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Crist: Year in Review

December 31st, 2009 by flanews

It’s been a rollercoaster year for Florida Governor Charlie Crist. Double digit unemployment, a housing crisis and opposition from his own party helped bring the seemingly untouchable politician down a few notches. But the biggest blow to Crist’s popularity, as Whitney Ray explains, may have come in the form of a handshake and an embrace.

2009 started off with a bang for Florida Governor Charlie Crist. He became a familiar face on cable news. A go to guy to discuss reforming the right wing. By the end of January Crist’s job approval rating was at 67 percent.

Then in February, Crist appeared on stage with the President in Fort Myers to rally support for stimulus spending. The two embraced, giving the spending plan momentum and creating attack ad gold for any Republican looking to challenge Crist’s conservative credentials.

Crist announced his plans to leave Florida in May, claiming he could do more good from Washington.

Former House Speaker Marco Rubio who had already entered the race for US Senate quickly became the underdog. In June, Rubio trailed Crist by more than 30 points in the polls, victory seemed out of reach. A more recent poll suggests a tie.

Besides time, Crist also has plenty of money to get his message to voters. Crist is leading the dash for campaign cash and has smashed Florida fundraising records.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Bowden’s Last Game

December 31st, 2009 by flanews

The FSU faithful are saying goodbye to the father of Florida State football. Coach Bobby Bowden’s last game will be played in Jacksonville tomorrow. Bowden has been the head ‘Nole since 1979. He won two NCAA national championships and taught thousands of young men how to win, but as Whitney Ray tells us, coach Bowden didn’t just inspire players, millions of fans say he helped shape their lives.

He inspired teams to be great, players to achieve on and off the field and turned a former women’s college into one of the greatest football school of all time.

When lifelong Florida State Football fan Dr. Joe Beckham heard Bobby Bowden would be coaching his last game, Joe took some chances… buying tickets to the Gator Bowl, days before FSU was asked to play.

“We just felt like there was no way they could turn down Coach Bowden in his last game,” said Dr. Joe Beckham, a co-owner of Dynamic Rehab in Tallahassee.

Joe was smart to buy early. Once news of FSU’s Gator Bowl bid broke, the game sold out in two hours. Six-thousand seats were added. They too went fast.

On Friday when the Noles take on West Virginia, 83-thousand fans will be in the stands. And Joe will be one of only a handful who can say he was there from the beginning.

“I was eight years old when Bobby Bowden came to town so I was a big fan as a kid growing up and so I got to go actually to his first game and now I get to go to his last. I’ve never met the man but I kind of feel like he’s a member of my family. That’s the kind of coach and person that he is,” said Beckham.

A sentiment shared by fans, players, and coaches around the country.

Posted in State News | 5 Comments »

Bad Driver School

December 30th, 2009 by flanews

Florida’s worst drivers will soon be heading back to class. A new law going into effect January 1st requires people who cause three wrecks in three years to take an intensive driving course. As Whitney Ray tells us, they’ll also have to pay hundreds of dollars for the class.

If you rack up wrecks faster than birthdays grab your book bag, you’re heading back to class. Starting Friday, Florida drivers who cause three wrecks in a three year period will be forced to take an intensive driving course.

“We believe that with the class, that does say you have to take some time behind the wheel, that we will help these drivers become better on the road,” said Ann Nucatola, a spokeswoman with the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles

Since 2006, more than 3,200 Florida drivers have each caused three or more wrecks. The wrecks are costing taxpayers millions for first responders, clean up crews, and road repairs. It’s also costing lives. An estimated 3,000 people die on Florida’s roadways every year.

Celeste Stroh, became a more cautious drivers once she became a mom. She says everyone could benefit from a driver’s course.

“I think education is good at anytime, and for a lot of people you know, if you took driver’s education it was a long time ago,” said Celeste.

Retired police officer Sandra Baker says bad drivers should be taken off the road long before they cause their third wreck.

