability to develop on their lot,” Petronis said. “Now it will still be up to the jurisdiction of DEP as to how those permits are issued, but at the end of the day, it protects the property rights of those individuals on the Cape and also the cash flow of the county.”

Even if the change becomes law, if a home is more than 51 percent destroyed by a storm, owners would not be allowed to rebuild.

Posted in Housing, State News, Wildlife | No Comments »

Economic Stress Breaking Down Florida Families

March 31st, 2009 by flanews

As the number of people on unemployment and food stamps continues to soar, so do cases of domestic violence. Emergency shelters have seen a 40 percent increase in victims seeking help. As Whitney Ray tells us, the Department of Children and Families is asking lawmakers for more money to keep up with the growing number of caseloads.

Tuesday the capitol courtyard was filled with the sounds of happy children, but mounting stress from the economic crisis is threatening Florida families. Jackie Malone runs a transition home for mothers. She says families are being pushed over the edge.

“Finances cause major stress, losing a job is a stressor and when theses stressors build up, the victims are victimized more often and more servere,” said Jackie.

The Department of Children and Families says crimes against babies are up drastically.

“I’ve have seen more shaken baby child deaths in the last four months than I saw in the first two years that I was here. Those are frightening statistics,” said DCF Secretary George Sheldon.

The department hopes lawmakers can find more money to help them fight the problem.

Law enforcement agencies are calling on their officers to lead by example. FSU Researcher Karen Oehme helped develop a training program to prevent officers police from abusing their families.

“The skills that an officer has and needs to use on the job can be abusive and extremely inappropriate and harmful if used at home,” said Oehme.

Domestic violence training is now mandatory for the state’s 46,000 law enforcement officers and 36,000 correctional and probation officers.

The Brehon Institute in Tallahassee helps mothers facing domestic violence and homelessness. The shelter is working with a barebones staff and is seeing a 50 percent increase in victims seeking help. If you would like to volunteer or donate to the Brehon Institute you can log on to their website at www.brehoninstitute.org.

Posted in Children, State News | 1 Comment »

Kids Only Town Hall Meeting

March 31st, 2009 by flanews

Florida government leaders will work to meet the needs of some of the state’s smallest residents.

Kids were in Tallahassee Tuesday seeking answers from state agency heads. The kids asked a panel of state leaders about education and health care funding. Governor Charlie Crist welcomed the questions and thanked the kids for their input.

“The greatest gift I think any of us can have is the opportunity to learn, by listening to you, and you’re peers and your colleagues we can only learn more. Learn more about the challenges you have whether it is in education or health care or whatever it might be,” said Crist.

The students were in Tallahassee for the 14th annual Kids Week. This is only the second year the Kid’s Only Town Hall meeting was held.

Posted in Charlie Crist, Children, Health, State News, Voting | 1 Comment »

Chinese Drywall Victims Seek Help

March 31st, 2009 by flanews

Angry home owners were at the state capitol today seeking help to move out of their hazardous homes.

A Broward County group of homeowners were brought together earlier this year after they found out their homes were build with Chinese Drywall. Some drywall imported from China between 2004 and 2007 contains dangerous levels of sulfur. The sulfur can cause breathing problems for residents. John Willis’ home was built with the toxic material. Now his family has breathing problems.

“My son eventually end up having to have surgery to remove the infection and has another sinus infection diagnosed last week. My wife who has never had sinus infections has had three or four of them. You walk into these homes and you can smell them,” said Willis.

The homeowners meet with staff at the governor’s office and attorney generals office as well as lawmakers. They’re asking the state to help them find a new place to live or to find a way to fix their homes.

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

Rally for the Dream Act

March 31st, 2009 by flanews

Students who have been denied admissions and scholarships to Florida colleges because of their legal status are trying to change state law.

Students for Equal Rights placed a hundred opened books on the back steps of the state capitol. The students are asking lawmakers to support the Dream Act. The act would allow undocumented students to qualify for admissions, scholarships and loans.

“They don’t get instate tuition, they don’t get access to Bright Futures, they don’t have access to federal loans, they have access to anything. They’re parents brought them here when they were children, so it’s not their fault they’re undocumented,” said Jose Godinez-Samerio, a member of the Students for Equal Rights.

The Dream Act legislation has also been filed in Washington. If passed, undocumented students could become legal residents, so could illegal immigrants who served in the US military.

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

Raising the Bar

March 30th, 2009 by flanews

Getting a high school diploma could soon get harder in Florida. Lawmakers are reviewing legislation to raise the graduation standards. As Whitney Ray tells us educators say schools can’t afford to enforce the stricter standards without more money.

Many Florida teens are getting their high school diplomas but not an adequate education. Nicholas Sirven is a junior college freshman. He’s taking remedial math and English.

“The classes I’m taking now are the same as taking high school, basically taking high school all over again,” said Nicholas.

One out of every two junior college students in Florida takes remedial courses, at a cost of 70 million dollars to the state. Representative Eric Fresen is sponsoring legislation to cut down on the expense by raising graduation standards.

“We are also turning it into a fiscal responsibility issue to where what we are suppose to be delivering at the high school level we truly deliver,” said Fresen.

