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Aggressive Drivers Face Stiffer Penalties

September 30th, 2009 by flanews

Aggressive drivers will be paying higher tickets and taking more driving courses starting tomorrow. On October 1st, penalties for running a red-light, passing a stopped school bus, and street racing will increase by 65 dollars. As Whitney Ray tells us, the money raised by the increased penalties will help fund trauma centers.

Aggressive drivers make the roads a little less safe for everyone. Running red-lights, street racing and passing stopped school buses put lives at risk. Amanda Enfield says having kids opened her eyes to the dangers on the roadways.

“I’m more cautious and much more aware now that I’m buckling these babies in the car all the time,” said Amanda.

Starting Thursday the roads could get a little safer for Amanda and her family. Penalties for aggressive driving are increasing by 65 dollars. Passing a stopped school bus could carry a fine of 265 dollars depending on where the violation occurs. Racing will cost at least 565 dollars. Running a red light will go up to 190 dollars.

Money from the increased fees will go to trauma centers though out the state. But bad drivers aren’t just getting hit in the pocketbook. Some first offenders will now have to take driver safety courses.

“Now if someone runs a red light, instead of getting their second offense before they have to go to school, it’s going to happen on their first offense,” said Florida Highway Patrol Captain Mark Welch.

Katie Bowers hopes people take heed of the new penalties.

“I think it’s a great thing, I really do; maybe it will have an impact and people will stop and slow down,” said Welch.

In 2007 red-light runners were responsible for more than a 100 deaths and 10-thousand injuries on Florida’s roadways. Increased efforts to stop the practice are expected to lower those numbers. The new penalties are expected to raise between 150 to 400 thousand dollars for Florida trauma centers.

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

Swine Flu Deaths Reach Triple Digits

September 30th, 2009 by flanews

Eleven Floridians between the ages of 13 and 56 died of the swine flu last week.

The recent deaths bring Florida’s total number of H1N1 fatalities to 102. The morbid milestone comes as the state department of health prepares to receive the first does of vaccine. 100,000 doses of the nasal spray vaccine are expected as early as next week, but the spray isn’t for everyone. Pregnant women and children will have to wait until the shot is available. Florida’s Surgeon General Dr. Ana Viamonte Ros says people need to be talking with their doctors to decide if they should get vaccinated.

“Coordinate with your health care provider to makes sure you are a candidate that you do understand the risk, but the benefits as well. We want to remind everyone that the seasonal flu vaccine is currently available now and again that is something that you should be talking to your provider to make sure you receive it if you are a candidate for it,” said Viamonte Ros.

The Swine Flu shots are expected to arrive in waves, with the first doses coming in mid-October.

Posted in Health, State News, Swine Flu | 1 Comment »

DOH Leading by Example

September 30th, 2009 by flanews

State health officials are leading by example in an effort to cut down on the number of smokers in Florida.

The Department of Health and the Agency for Health Care Administration now have voluntary smoke-free campuses in Tallahassee. Department heads are asking their employees not to smoke on their property and offering help to anyone looking to break their addiction. Florida’s Surgeon General Dr. Ana Viamonte Ros said the goal is to spread the message beyond health workers.

“Those that do currently smoke, we have cessation classes available. We want to make sure that not only they, but the public in general, understands that there is a quit line available, a telephone quit line that helps them obtain counseling services as well as nicotine replacements therapies and also those that don’t smoke try to encourage them not start because it is addictive and it is a difficult habit to break,” said Viamonte Ros.

Website: www.tobaccofreeflorida.com
Quit line: 1877-UCANNOW

Posted in Health, State News | 1 Comment »

Associations Feeling the Pinch

September 30th, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

Today is the last day in the quarter for politicians to collect checks and report how much money they have raised over the last three months. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, some of the traditional givers to campaigns are feeling the pinch, which is putting the pressure on.

By noon Wednesday, four statewide candidates were peppering email inboxes with last minute fund-raising appeals. The midnight deadline says one. Just 12 hours left says another.

But some of the traditional money is harder to come by. Membership in the Florida Homebuilders Association has decreased. Across town, the Florida Retail Federation has seen several thousand members disappear.

“Almost all of that is the small businesses that we’ve lost,” Rick McAllister, with the Florida Retail Federation said. “When push comes to shove, when it’s keeping an employee or not, or pay an association bill, they’re going to keep their employee.”

The Federations attorney even told the PSC the dwindling numbers were another reason not to hike electric rates.

“It would put potential upward pressure on our prices,” attorney Schef Wright said.

The federation wouldn’t say if it has cut political contributions, but…

“These have been very difficult times and all of us have tightened our belts,” McAllister said.

