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Questionable State Plane Spending

June 30th, 2009 by flanews

Three of the states top elected officials have racked up 51-thousand dollars in questionable travel expenses. Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, Attorney General Bill McCollum and Lieutenant Governor Jeff Kottkamp are under fire for their use of the state planes. As Whitney Ray tells us, Sink has flown family members on the state planes, and McCollum has ordered empty planes from Tallahassee to pick him up near Orlando for state business.

No one has used the state planes this week. Both planes are undergoing maintenance in Tallahassee.

Its a Tuesday in Tallahassee and three of the states top elected officials arent at the capitol. The Attorney General, The Chief Financial Officer and the Governor are all in South Florida raising campaign money. The only elected officials in the capitol Tuesday were the ones not running for office.

Their absence raises questions about the use of state planes. CFO Alex Sink has asked her office to review her travel expenses. She also reimbursed the state for flying family members. Republican Party contributor Jose Lorenzo filed an ethics complaint against Sink.

Some of the stops had no state work purpose whatsoever. It really concerned me, said Lorenzo.

Sink has called for all state plane use to be listed on the internet. No one from Sinks office would talk on camera about her travel expenses.

Attorney General Bill McCollum is also catching heat for his travel. Spokeswoman Sandi Copes says money McCollum spent ordering empty planes to pick him up near Orlando is justified.

Its tough to travel throughout Florida. There are only a few flights in and out of Tallahassee, so thats why he makes sure when he needs the state plane he uses it effectively and again he only uses the state plane for official state work, said Copes.

Lt. Governor Jeff Kottkamp was the first to catch heat over his use of the planes. Kottkamp cut the state a 10,000 dollar reimbursement check to make amends.

Posted in State Budget, State News, Transportation | 2 Comments »

Swine Flu Preparations in Full Swing

June 30th, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

More than 900 people in Florida have been infected with swine flu, including two deaths. Nationwide the number stands at more than a million cases. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, Florida is making plans for a mass vaccination should the federal government decide it is necessary.

With Swine Flu in 100 countries and 900 cases confirmed here in Florida, the state health department is saying for the first time that it is gearing up should federal officials order mass immunizations.

It still hasnt been determined exactly how that will proceed, but were working very closely with all our partners at the national level to make sure that were all prepared and that were able to deploy whatever recommendations come down, Florida Surgeon General Dr. Ana Viamonte Ros said.

A mass immunization is far from certain. It could include cooperation from schools, hospitals, medical clinics, large employers and private doctors.

The most likely timetable for beginning mass vaccinations is either October or November.

A statewide plan for mass vaccinations has been in place since 2001. State health officials will spend the month of July fine-tuning the plan which is now more complex because a swine flu immunization will likely be not one, but two shots.

Theres going to be seasonal flu vaccines, and there may be the potential for H1N1 swine flu vaccine, Doc Kokol with the Florida Department of Health said. And we need to work out the details as to transportation and distribution of the vaccine.

Despite two deaths in Florida and 127 nationwide, most symptoms have been mild. Whether the plan for mass immunizations becomes operational will depend in part on what is happening in the rest of the world.

Officials continue to stress frequent hand washing, coughing into you arm, and staying home if you are sick as the best ways to prevent the H1N1 virus from spreading.

Posted in Health, State News | 5 Comments »

161 New Laws Take Effect July 1st

June 29th, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

161 new laws go into effect Wednesday. They include higher tuition, drivers license fees, and a dollar increase for a pack of cigarettes. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, In addition to digging into you pocket, state government might also save you some money.

You can save money buying energy efficient appliances, but youll pay more if your child loses a textbook.

Smokers will pay a dollar a pack more, but taking a plastic knife to school will no longer get you expelled.

And land line phone companies will no longer be told how much they can charge.

But the state will start keeping track of which doctors are prescribing dangerous drugs and to whom.

Local governments can no longer charge you for showing up at an accident. But Drivers license and fishing fees are going up.

Many of these fees now place Florida in a position that is very comparable to many of the other states nationwide,” Dave Westberry with the Department of Highway Safety said. “We had had a pretty good deal for a long time.

