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Traffic Ticket Slump

July 30th, 2010 by flanews

The number of traffic tickets being issued in Florida is on the decline. The most up to date statistics the state has are from 2008, when 120-thousand fewer tickets were written than in 2006. As Whitney Ray tells us, the economy is contributing to the decline.

Nsoyn Johnson is an out-of-work mechanic. Besides keeping the engine in his ‘82 Chevy in tiptop shape, Nsoyn also keeps a close eye on his driving to avoid getting a ticket.

“You got to pay a little more attention on the road as far as your lights and different things like that. You don’t speed as much,” said Nsoyn.

Cash strapped drivers are helping make Florida’s roads safer. 420 fewer people died in car accidents last year. 120-thousand fewer traffic tickets were issued. FHP has only seen a slight dip in the number of tickets its troopers issue, but has noticed the roads getting safer.

“It’s because of the education and enforcement effort of law enforcement, but it goes far beyond that. It’s our legislators who pass laws, like our primary seatbelt law,” said FHP Captain Mark Welch.

No police officer we spoke with would tell us this on camera, but budget cuts are forcing departments to make some tough choices, like ignore traffic violations to focus on more serious crimes. Nsoyn thinks there’s another factor at play in the declining number of tickets; he says police have a heart.

“Cops, they understand. Before they are officers, they are people too,” said Nsoyn.

But whether its sympathetic police or cash strapped drivers, the decline in tickets is hurting the state budget. The Criminal Justice Standards and Training Trust Fund is feeling the brunt of the declining ticket revenue. The fund helps pay for tests and training for new and incoming police officers. Now the state is considering raising the fees charged to candidates who take the tests.

Posted in Economy, Highways, State Budget, State News | No Comments »

Vet Proud to be an American, Finally

July 30th, 2010 by flanews

A German-born US Soldier can finally call the country he served home.

Axel Runtschke came to the US when he was 12, joined the Army in 1997, and served until 2000. Axel thought the Army handled his immigration papers, but when he tried to get a new social security card in 2006, he found out he was illegal. With the help of the media, immigration attorneys, and US Senator Bill Nelson, Axel was naturalized this week.

“It’s been overwhelming to get so much help so quickly, and I thank everybody who stepped up and stood behind me, from the bottom of my heart,” said Runtschke.

Once Axel found out he was an illegal alien he could no longer get work. With no job, his house fell into foreclosure and he began staying home with his three kids while his wife worked full time and took online college courses. Now that’s he’s a legal resident he wants to become a police officer.

Posted in State News | 1 Comment »

Hurt, Abandoned Puppy Doing Well

July 29th, 2010 by Mike Vasilinda

A six week old puppy thrown from a speeding truck on Saturday was given little hope for recovery when first taken to a vet, but as Mike Vasilinda tells us, today the puppy is up and walking about, bruised, blind in one eye, and scarred, but alive.

Jack is a six-week-old dachshund mix lucky to be alive. He was found Saturday along an isolated north Florida roadway and brought to a shelter with a harrowing story.

“The little girl that was with the mother, was adamant that the dog was thrown out the window,” Bonnie Brinson with Cauzican Animal Rescue said. “The mother passed over the dog, and looked in the rear-view mirror and thought it was a Dr. Pepper bottle. When she saw the puppy get up and try to walk, she realized it was a puppy.”

Jack is doing surprisingly well. His back is scarred and hair will likely never grow back over lawyers of skin that were scraped from his body. He stops every few feet to scratch, a symptom the wounds are healing. Bonnie Brinson says he is remarkably strong.

“Overall he’s got a loving personality and he’s got the will to survive,” Brinson said.

Jack’s appetite is back, feasting on expensive nutrient-added dog food.

The vet named him Jack, after Jack Sparrow from the movie because he’s only got one eye

A reward has been offered for information about who could have done such a thing to a small puppy but animal control officers say cruelty is far too common.

“Any animal control officer with any agency will tell you that they deal with this day in and day out. Maybe not so much an animal being thrown from a vehicle, but it’s not unheard of,” Christine Burns with the Wakulla County Animal Control.

The list of people who want to adopt Jack is growing, but he’s not going anywhere for at least six weeks as he heals.

Bonnie Brinson has run the animal rescue service for more than 20 years. She says it is because she wasn’t allowed to have pets growing up. She is accepting donations for Jack’s care. For more information contact her at bbbrinson4u@aol.com

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Millionaires Club

July 29th, 2010 by flanews

You can not get elected to a major office in this country without huge amounts of money.