…and It’s not just the special interests.

Common Cause closed it’s decades-old Tallahassee office in March, the victim of a slump in fund-raising.

Ben Wilcox lost his paying job but still volunteers for Common Cause.

“We help to keep politicians honest and accountable, so it’s important to keep organizations like that strong,” Wilcox said.

Despite the downturn, millions in campaign contributions will still be reported this quarter. But some of them were harder to come by.

Campaign Finance reports are due in about 10 days. Once submitted, voters will be able to see who is giving, and how much they are giving.

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

PSC Appointments Hang in the Balance

September 29th, 2009 by flanews

Florida Power and Light is thumbing its nose at the Public Service Commission and says it will raise its rates by 900 million dollars on January 4th. That’s a week before the PSC decides if the company deserves the rate hike. As Whitney Ray tells us, the announcement comes as Governor Charlie Crist considers dethroning two of the five commissioners.

The electric bills of four million Florida Power and Light customers will go up January 4th, even though the PSC won’t have yet ruled if the hike is justified. Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink is outraged at the company’s brazen decision.

“It’s just unnecessary and outrageous in my opinion. We are in the middle of the biggest recession, the decision hasn’t been made. They should wait until the decision’s made by the PSC before they decided to take action,” said Sink.

Two of the five members on the Public Service Commission are up for reappointment. Governor Charlie Crist has said how they vote could determine if they stay on the job. The commission is fighting back.

In an attempt to influence the governor’s decision the PSC moved back the FP&L rate hike, that way any changes the governor made to the commission would go into effect right before the vote.

Governor Crist, who has until Saturday to make a decision, says he’s not concerned about the short turn around.

“I don’t know if they are going to be new. I haven’t predetermined anything yet. But if they do have to be new, I imagine they will have to study up,” said Crist.

If FPL goes through with the rate hike, it will have to give customers refunds if the utility doesn’t get everything it wants. Governor Charlie Crist made special arrangements to meet with one of six people biding for the two PSC positions. Crist will meet with David Klement, the director of the Institute for Public Policy and Leadership at USF, at 5:30 (ET) Tuesday.

Posted in Charlie Crist, State News | 1 Comment »

CFO Calls for More Oversight

September 29th, 2009 by flanews

Florida’s Chief Financial Officer is calling for more oversight into how the State Board of Administration handles its 110 billion dollar investment portfolio.

The SBA invests state pension dollars, and recently lost billions when the stock market tanked. Right now a three panel board made up of the governor, attorney general and chief financial officer oversee the SBA. CFO Alex Sink says the panel needs more members and more experience.

“It’s Florida. We ought to expect ourselves to have the very best run, the best governance, the best run pension plan in the country and part of that should be a requirement to have annual fiduciary training for ourselves as board members. I’m including myself in the group, as well as the other advisory boards that we operate under,” said Sink.

Sink made a motion to expand the board at its meeting this morning. The governor and Attorney General overrode the motion, suggesting the more time is needed to consider the request.

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

Disabled Floridians Search for Employment Equality

September 29th, 2009 by flanews

Floridians with disabilities are ready and willing to work.

October is Disability Employment Month. The governor and state cabinet recognized the employment struggles facing people with disabilities at today’s cabinet meeting. Bay County Property Appraiser Dan Sowell, who has cerebral palsy, says there are hundreds of disabled people willing and ready to work.

“Employees with disabilities are dedicated, dependable, loyal and hard working. They have a desire to exceed that is unsurpassed. I can assure you, people with disabilities don’t want to go to their mailbox to get their pay. They want to contribute to a 401 (K),” said Sowell.

The Agency for Persons with Disabilities, Blind Services, and the Commission on Disabilities were on hand at today to celebrate the Cabinet’s resolution recognizing Disability Employment Month.

Posted in Cabinet, Health, State News, Unemployment | 29 Comments »

Rights Restoration Slow

September 29th, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

A new report due this week will show a backlog of more than a sixty thousand people who are waiting for their civil rights to be restored. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, the wait can often take years, because the caseload continues to grow at a rate of five thousand a month.

Alan Crotzer spent more than two decades in prison for a rape DNA showed he didn’t commit. It still took him more than a year to get his rights back after being released.  Even for the guilty, Crotzer says getting your rights back is part of being rehabilitated.

“Getting your rights back means that I’m a part of society again,” Crotzer said. “It makes me be part of society; I can feel like I’m back where I need to be. If you don’t have any rights, then how can you feel like you’re part of society?”

For former felons, the wait for rights can take years.