Tuition at state universities is also going up, by 15 percent. None of it is covered by Bright Futures.

And just getting arrested for a felony will send your DNA to a database, but police will have to use more care recruiting confidential informants.

You will also be able to pay your property taxes in installments, for a fee. If you dont like the assessment, appeals are going to be a little easier to win.

For parents, enrolling your child in Healthy Kids will get easier and the wait wont be as long.

And if you are a die-hard fan of a university, you can remain loyal even after you die. New legislation allows your ashes to be stored on campus.

All told, 271 bills passed this year. Some have no effect on you personally, but others could cost you a bundle. There is a chance to save some money if you act soon. While the legislation to hike drivers license fees takes effect July first, the actual fees don’t increase until September.

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

Buckle Up or Pay Up

June 29th, 2009 by flanews

Beginning at midnight tonight police officers in Florida can pull drivers over if theyre not buckled up. Right now officers have to have another reason to pull over a driver in order to ticket them for not wearing a seatbelt. As Whitney Ray tells us, the new law is expected to save the lives of 124 Floridians every year.

By implementing the new seatbelt law before July 1st the state will receive 35 million federal dollars. The money will be used to make Floridas roads safer and to spread the word about buckling up.

If you want to take a ride with Tracy Franklin you better buckle up.

Before I start my car up I make sure everybody has their seatbelts on, said Tracy.

The move may save a life one day but it could also save Tracy hundreds of dollar. Starting Tuesday police officers in Florida can begin pulling over drivers who arent buckled up.

We just have to see youre not wearing that seatbelt and well pull you over and issue a citation, said Lt. Tim Frith, a spokesman with FHP.

The fine for not wearing a seatbelt is 30 bucks but after fees and court cost you could be paying as much as a 120 dollars. Many people will learn the hard way.

Three out of every 10 drivers at this busy intersection werent buckled up. Nationally about 20 percent of drivers dont wear their seatbelts. Tamara Locker isnt one of them. She hopes her son learns from her example.

I have a child who really cant comprehend how dangerous it is in a car and I as an adult need to set a good example for him, said Tamara.

The new law is expected to save 124 lives and keep 1,700 people from serious injury. It will also save the state an estimated 400 million dollars in emergency response and medical costs.

Posted in Highways, State Budget, State News | 1 Comment »

Swine Flu Vaccination Plan

June 29th, 2009 by flanews

The state is considering a plan to vaccinate thousands, or possibly millions, of Floridians against the swine flu virus.

Florida has 941 confirmed cases of swine flu and two deaths from the illness. The deaths include a 9 year old boy and a 30 year old woman. Both victims were suffering from other illnesses at the time of their deaths. Despite the growing number of cases, Floridas Surgeon General Dr. Ana Viamonte Ros said swine flu hasnt been a major problem in the state, but shes not taking any chances.

The disease continues to be mild in its severity in the majority of the cases. At the national level we are looking at whats happening in the rest of the states as well as whats happening internationally and getting ready for a max vaccination campaign in the fall or winter. It still hasnt been determined exactly how that will proceed, but we are working very closely with our partners on the national level, said Viamonte Ros.

If the state moves forward with a mass vaccination plan, schools would be used as health clinics to administer the shots. Nationwide more than a million people have contracted the disease and 127 people have died from swine flu. The seasonal flu kills an estimated 36,000 people every year.

Posted in Health, State News | No Comments »

AAA Predicts Slight Increase in Florida Travel

June 26th, 2009 by flanews

AAA is predicting a drop in nationwide travel over the 4th of July weekend, but Florida may see a slight increase. Tourism revenue was up 2.8 million dollars over estimates in May. As Whitney Ray tells us, gas prices will play a roll in how many tourists visit Florida this summer.

Three year old Sebastian cant wait till the 4th of July, thats when hell meet his favorite Disney character.

I see Mickey Mouse, said Sebastian.

Tourism tax collections were up 2.8 million dollars in May. AAA credits falling prices for the increase.

There are tremendous discounts for hotels, for entertainment. They are changing daily, said AAA Spokeswoman Brenda Smith.