The bill would require high school students to take tougher math and science classes. It would also require students to make a higher score on the 10th grade FCAT. Florida School Boards Associations President Wayne Blanton said districts can’t afford to implement the new standards.

“Increased math and science requirements, while I understand why they are there and why they’re asking for them, it would be very difficult to do that at the time that we have this reduced budget and we are in the process of laying teachers off,” said Blanton.

While educators say the legislation asks them to do more with a declining budget, the bill’s sponsor says raising the bar for graduation wouldn’t cost the state any extra money. If the bill passes the stricter standards would go in to effect for 9th graders entering high school in 2010-2011.

Posted in Education, State News | No Comments »

Lotto Savings

March 30th, 2009 by flanews

In an attempt to boost sales, the Florida Lottery is offering discounts and buy one get one free coupons.

The coupons were mailed out last week and include savings on scratch off games, Fantasy 5, Mega Money and other games. Lotto sales were down 7 percent last year. Florida Lotto Spokeswoman Jackie Barreiros hopes the coupons will boost sales.

“It’s just a great way to give back to players who have been loyal to us and give them a little bit of a break in the price with these coupons and then also attract some new players who haven’t tried our products in the past,” said Barreiros.

The Florida Lottery mailed out 7.8 million coupons. The last time the Lottery sent coupons through the mail was in 1996.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Brody Family Claims Bill

March 30th, 2009 by flanews

The family of a paralyzed man is searching for closure and help with medial bills.

In 1998, Eric Brody’s car was hit by an off duty Broward County Sheriff’s Deputy. Brody was paralyzed. His family sued. A judge awarded the family 30 million dollars, but the state legislature has to sign off on the deal. Eric’s father Charles Brody said the family needs the money to make sure Eric is taken care of once he and Eric’s Mom have died.

“The main goal from my point of the compensation is what happens if my wife and I pass on? Who is going to take care of him? Who is going to provide for him? Who is going to support him? He has to have funding, he has to have funds to live a life like a person, otherwise he will not have a life as a person,” said Charles.

A vote on the Eric Brody claims bill was postponed by a House committed Monday. That committee isn’t scheduled to meet again this session. The State Senate has left the bill off its agenda.

Posted in State Budget, State News | No Comments »

Teen Driving Safety

March 30th, 2009 by flanews

Mothers of kids killed in car wrecks are asking lawmakers to pass tougher restrictions on teen drivers.

Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teens. Every 6.5 minutes, a teen is killed in a car crash. This week is dedicated to promoting teen traffic safety on the highways in memory of those killed in car wrecks. Connie Beard’s son Matthew Beard was killed in a car crash in 2006.

“He was on life support for a week, I watched my son die. I can promise you there’s no pain more excruciating then to watch your child die, my only baby,” said Connie Beard.

Drivers ages 15 to 19 have the highest crash rate of any age group in the state. In 2007, more than 400 teens died on Florida’s highways.

Posted in Highways, State News, Transportation | No Comments »

Higher Vehicle Fees Coming

March 30th, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

How much is your identity worth?  If you were a registered driver in Florida from 2000 to 2004, state lawmakers will be giving you a one dollar credit the next time you renew your license plate because of a lawsuit over the sale of driver’s license records, but as Mike Vasilinda tells us, you may have a hard time noticing the break.

From 2000 to 2004, the state violated federal driver license protection policies.  It allowed your information to be sold without asking first. Four people sued asking for 25 hundred dollars for every driver in the state.

Now a settlement is in the works that will give every driver a one dollar credit the next time you renew a car tag. The cost to the state: just over ten million.

The state is getting off easy. When it was selling this information, it was getting 30 million dollars a year.

Greg Evers is sponsoring the tag credit.

“Whether it’s a dollar here or a dollar there, Ben Franklin said a penny saved, is a penny earned,” Rep. Greg Evers (R-Milton) said.

But it is dollar you may never see.

Later this week, lawmakers will roll out $800 million in new license fees. The cost of renewing or replacing your driver’s license will go up. So will the cost of a license plate.

Julio Robaina wants to raise the cost of not paying your tickets on time or reinstating a suspended license. He’ll use the money to pay police.”

“The intent of this is to try to keep these law enforcement officers in place,” Robaina said. “There’s more cuts, means more of them will leave.”

So the dollar credit, which isn’t much anyway, will be a one time offset to permanently higher car and license fees.

Drivers don’t need to do anything to get the dollar credit once it is approved. It will automatically show up after July 1st, when you renew your tag.

Posted in Legislature, State Budget, State News, Transportation | No Comments »

Legal Marijuana Amendment

March 30th, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

Marijuana would become virtually legal in Florida under a proposed constitutional amendment. 

Students at FSU were gathering petitions for the amendment which will need almost seven hundred thousand signatures to get on the 2010 ballot. The amendment would make it legal to grow, buy and possess pot when deemed necessary for medical reasons.  Kim Russell of Orlando is one of the organizers and she says it could help her father with Parkinson’s disease avoid surgery.

“I’m trying to help my father and other seriously ill patients by providing marijuana,” Russell said. “It’s a pain reducer, it’s a neuro-protector, meaning it protects the brain, it has antioxidant properties. There are many medicinal uses for it.”

Thirteen other states have already taken some steps to legalize medical uses of marijuana. Nine others, including Florida, could vote on the measure in 2010.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

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