It’s logistically possible, but practically impossible. Just look at multi-millionaires Rick Scott and Jeff Greene. Scott is running for Governor, Greene US Senate. January 1st, they were off the political map. Nearly 40 million dollars later, both are leading their primary elections by double digits. Quinnipiac released its latest poll numbers today showing the two, way ahead. Pollster Peter Brown says Scott is having success against his primary rival Bill McCollum, because he’s running as an outsider.

“Of the two Scott is clearly the outside. In fact the outsider wins more than Scott is winning, but that is an image and theme that’s very popular this year,” said Brown.

The poll also shows that voters think Scott is more conservative than McCollum.

“The truth is I have a record of being a Reagan conservative, and he has nothing but slick ads to show for that. The truth is everything I have done in my life has been based upon conservative principals,” said McCollum.

The poll shows Scott leading McCollum 43 – 32. McCollum says the poll is flawed.

Posted in Politics, State News | No Comments »

Health Care Challenge

July 29th, 2010 by flanews

For the third time in less than a month, a Tallahassee Circuit Judge has ordered a constitutional amendment off the ballot because it was misleading. Today, a proposal aimed at blocking part of the new federal health care laws in Florida was kicked off the ballot, but as Whitney Ray tells us, the judge’s decision will likely be appealed.

32 year old Eddie Darden can’t afford to see a doctor when he gets sick. Staying healthy is a necessity.

“I take good care of myself. I drink plenty of water. I consider myself to be the fruits and vegetable king. There is not a single fruit of vegetable I would decline to eat,” said Eddie Darden.

He’s not alone. The number of Floridians without health insurance has been growing since the economy tanked. In 2008 one out of every five Floridians was without insurance. Today it’s closer to one in four.

New federal health care regulations aim to cut down on the number of uninsured, but state lawmakers are trying to block a provision in the law requiring people to buy health insurance. The state legislature wanted voters to exempt Florida from the requirements, but the ballot language was misleading. Attorney General Bill McCollum is considering an appeal.

“I’m disappointed they threw out amendment 9 because amendment 9 relates to, as you know, to an effort we wanted Florida to join in across the nation to make it very clear that we did not approve of Obama Care,” said McCollum.

While McCollum ponders an appeal, a lawsuit challenging the federal regulations he filed in March is moving though the judicial process. The state legislature voted to put four amendments on the ballot. Three have already been deemed misleading by judges, and the fourth is still being challenged.

Posted in Health, Insurance, McCollum, State News | 1 Comment »

LeRoy Collins Dies

July 29th, 2010 by flanews

The governor has ordered US and state flags to be flown at half staff today in honor of Admiral LeRoy Collins Junior.

Collins, seen here in 2006 filing paperwork to run for US Senate, was a retired Navy Admiral and the son of former Governor LeRoy Collins. He was killed this morning in Tampa while riding his bike for exercise. The news reached the capitol mid-morning when Governor Charlie Crist made this announcement.

“Secretary, I don’t mean to interrupt, but I’ve just been handed a note with some very sad news. Evidently Admiral LeRoy Collins was riding a bike this morning and unfortunately he was hit and he was killed. Our thoughts and prays certainly go out to the Collins family and I regret having to announce this news to you and I think it would be appropriate if we recognized a moment of silence,” said Collins.

Attorney General Bill McCollum says Collins had a servant’s heart.

“He was a leader of veterans. He dedicated his life to public service and we don’t find many people who dedicate their lives as completely as he did. Whether that served our country as a naval officer, an admiral or whether that served our state as he did by heading our department of veteran affairs,” said McCollum.

Collins was 75 years old.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

100 Days of Oil

July 28th, 2010 by flanews

It’s been a hundred days since oil began gushing into the Gulf of Mexico forcing an enormous response effort from BP, the state, and volunteers. Now the leak has been capped and the oil is dissipating. But as Whitney Ray tells us, the state is still fighting to get claims paid, bring in visitors, and sell Florida seafood.

The leak is capped but the state’s fight to attract tourists, help the fishing industry rebound and protect the coast still rages.

Florida’s Emergency Operations Center has been at a level one activation since June 2nd, and will remain so for the near future.

“Fortunately there’s not a lot of heavy oil offshore, but there still is tar balls, there’s some weathered oil,” said Phil Wieczynsk, with the Bureau of Emergency Response.