Still the recession and gas prices threaten summer travel. Theyll keep Mariana Szeinkierman close to home over the 4th.

You cant go anywhere because the gas is so expensive, Mariana said.

But the cost of gas isnt expected to be as big of a deterrent was it was a year ago. In July 2008, the price of a gallon of gas broke the four dollar mark.

But even though prices are down, the memory of last years pain at the pump could keep people home.

I really think a lesson was learned by the consumer, who happens to have one of the biggest impacts on what the price of gas is, said Jim Smith with the Florida petroleum Marketers.

Gas prices wont keep Jennifer Smith home for the holiday. Shes going to the beach with friends.

The way we beat it is with the carpool. Were all going to chip in for gas, groceries, everything. Make it a group effort, said Jennifer.

And if more people find creative ways to spend their money in Florida, the states economic woes will take a vacation. AAA expects car traffic in Florida to mirror last years, but air travel should see a slight increase. AAA says package deals that offer discounts on airplane tickets, hotel stays, and car rentals are driving the increase.

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

Seatbelt Law Effective June 30:

June 26th, 2009 by flanews

The Department of Highway Safety say 142 lives will be saved each year because of Floridas new primary seat belt law.

Until now police in Florida can only issue a ticket for not wearing a seatbelt if they have stopped the driver for another violation. This new legislation will allow Florida police to pull over drivers for not wearing a seat belt. AAA spokesperson Brenda Smith says buckling up can make a difference.

Three out of every five people in Florida- not buckling up. And we see fatalities all the time because we simply didnt wear a seat belt. Cause theres a big bite in the law now so we want to remind everybody as were on the highway, even the way on home, make sure that youre buckling up, said Smith.

The legislation takes effect Tuesday, June 30th.

Posted in State News, Transportation | No Comments »

Swine Flu Claims 2nd Florida Victim

June 25th, 2009 by flanews

Swine Flu has claimed the life of a 30 year-old Seminole County woman, marking the second death from the H1N1 virus in Florida. The number of Floridians with the illness has grown to 556. As Whitney Ray tells us, the state is planning to use schools to fight the outbreak if it worsens.

The H1N1 Swine Flu Virus has claimed the lives of two Floridians. A 9 year-old boy became the first victim. A 30 year-old Seminole County woman died earlier this week. In both cases other illnesses contributed to the deaths.

We will probably see more hospitalizations and perhaps more deaths involved with this, said Doc Kokol, a spokesman with the Florida Department of Health.

The number of swine flu cases in Florida has quietly risen to 556 since the first case was confirmed in May. Scott McPherson, a pandemic expert, says the virus poses a serious threat.

This is a very new, very young virus it has not entrenched itself in everyplace in this country yet, but it is continuing to grow. It is continuing to infect people, said McPherson.

Swine flu has claimed 127 lives nationwide, 17 in the past week, and if the pandemic gets worse, schools could become key to helping fight an outbreak. School districts have pandemic plans in place.

There is actually a state plan, in the case of a huge natural disaster to turn certain schools in every district into mini clinics and mini hospitals if we have to, said Wayne Blanton, with the Florida School Boards Association.

Swine flu vaccinations could also be administered at schools once enough doses have been produced. Its important to note that the seasonal flu claims 36,000 lives in the US every year, far more than the 127 swine flu victims in America since April.

Posted in Health, State News | 1 Comment »

After State Farm

June 25th, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

State Farm insurance says it continues to plan for its withdrawal from Florida after the veto of legislation that may have kept the company here. Regulators have yet to approve the conditions of how the company can quit writing homeowners policies, and as Mike Vasilinda tells us, the fight is over how many of those policies will end in the states insurer of last resort.

Nearly a million state farm policy holders should now be looking for new coverage. The good news is theres no real rush. Regulators and State Farm are at odds over what happens to those policies.

The plan would put most policies with Citizens and thats something that Commissioner McCarty does not want, says Ed Domansky with the Office of Insurance Regulation.

The fight could take 18 months or more.

Regulators are trying to force State Farm to allow its agents to write for other companies so those customers arent forced into the state run insurer of last resort.