The board got hit by the biggest cuts of any law enforcement agency– 20 percent, all at a time when cases soared.

After the flood, the error rate went up, giving 13 people their rights in error. CFO Alex Sink says it is a disaster.

“It’s a serious problem,” Sink said. “It’s a budget issue. We need to address it with the legislature.”

The odds of reducing the backlog anytime soon are slim, but the commission is asking for help.

“We’ve asked the legislature for 20 additional full-time employees,” Parole Commission Chairman Fred Dunphy said.

What does Dunphy believe are odds are of getting them?

“I don’t know, these are tough economic times and you know, we’d be grateful for anything we do get,” he said.

Until their rights are restored, ex-felons can’t be licensed in a trade. Advocates say that’s wrong and that law enforcement should be deciding who is a risk and who isn’t…not a licensing board.

Since the state sped up the process of restoring civil rights in 2007, more than 145 thousand former felons have gotten the right to vote. In most cases, the restoration of rights does not include the right to own a firearm.

Posted in Criminal Justice, State News, Voting | 1 Comment »

The Growing Need for Cheap Medicine

September 28th, 2009 by flanews

The need for free and reduced cost healthcare is on the rise. An estimated 20 million people will visit a federally funded health center by years end, up two million from a year ago. As Whitney Ray tells us, the high cost of healthcare, coupled with the double digit unemployment rate, is only making the problem worse.

Julie Scorsone doesn’t have health insurance. She lives with her son and relies on free and low cost medical care for her shoulder pain and high cholesterol.

“I have no way to pay. My son will do it if he has too, but I don’t like having to rely on him all the time. I like to be able to do something on my own, but if it wasn’t for places like this or the clinics I wouldn’t go,” said Scorsone.

Julie’s not alone. Nearly a million Floridians are out of work. Most of them lost their health insurance. The uninsured are flocking to the state’s 41 federally funded health centers for help.

The demand was so high at this Tallahassee health center that it didn’t have enough room for all its customers, so it changed locations to add more space. The Bond Health Center tripled its square footage and added staff. Doctor Edwardo Williams has been working at the center for two years. Williams says it’s not just the jobless seeking low cost medical care.

“I’ve seen people from all walks of life, some that may have been professors at universities or other professional people who now because of whatever reason, downsizing, they don’t have insurance,” said Dr. Williams.

The centers are seeing a growing number of people with inadequate health coverage. Two billion stimulus dollars are being spent to help the centers keep up with the need. To find a community health center near you go to www.fachc.org and click on find a center.

Posted in State News | 1 Comment »

Rx Bus Tour Stops in Florida

September 28th, 2009 by flanews

A campaign to help people save money on their prescription drugs is making multiple stops in the Sunshine State this week.

The ‘Help is Here Express’ stopped in Tallahassee Monday and showed dozens of people where to shop to find the cheapest drug prices. The bus tour is sponsored by the Partnership for Prescription Assistance, a group dedicated to helping people lower their medical cost. Dr. Otis Kinsey volunteered his time to offer people free medical advice.

“This bus will search through the database, based on which drugs you have, which companies are available and so forth and provide you with an application for each of the companies,” said Kinsey.

The bus will make stops in High Springs, Brooksville, Winter Haven, Orlando, Port St Lucie, Miami, and Fort Lauderdale.

Posted in Health, State News | No Comments »

Pay as You Go Tax

September 25th, 2009 by flanews

The push for more fuel efficient vehicles is costing the state billions in gas tax dollars. The money is used to maintain roads and bridges. As Whitney Ray tells us, transportation officials are considering a ‘pay by the mile’ plan to make up for the lost tax dollars.

Floridians are buying less gas and paying fewer taxes at the pump. The transition to more fuel efficient vehicles is costing the state billions of tax dollars. A national plan to make up the difference by charging a mileage tax is being driven by transportation officials. Drivers hate the idea.

“I drive 50 miles to work and 50 miles back home everyday. I would rather go by gas than mileage any day,” said Matt Cieslinki.

In order to charge by the mile the government would have to keep track of how much driving you do. The plan would require every vehicle to be equipped with a tracking device in order to keep up with the miles you have driven. The mileage information would be downloaded every time you fill up. Florida PIRG, a consumer advocacy group, says the plan sounds invasive.

“I think a lot of people would be suspicious of that and I think there would be a lot of questions and I think rightfully so,” said Brad Ashwell, a Florida PIRG Spokesman.

Environmentalists say the pay by the mile plan would water down the cash incentive of owning a fuel efficient vehicle.

“The solution should be trying to get more people to share rides and move their cars together or drive more fuel efficient vehicles, not just build more roads for more gas guzzlers,” said Eric Draper with Audubon of Florida.