The oil slick is shrinking daily but still threatens wildlife. Biologists are moving panhandle sea turtle nests to keep the hatchlings from swimming into the oil.

There’s still a tourism crisis. On July 18th, Visit Florida ran out of money from BP for its fight to let travelers know Florida beaches are clean.

The tourism agency waits to see if BP will cough up more cash.

“The dollars are out so we are hoping BP will come back and grant the governor the additional 50 million dollars to help with that campaign,” said Will Seccombe with Visit Florida.

At the height of the crisis a third of the gulf was closed to fishing; now just a fourth is closed. The FDA and Florida Department of Agriculture have a mobile testing lab on standby in Tallahassee, ready to do onsite tests in areas where the oil once floated.

“The samples from those areas will be subjected to both the sensory testing as well as the lab analysis,” said Terry McElroy with the Department of Agriculture.

The major fear for environmentalists now is what’s out of sight is out of mind. While experts think the risk of large amounts of oil washing ashore is low, what’s going on underneath the surface could affect fish populations for decades.

The state legislature is working on legislation to help people who have lost business and property values because of the oil leak. They plan to meet in a special session in September and pass laws that would help ease the burden for those Floridians hit the hardest.

Environmentalist Reaction

In early May, biologists and environmental experts began to worry that the BP oil spill would impact the coast for decades to come. Today, 100 days later, things are getting better. The leak has been stopped. The oil slick is shrinking, and most experts believe no more large pools of oil will wash up on any Florida beaches. Despite the good news, Julie Wraithmell with Audubon of Florida, says this disaster isn’t over because the chemicals used to break up the oil, and the oil itself, have altered the food chain.

“At the same time we all breathed a huge sigh of relief to hear they got the flow under control, it doesn’t minimize the fact that there as been a lot of oil spilled and is going to persist in that system for a long period of time,” said Wraithmell.

Florida State University and other research groups were able to collect some samples of marine life, sand, and soil before the oil reached beaches, providing a baseline to compare future samples with.

Posted in Economy, Environment, Gulf Oil Spill, State News, Wildlife | No Comments »

Insurance Rates

July 27th, 2010 by flanews

More than a million Floridians could see an increase in their home insurance bills before the end of the year. Citizens Property Insurance is seeking an 11 percent rate increase and Castle Key, formerly known as Allstate Floridian, wants to raise its rates 33 percent. As Whitney Ray tells us, the industry claims some companies could go belly-up if there’s a major hurricane.

Bill McKeown is a retired farmer turned amateur painter. He lives on a fixed income and plays with the money he gets from selling his work.

But Bill may soon have to use more of his play money to pay bills. His insurer, Citizens Property Insurance, is seeking an 11 percent rate hike.

“I guess we’ll find it if we have to,” said McKeown.

Citizens isn’t the only company claiming it needs customers to pay more. 140 have raised rates over the past two years. Tuesday, Allstate’s subsidiary company Castle Key was at the Capitol asking regulators for a 33 percent rate increase. The Office of Insurance Regulation will review Castle Key’s request and dozens more before year’s end.

“We have about 200 writers and most of them are very active in the homeowners business, and so most of them make a filing every year,” said Belinda Miller, OIR’s Deputy Commissioner.

Industry experts say false claims, bloated discounts and inflation are causing some companies to lose money even though Florida hasn’t had a major hurricane since 2005.

“There are a handful of companies that might not survive a major hurricane,” said Florida Insurance Council spokesman Sam Miller.

Earlier this year Governor Charlie Crist vetoed legislation aimed at fixing some of the problems because it also made it easier for insurance companies to raise rates. Citizens rate hike hearing has yet to be scheduled and it will be weeks before we know if Castle Key, formerly known as Allstate Floridian, will get the 33 percent increase it’s requesting.

Posted in Insurance, State News | 2 Comments »

High School Students Facing Class Schedule Nightmare

July 27th, 2010 by Mike Vasilinda

Students return to schools across Florida over the next three weeks, and as Mike Vasilinda tells us, many of them, especially high schoolers, will have a hard time getting the classes they want because of class size requirements.

Page Twyman is fielding half a dozen calls or more each day from parents wanting to register their kids for the fall, and that’s becoming an administrator’s nightmare.

Sarah Shajawy is volunteering at her Tallahassee high school this summer. Because no class this fall can have more than 25 students, she and thousands like her across the state are not going to be getting all of the classes they want.