“If you have had two wrecks you have no business driving. You are not looking out for yourself or anyone else around you,” said Baker.

While bad drivers won’t lose their license they will pay plenty in fines and insurance premiums, also the class they’ll be required to take will cost them around five hundred dollars.

The Florida Department of Motor Vehicles estimates one thousand Florida drivers will cause their third wreck in 2010 and be forced to take the class.

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

DUI Wolf Pack

December 30th, 2009 by flanews

Florida Highway Patrolmen will be hunting for drunk drivers this holiday weekend in packs.

They’re asking people who ring in 2010 with alcohol to designate a driver or find a cab. For those who don’t the patrolmen will be traveling in “DUI Wolf Packs” blanketing areas know to have intoxicated drivers. FHP Captain Mark Welch says the risk isn’t worth it.

“There’s an awful lot at risk. If you get involved in a crash people can be hurt, people can be killed by your bad decision to drive a car while under the influence of alcohol. At a minimum you can be arrested, you car gets towed, you have to pay court costs, you have to pay reinstatement fees for your drivers license. It’s just not worth it,” said Welch.

Patrolmen won’t just be out on New Years. They plan to have an increased presents all weekend long.

Posted in Highways, State News | 1 Comment »

Foreclosure Rule Changes

December 29th, 2009 by flanews

Floridians facing foreclosure will ring in the New Year with a better shot at saving their homes. An estimated 500-thousand Floridians will be in some stage of foreclosure when the ball drops signaling the start of 2010. As Whitney Ray tells us, help from the banks, the courts, and the state could help more people keep calling home, home.

The New Year will bring new tools for borrowers looking to renegotiate their loans. Attorney General Bill McCollum talked Bank of American into being more accessible.

“We will see a sizeable number of people come the first of the year, in this state, on the ground, trying to meet face to face with people,” said McCollum.

At the stroke of midnight on December 31st, no longer will loan modifying businesses be able to practice without a state licenses. The Office of Financial Regulation is already screening thousands of applicants.

“There was some complaints and it’s yet another portion of the industry that we are tightening up on,” said Bill Spann, the Chief of Staff for the Office of Financial Regulation.

Borrowers in danger of losing their homes will have more opportunities to work it out with lenders.

The state’s highest court is mandating mediation for people who want to stay in their homes.

Negotiations between lenders and borrowers will have to begin soon after foreclosure proceedings have been filed.

Marc Taps represents 450 people trying to save their homes. Taps says face to face meetings work.

“Every time I’ve gone to mediation and there’s been a lender rep there we’ve walked away with a deal,” said Taps.

And more deals being made, means more families get to stay in their homes.

Posted in Housing, State News | 1 Comment »

Online Sales Increase

December 28th, 2009 by flanews

Holiday sales rose 3.6 percent overall this year with online sales seeing the largest increase in traffic. Online sales jumped 15 percent according to data collected by MasterCard. As Whitney Ray tells us, the news is good for Florida retailers but bad for the state, which has a hard time collecting online sales taxes.

The presents have been opened, the Christmas ornaments stowed away, now Santa has started a new naughty or nice list for 2010. Millions of Floridians will unknowingly make the naughty list by not paying sales tax on things bought online this Christmas.

Kyla Nettles searched the web for an antique Coca-Cola collectable for her grandma.

“It took all day but I ended up finding it on EBay. I paid nine dollars for it shipping and all,” said Kyla.

Grandma got the gift while the state got stiffed. Online stores with offices in Florida add the state sales tax into the price total.

Stores like Ebay and Amazon.com place the tax burden on their shoppers.

Rob Weissert with Florida TaxWatch says, by not collecting the tax, online stores are making criminals out of otherwise law abiding citizens.

“We are turning average Floridians into tax dodgers. Most people don’t even know they owe it, much less how to pay it,” said Weissert.

Online companies that don’t collect sales tax are often able to undercut instate stores. The Florida Retail Federation says its best to shop close to home.