Drivers pay 50 cents in taxes for every gallon of gas bought in Florida; another solution to recover lost revenues is to simply raise the gas tax. A decline in gas tax collections isn’t the only reason the state is losing money for roads and bridges. State lawmakers have raided transportation funds and money raised from a recent increase in license and tag fees isn’t being used exclusively on roads.

Posted in Environment, Gas Prices, Highways, State Budget, State News, Taxes, Transportation | No Comments »

August Home Sales

September 25th, 2009 by flanews

Home sales in Florida continue to rise, as prices continue to fall.

August home sales are up 28 percent over August a year ago. More than 13,000 homes were sold last month. The median price fell 20 percent over the past 12 months from 190,000 to 150,000 dollars. Cynthia Shelton, President of the Florida Association of Realtors, says the falling price is a sign the housing market is leveling out.

“It’s good and bad. Because we rose so quickly prices went up so fast for years. It’s now dropped. You know what? Those things that go up must come down eventually and so if you look at it what it’s done is its given us the opportunity to have an affordable housing market in the state which will bring back jobs, which will help the economy,” said Shelton.

The 8,000 dollar first time homebuyer tax credit is fueling the surge in home sales. More than a hundred thousand Floridians have taken advantage of the credit. In order to claim the credit buyers have to close on their homes by November 30th. The Florida Association of Realtors is pushing congress to extend the program.

Posted in Housing, State News | No Comments »

Errors and Delays for Clemency

September 24th, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

Eleven people are walking around Florida today with their civil rights because of a mistake. A total of 13 people were identified in an audit of the state parole commission as people who got their rights back when they should not have. Two are already in jail, and as Mike Vasilinda tells us, thousands of others are waiting years to tell their story.

They come by the dozens, four times a year, seeking their right to vote or own a gun.

200,000 former felons have gotten their rights back automatically since 2007. Among them 13 who didn’t qualify.

At least 3 of the 13 who got their rights back by mistake would never have qualified for automatic restoration. That’s because their crimes were violent.

The Parole Commission is awash in paper. In addition to those who got their rights when they shouldn’t  have, as many as 90 thousand people are currently waiting.  The commission chairman admits mistakes were made, but:

“We’re addressing those,” Parole Commission Chairman Fred Dunphy said. “We’re going to go back and review what we’ve done and have an update on the audit in about 8 months. And we’ll see if we can improve.”

Governor Charlie Crist wants to know more.

“I think the whole board wants to review the facts, wants to have the chance to be briefed initially by staff,” Crist said.

CFO Alex Sink was ready to vote.

“My opinion is we should rescind the granting of the automatic restoration,” Sink said.

Two of the thirteen are back behind bars. The other eleven are where they were before they got their rights back, on the street.

The parole commission staff was cut 20 percent last year, at a time it’s workload was increasing.  It completely ignored more than 3 hundred thousand former felons seeking their rights because they did their time out of state or in a federal prison.

Posted in Charlie Crist, Criminal Justice, State News | No Comments »


September 24th, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

John was 21, Jessica just 15. The Lake county couple says her mother invited him to date her daughter, then had him prosecuted for statutory rape.

He did a year in jail. They married when she turned 18, now they have three children and John’s seeking a pardon because being a sex offender means he can’t work on some construction jobs or go to his kids schools.

“I’m not allowed to go near schools, like elementary schools and stuff like that, certain jobs,” John Kemp said. “Some of them I’m allowed to, it just depends on what county it is. One job for instance called Belt Air, is by two elementary schools and I’m not allowed to go near, because we had to have a background check run on us, so I was one of those people who weren’t allowed to go.”

Is he dangerous to kids in any way?

“No, he’s too much of a softy,” Jessica Kemp said.

Kemp got his wish. This is the second “Romeo and Juliet” case to come before the Clemency Board this year.  Governor Crist granted a full pardon to a Panama City man this spring.

Posted in Charlie Crist, Criminal Justice, State News | No Comments »

Crist on Broward County Commission Appointments

September 24th, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

Following the arrest of a Broward County Commission and School Board Member yesterday, the Governor says it could be as much as three weeks before he decides who should fill the seats.

“Integrity, obviously,” Governor Crist said. “I want to make sure that the people who will serve in the interim will represent the people well, both on the school board and the county commission in those respective seats. It’s always a disappointment when those things happen and it’ll probably be several weeks, maybe a couple or three, before we make an appointment.”

Crist immediately suspended the two following their arrest on Federal corruption charges.

Posted in Charlie Crist, Criminal Justice, State News | No Comments »

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