The good news is that Citizens has 400,000 fewer customers than at its peak.

In 2004 and 2005, Citizens paid out a total of 6 billion dollars in claims, Citizens Insurance Spokesman John Kuczwanski said. Today we have access to 16 billion dollars to pay for claims for any storm that might hit Florida. So were ready.

Joe Cain has insured this house with State Farm since 1987. Hes not happy about being forced to look for another insurer, but thinks hes got at least a year to make a decision.

Id just as soon stay with the company, Cain said. That would be a big pain to switch all that unless its a huge savings.

State lawmakers could take one of two routes after the veto. They could find a compromise with the governor to keep State Farm, or they could override that veto and let customers decide who will write their policy.

Posted in Business, Charlie Crist, Insurance, Legislature, State News, Weather | No Comments »

Specialty Tags in Danger

June 24th, 2009 by flanews

A hike in vehicle registration fees could curb cash flowing to some non-profit organizations. This summer the cost of registering your car with the state will go up as much as 12 bucks depending on your cars size. Specialty tags arent exempt from the increase. As Whitney Ray tells us, if people stop buying specialty tags many nonprofits will lose an important source of revenue.

Drivers in Florida can display their school pride on their plates, sports fans can root for their team with their tags, and wildlife lovers can drive with their favorite beast on their bumpers. Florida has 114 specialty plates, but the number could soon fall.

When it comes to the specialty tags, except for the universities and colleges, there must be a mandatory minimum of 1,000 valid registrations associated with that tag, said Ann Nucatola

Right now only one tag, a corrections plate, is on the probation list but that could soon change. The price of renewing all Florida license plates will go up September 1st, some as much as 12 bucks.

But even though drivers will be paying more, organizations that benefit from the sale of specialty plates wont see an extra dime. Jim Steele, who has an FSU tag on his truck, doesnt like the math.

In a way it will discourage me, but it wont discourage me enough to keep me from buying the tag, said Steele.

Natasha Hutton has a wildflowers tag on her truck.

It will discourage a lot of people from buying the tag, but Ill probably continue supporting the cause, said Hutton.

If the fee increase leads to fewer sales, it may do what critics have been unable to do: reduce the number of specialty plates available to drivers. If your tags expire before November 30th you can actually avoid paying the fee increase by reregistering their vehicles before September 1st.

Posted in State News, Transportation | No Comments »

Crist Vetoes State Farm Bill

June 24th, 2009 by flanews

Governor Charlie Crist vetoed legislation Wednesday that would have allowed the states largest insurance companies to offer deregulated policies.

If Crist had signed the legislation, State Farm may have decided to stay in Florida, although the company never openly took the stance. State Farm Spokesman Justin Glover says the company is losing money and is moving forward with plans to drop its one million homeowner policies over the next two years.

State Farm will continue to offer auto insurance but homeowners policies account for about a third of the companys business. The decrease in business will hit the companys agents the hardest, as they brace for a pay cut.

Posted in Charlie Crist, Insurance, State News | No Comments »

Verizon Refunds

June 24th, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

Verizon and Altel customers who thought they were receiving free ringtones or other cell phone downloads, only to find they had agreed to a costly contract will now be eligible for a refund.

The refund could come as a credit or cash back depending and will vary from customer to customer. Attorney General Bill McCollum negotiated the refunds as well as a million and a half dollar payment for the state under the unfair and deceptive trade practices act. Mc Collum says the most important part of the settlement is that going forward, the company will make sure future customers know what they are purchasing.

In the future, youre going to see these ads that are on the internet, instead of just saying ‘free ringtones,’ theyre going to say ‘free ringtones with a subscription for $19.99 a month,'” McCollum said. “And its going to have to say that in big, color, bright line so to speak, big enough font so you can see it.

AT&T settled the same charges a year ago, but TMobile and Sprint are still negotiating. Over a four year period, Verizon is believed to have made at least 30 million dollars on the ringtones.