“Our request is you shop with those who support you; Those who pay property taxes. Those who employ people in your hometown,” said Rick McAllister.

But for people who do buy over the web from out-of-state vendors, staying on Santa’s good side, or more importantly the law’s, means making your own sales tax list and checking it twice.

Floridians who buy from online stores that haven’t already collected the tax can download a form on the Department of Revenue’s website. The link to the DR15MO form is http://dor.myflorida.com/dor/forms/2009/dr15mo.pdf

Posted in Children, Economy, Politics, State Budget, State News | 1 Comment »

Petition Avalanche Hitting Elections Offices

December 24th, 2009 by flanews

Staff at many of the state’s 67 Elections officers spent part of Christmas Eve dealing with an avalanche of petition forms from Fair Districts Florida.Org. The organization is circulating two petitions and to change the way legislative and congressional boundaries are drawn. Supervisors have until February 1st to verify almost 7 hundred thousand signatures.

Few argue that Florida’s congressional and legislative districts are fair. The boundaries are drawn to give the party in power a better shot winning elections. The practice is called gerrymandering and it’s been going on for decades. As Whitney Ray tells us, if the measures reach the ballot and are approved by at least 3 out of 5 voters in November, state lawmakers will have to draw district lines with fewer political considerations.

Senate District 3 is shaped like a huge claw. It covers parts of 13 counties, from Leon all the way down to Citrus. Senator Charlie Dean represents District 3. He’s also on a committee charged with redrawing the district maps.

“I’m spread from Northeast Florida all the way to the steps of the Capitol, all the way to central south Florida,” Dean said. “Where’s my continuity?”

Senate District 3 isn’t the only odd shape on Florida’s senate map. 27 is cut in half by Lake Okeechobee and runs from the East coast to the gulf. Congressional District 3 runs from Jacksonville to Orlando.

The maps are drawn to ensure the majority of the voters in most districts are registered in the part in power’s favor.

It’s called gerrymandering and State Senator Al Lawson says it makes for predictable elections.

“The reason why so many races are not very competitive is because you have the districts that are so gerrymandered,” Lawson said. “Pretty much they know that Republicans are going to win a seat or a Democrat is going to win a seat.”

Next November, voters may get a chance to vote on two ideas to make the process more fair. Those in control are hoping to knock the amendments off the ballot.

While Republicans are trying to block the change this time, Democrats didn’t want any changes when they were in power.

Posted in Amendments, Elections, Legislature, Politics, State News, Voting | No Comments »

Holiday Sales Beating Expectations

December 23rd, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida retailers are happy this Christmas season. Despite dire predictions, Mike Vasilinda tells us most retailers are going to be pleasantly surprised.

Shoppers are walking out the door with bags of merchandise. Few though will admit to spending more.

“[I’m spending] less. Don’t have as much to spend,” shopper Walt Maige said.

Cyril Gillion says he could spend more, but…

“The recession starts to make you realize the true value of Christmas,” Gillion said. “It’s not about gifts.”

But the Florida Retail Federation says this is going to be a greener Christmas than  most store owners had expected.

“It’s not going to be a world record breaker, but it’s certainly going to be better than most retailers expected and in some cases, much higher than most retailers expected,” Rick McAllister, with the Florida Retail Federation, said.

The evidence is showing up in the state treasury.

State tax collections have been consistently exceeding expectations. In November alone, sales taxes were 18 million dollars over the estimate.

Many retail organizations reduced inventories this year. And that could make after Christmas deals hard to come by.

“Boy, if there’s anything left next week it’s going to be sold. So there will be tremendous discounts. Whatever inventory that’s left after Christmas eve will be at a real bargain rate,” McAllister said.

So despite being a year most would like to forget, 2009 is closing the decade with more jingle than expected.