“I might not get to take guitar because they have to cut some of the elective programs and that’s not really great,” Shajawy said. “Kids don’t get to take what they want to take or AP classes that could get you into college.”

Principal Rocky Hanna has spent the summer trying to juggle teacher schedules to help students like Sarah, without much luck.

“When I wake up at 4:30 in the morning in the summer, worrying about class size, and which teacher, no that teacher can’t do this, I might have to move my cooking teacher to teach a science class,” Hanna said.

Every penny that school’s have is going for class size this year. For teachers that means fewer supplies and for students that means fewer textbooks.

Until this year, high schools only had to meet a school-wide class size average of 25 students per teacher. But now no single class can have more than 25. But that’s alright with Maria Morales, even if her freshman son doesn’t get every class he wants.

“Keeping them small, keeping them manageable,” Morales said.

But with smaller classes, Sarah and thousands of other students will be in classes they don’t like simply because there’s room.

Lawmakers are hoping voters will change class size requirements in November, but a vote is far from certain because of legal challenges.

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

Legislature Puts The Kibosh on Kitchen Inspections

July 26th, 2010 by flanews

Kitchens in daycares, hospitals, and nursing homes can no longer be inspected by the Department of Health. The legislature scaled back the department’s authority but as Whitney Ray tells us, they forgot to reassign the duty.

You expect the food you eat at a hospital to be safe, but in Florida there’s no state inspectors making sure. The legislature took away the Department of Health’s authority to inspect kitchens in facilities that care for the sick and vulnerable. Now hospitals, nursing homes and daycares have nowhere to turn to have their kitchens deemed safe.

Pam Davis can’t even open the kitchen in her new daycare because she can’t get the initial seal of approval.

“I have to have my kitchen inspected and there’s no one here to inspect it,” said Davis.

Jim Croteau operates a Meals-on-Wheels Kitchen. His mixers and stoves will continue to get inspected by DOH. He says the new rules are just a big mixup.

“There’s confusion in the statute and the people who wrote it were trying to accomplish one thing, but in that effort they came up making it a little more complicated that it needed to be,” said Croteau.

The legislature’s intent was to make kitchen inspections cheaper and easier or to scale back the state’s authority, depending on who you talk to.

The Department of Health isn’t answering questions about the changes. They’ll only say they’re following the will of the legislature. The Department of Children and Families is working with legislative staff to look for a way to fix the problem.

“Generally anytime there’s something like this that happens, if reasonable people get together, put their heads together, they can resolve it,” said Sheldon.

Also at stake is millions of federal dollars that won’t be distributed to these facilities if they’re not inspected.

The Department of Health lost its kitchen inspection authority July first. Most kitchens only get quarterly inspections, so the hope is not too many certificates of approval expire before the state fixes the problem.

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

ADA 20th

July 26th, 2010 by flanews

Twenty years ago the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, helping millions of people live better lives.

Today in Tallahassee, disabled Floridians marched up to the state capitol in celebration of the anniversary. Bryan Vaughan, the Executive Director of the Governor’s Commission for Disabilities, spoke about what this day means for him and how the act helps him live a better life.

“We’ve been mainstreamed like we never have before. We’ve been given the opportunities to show our abilities. I think that was what it was intended to do and I’m really glad to finally be able to do that,” said Vaughn.

After the rally, the crowd listened to a band and speakers talked about their successes as well as their struggles.

Posted in State News | 4 Comments »

Unemployment Benefits Extended

July 23rd, 2010 by flanews

Using emergency power given to him in times of crisis, Governor Charlie Crist accomplished what the state legislature failed to do.

Today Crist signed an executive order allowing 250-thousand jobless Floridians to receive extra weeks of unemployment pay. As Whitney Ray tells us, extended benefits stopped flowing June 2nd, and legislative leaders wanted jobseekers to wait until September for relief.

When state lawmakers met in Special Session Tuesday, they could have paved the way for 250-thousand out-of-work Floridians to receive extra weeks of unemployment pay. Instead they voted to go home; claiming they didn’t know Congress was going to extended benefits, even though the extension was on a fast track to passage.

Cretul: When we begin to think about what could or couldn’t happen in Washington in particular… who knows?

Ray: But it seems like a lot of people knew.

Cretul: Well, apparently they did, but the reality is we’ll deal with it when we come back in special session.”

That special session is tentatively scheduled for September. And if nothing happened until then an estimated 450-thousand people would be without benefits.