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

State Tax Collections Over Estimates

June 24th, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

For the first time in almost three years, Florida sales tax collections exceeded economists estimates. The news comes on the heels of another report showing homes sales in the state are increasing. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, the welcome news is too new to proclaim a recovery is underway.

Clara Pitts drove out of this parking lot with a new 32 inch High Def TV in her back seat, but not before we talked with her.

I try not to participate in the recession, Pitts said.

Claras purchase added just under 40 dollars to the state treasury. In the month May the state collected 17 point 4 million dollars more in sales taxes than economists expected.

This is the first time since September 06 that collections have actually exceeded the estimate.

Economists have yet to analyze which sectors improved, but Attorney

General Bill McCollum says the news is welcome.

I can tell you this, we need that sales tax revenue. It means that people are spending again, McCollum said.

The positive news comes as unemployment continues to rise, but economists say that is not unexpected.

Unemployment rates are a lagging indicator. So unemployment rates can clearly increase even after a recession is determined to be officially over, state economist Rebecca Rust said.

And we met other shoppers not as confident as Clara. When shopper Marlene Childers was asked if she was more confident in the state of the economy, she had this to say.

Not a whole lot, no,” Childers said.

A one month jump doesnt make a trend, and even though more money was spent than expected, the sales tax collections were still 300 million dollars less than May a year ago.

Economists says a jump in revenue over a three or four month period would be a positive sign the economy is improving.

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

Amendment 4 Battle Heats Up

June 23rd, 2009 by flanews

An amendment giving voters the final say-so on changes to city and county comprehensive plans is headed to the 2010 Ballot. Floridas Secretary of State certified the Hometown Democracy amendment. As Whitney Ray tells us, opponents of Amendment Four say it will stifle growth and deepen the states economic woes.

Development decisions about where to build roads, homes and businesses are left up to elected officials, but soon voters could have the final say. Amendment Four would require voter approval to change city and county blueprints for growth.

This is designed to put the citizens back in the drivers seat, said John Hedrick.

John Hedrick a spokesman for Hometown Democracy, says Amendment 4 would encourage smarter growth.

The voters are just saying we want to have the say-so if you want to go ahead with projects in a way thats different than permitted under the comprehensive plan. If they want to do it according to the comprehensive plan, they wont have any problem whatsoever, said Hedrick.

Business groups have been fighting to keep Hometown Democracy off the ballot for the past four years. Opponents say if the amendment passes there would be fewer jobs for construction workers.

Florida Chamber of Commerce President Mark Wilson said a slow down in development would deepen the recession.

What the special interests behind Amendment 4 want is no jobs and no growth and what the Hometown Democracy amendment would do is it would put tens of thousands of plan amendments on the ballot, said Wilson.

Which would mean many more costly elections. Sixty percent of voters will have to approve Amendment Four in order for it to become law. There are still 17 months until the election and both sides will be spending millions of dollars to pursue those voters.

Posted in Amendments, Economy, State News | No Comments »

Turtle Tunnel Protest

June 23rd, 2009 by flanews

Plans to build an animal crossing underneath a busy highway is causing a nationwide stir.

A section of US Highway 27 near Tallahassee is known for its high amount of road kill, specifically for turtle fatalities. The state plans to use 3.4 million federal stimulus dollars to build a tunnel underneath the road that separates two lakes. Opponents of the project will host a rally at the state capitol on the Fourth of July. Organizer Pace Allen is encouraging protesters to bring their cameras to record and send messages to their representatives.

Everybody is on the same page here as far as this expenditure or that expenditure the original concept and still the concept is to make your own signage whether its bugging you or turtling you todayyou want a picture of a turtle or whatever it is, express yourself at this event and I encourage the attendees bring cameras and take pictures and make little movies and do just like youre doing now, said Allen.

Leon County Commissioner Cliff Thaell says the project isnt just about protecting wildlife. Thaell says animals that cross the road endanger the lives of drivers.

Youve got to keep in mind, when youve got 30 and 40 pound turtles as large as a manhole cover and 12 foot alligators crossing a highway, its a public safety issue, said Thaell.

The project made a list of the top 100 questionable spending items being paid for with Federal stimulus dollars.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

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