Retailers had originally expected about a two percent increase over last years dismal Christmas sales. They believe the final figure will be in the four to five percent range

Posted in Business, State News | 1 Comment »

Citizens No-Bid Contract Questioned

December 22nd, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

Citizens, the state-run property insurance company, is under fire for awarding a contract worth up to 60 million dollars without a bid. The contract is for home inspections that, as Mike Vasilinda tells us, could end saving taxpayers money in the event of a storm.

Citizens gives discounts to 400 thousand homes with hurricane shutters and other things that make the home safer. The cost of the discounts: 700 million a year.

The problem is that many homeowners aren’t entitled to the discounts they are getting.

“There’s up to an 80 percent error rate in the mitigation credits they have on file,” Christine Ashburn with Citizens Insurance said. “If even half, if 40 percent of those folks are getting credits they don’t deserve, we’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars.”

To fix the problem, and by calling the situation an emergency, Citizens entered into a no-bid contract that could be worth up to 60 million dollars.

Competitors are crying foul.

“These facts and circumstances clearly indicate that this is not an emergency and it’s simply Citizens, doing what it has done on numerous occasions, thumbing their nose at the statutes,” attorney Rick Bateman said.

A law suit has been filed to have the contract bid out.

What everyone does seem to agree on is that 8 out of 10 Citizens customers with mitigation discounts aren’t paying enough and the inspections will fix that.

Why taxpayers should care is because every dollar Citizens takes in is one less dollar that will be assessed to everyone in the event of a big storm.

The question isn’t whether the inspections are a good idea, but whether the no-bid contract rises to an actual emergency. And now that is apparently going to be determined by a judge.

Citizens Insurance says it is going to start with just 500 inspections to see if it is finding mistakes, and if so, what kind of mistakes in the discounts it is giving. Citizens says it will contact policy holders before an inspector shows up at their doorstep.

Posted in Business, Insurance, State News | 3 Comments »

Jobs Summit

December 22nd, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

The two men slated to run the state legislature in 2011 are calling for a statewide jobs summit. It will be held in Orlando on January 14th and will focus on what the state can do to reduce regulations hindering business and whether some incentives for things such as film production might create jobs. Senator Mike Haridopolis was asked why the summit is coming two years after the beginning of the recession.

“A lot of people were hopeful that the economic stimulus and everything should be more successful and that we are trying to do with the resources that we have,” Haridopolis said. “I think that we have had ongoing discussions and I think that there is an additional discussion with everyone of us in different delegations that are here, different things and different issues. What we wanted to do is have a statewide discussion so that we focus exclusively on jobs.”

Governor Charlie Crist is already suggested a cut in the corporate income tax rate. Haridopolis and his counterpart, Representative Dean Cannon of Winter Park offered few specifics.

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

Extended Warranty Company Closed

December 22nd, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

More than 9 thousand Florida customers who thought they had a valid extended warranty on their car are out in the cold. The state has closed First Warranty Group of Florida because it was no longer financially able to pay its claims. The company will be liquidated and the first cash will go to pay claims already submitted. Wayne Johnson from the office of Rehabilitation and Liquidation says customers who financed their extended warranties should contact their lender.

“They should stop paying premiums if they are, in fact, still doing so,” Johnson said. “If they are paying those to a premium finance company, they should probably contact the premium finance company.”

Why should they stop?

“Their warranty is canceled, so they’re going to receive no further benefit from it,” Johnson said. “If they’re paying through a premium finance company, this may be tied to their auto loan and they want to be careful about that.”

In a related move today, the state ordered four other companies, who are unlicensed, to stop selling the extended warranties. The companies are: National Automotive Services Inc.; Warranty Financial Inc. a/k/a Warranty Financial O.R.G. Inc.; Warranty USA; and Warranty Services

More information is available on the states web site. http://www.myfloridacfo.com/Receiver/

Posted in Business, State News | 1 Comment »

Tougher Drivers’ License Renewal Requirements Coming

December 21st, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

Navigating state drivers’ license offices could soon be a little tougher. Starting January first, motorists will need at least four forms of identification to get or renew a license. And as Mike Vasilinda tells us, your current license doesn’t count as one of the forms.