Governor Charlie Crist said that’s not good enough. He used emergency executive powers to issue their order Friday doing what the state legislature failed to do… allow Floridians to receive extended benefits. Labor Union, AFL-CIO, began calling on the governor to fix the problem after it became apparent the legislature wasn’t going to budge.

“Those that have fat bank accounts, that can write campaign contribution checks, when they need something the legislature and the Republican leadership in the House is quick to act. When working families need something, who can’t write the big campaign contributions, they are ignored,” said Rich Templin, with the Florida AFL-CIO.

With the extension now in place, the focus is back on the jobs and Florida’s 11.4 percent unemployment rate.

Today’s action by the governor was a last ditch effort. State lawmakers were warned about this problem more than three months ago during regular session, when they decided to put a deadline on how long Florida would participate in the federal Extended Benefits program.

Posted in Charlie Crist, Legislature, State News, Unemployment | No Comments »

Child Care Kitchens No Longer Inspected

July 23rd, 2010 by Mike Vasilinda

You wouldn’t eat at a restaurant not inspected by the Health Department, but a new state law exempts all child care centers from kitchen inspections. And the new law is creating problems for early head start centers which must provide two meals a day for low income children and it is keeping at least one center from opening.

The glasses are neatly stacked. The blue bowls are clean and ready to be used. But this kitchen is bare. The newly renovated Early Head Start Center for low income children in Tallahassee is sitting empty because of a SNAFU over the lack of government regulation.

In a nutshell, the federal government requires this kitchen be inspected so it can open, but the state no longer has the authority.

The center is funded with stimulus money, meant to create jobs. Director Pam Davis says the 1.1 million dollar impact on the community is being lost because the federal government requires a working kitchen and the state is no longer allowed to inspect child care center kitchens at all.

“In order to get the grant and provide the meals that meet two-thirds of a child’s daily nutritional requirements, I have to have my kitchen inspected and there’s no one to inspect it,” Davis said.

House Bill 5311 took effect July first. It prohibits the state Department of Health from inspecting not just this center, but all child care center kitchens in Florida, in both new and already operating centers. Davis says parents should be concerned.

“The fact that no one is going to be out inspecting these kitchens that are in child care centers and schools and nursing homes, that concerns me as a citizen,” Davis said. “I think that’s a public health hazard.”

Asked about the new law, a Heath Department spokesperson would only say the agency’s job is to carry out the will of the legislature.

Multiple state officials are meeting in Pensacola today on the issue and looking for ways to allow the inspections to occur, but it will take legislative action to remedy the problem.

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

Class Size Suit

July 23rd, 2010 by flanews

The Florida Education Association is filing suit to get Amendment Eight kicked of the November Ballot. The proposed constitutional amendment freezes class sizes where they are now, not implementing the final and most restrictive phase. FEA attorney Ron Meyer says the ballot language the legislature drafted for the amendment is misleading, because the real issue at play isn’t class sizes, but funding.

“I think that they are using this language really in a less than direct way to try and hide the fact that they are taking money out of the public schools to use for class sizes,” said Meyer.

The legislature put amendment eight on the ballot, saying the cost of implementing the last phase is too expensive and would require some crafty maneuvering by school administrators. FEA countered… saying fund schools better.

Posted in Education, State News | No Comments »

Speaker Tells Unemployed to Wait Until September

July 22nd, 2010 by flanews

Congress has extended unemployment benefits for more than two million jobseekers in 49 states, but not Florida.

Congress didn’t snub Florida; the state legislature did. During regular session in March, state lawmakers voted to put a June 5th, cutoff date on Floridians receiving extended benefits. The legislature then could have changed the deadline when they met in Special Session Tuesday. But Speaker Larry Cretul says he didn’t know Congress was going to extended benefits, even though the issue has been on a fast track for passage for more than a week.

Cretul: They passed it out after we adjourned.

Whitney: But you saw it coming. You could have done something with that deadline.

Cretul: Well, we could have but when we begin to think about what could and couldn’t happen, in Washington in particular, who knows?

Whitney: It seemed like a lot of people knew.

Cretul: Well maybe they did, but the reality is that we’ll deal with it when we come back in Special session.

That special session is tentatively scheduled for September; meanwhile 200-thousand Floridians have exhausted their benefits and an extra 5-thousand a day falling off the unemployment rolls. Even though Cretul says the Legislature didn’t act because they didn’t know what Congress would do, but it didn’t stop them from balancing the state budget with billions of federal aid that still hasn’t arrived.

Posted in State News, Unemployment | No Comments »

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