Real ID is the federal law enacted after 9/11. It requires people getting their drivers license for the first time, or renewing a license, to provide definite proof of who they are.

“We really hope that our customers will prepare themselves for their visit and hope that it will be very little inconvenience, if any, to them,” Dave Westberry, with the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, said.

A passport or certified birth certificate are the primary identification required. You’ll also need your social security card or proof of wages from form W2. Then you’ll have to prove where you live. Two utility bills, a voter registration or mail from the government will do.

Under the new requirements, the one thing that doesn’t count as proof of who you are, is your old drivers’ license.

Judith Rose changed her name…and almost got snagged.

Most people up for renewal, like HC Williams, will get a letter, telling them what to bring.

“Everything was pretty swift,” Williams said. “Real fast. No long wait, thank goodness.”

Motorists will get one chance to renew online, but after 2014, anyone without the new certified license could have trouble getting on a plane or elsewhere where an official ID is required.

You can find out what you’ll need on line at www.gathergoget.com/online. HC Williams brought everything he needed.

Posted in Highways, State News | No Comments »

Holiday Fire Safety

December 21st, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

Residential fires increase between 20 and 25 percent during the holiday season, due primarily to people being unsafe with space heaters, failing to keep their Christmas tree watered, or using faulty holiday lighting. Julius Halas is the Director of the State Fire Marshalls office and says when a live tree is involved, you can never be too careful.

“A family that was having fun, had a little party, inadvertently had a candle too close to the Christmas tree,” Halas said. “It caught fire at two in the morning. The Christmas tree had fully ignited and the apartment was fully involved within about two minutes.”

Tallahassee Fire Chief Cindy Dick says people need to be especially careful with space heaters.

“Residential fires do increase at this time of year,” Dick said. “Actually from about the time you start to get your first cold snap, and much of that is related to something that we didn’t mention and I’m glad you brought that up, is the use of space heaters. Typically, that ignites quite a few fires. And one of the things you need to know with space heaters is that it is tested. They have very, very safe space heaters on the market now.”

Holiday fires claim 400 lives each Christmas season.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

12 Days of Fugitives

December 21st, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

A 61-year-old man who has been on the run since March 1979 was captured on Saturday, as part of the state’s 12 days of Fugitives campaign. Each day the state has been featuring a cold case. On Saturday, Eugene Richardson was captured in Missouri as a result of a tip after his picture was published.  Deputy Corrections Secretary Richard Davison says the arrest should send a message to everyone else on the lamb.

“To all the fugitives, I would like to say that it doesn’t matter how long ago you escaped, and it doesn’t matter where you are hiding,” Davison said. “We are hot on your trail and we are steadily searching for you. You need to know that you will never stop looking for you.’

Richardson was in prison for robbing a Tampa drug store at gunpoint. He escaped from a prison work camp in Kissimmee, and has been living under the alias Eugene Ward. The state paid a $3,000 reward for the tip.

Posted in Criminal Justice, State News | No Comments »

E-mail Breakfast

December 21st, 2009 by Mike Vasilinda

The State Inspector General is looking into emails send during the debate on commuter rail by the secretary of the Dept. of Transportation. Three emails used words like Pancakes or Waffles in the subject line. The odd wording prompted CFO Alex Sink to ask for the investigation to see if the words were an attempt to avoid being discovered in a public records request. Sink says she’ll wait for the results of the investigation before passing judgment.

“I think the Governor did the appropriate thing by asking his Inspector General to review the situation, and to see what all the facts are and hear her situation,” Sink said.”I’m sure the Inspector General will do a good job of ensuring Floridians, I hope, that there was no malintent there.”

The DOT says their software program would not have allowed the emails to go unnoticed in a public records search since it also searches the body of an email and attachments as well as the subject line.

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

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