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Property Insurance Rates

November 30th, 2010 by flanews

Today marks the end of the Atlantic Hurricane Season and another year without a hurricane hitting Florida. It’s been five hurricane-free years now, so what does this mean for property insurance rate? As Capitol Correspondent Whitney Ray tells, industry experts and some lawmakers say rates are still too low to prepare companies for a major storm.

The Atlantic Hurricane Season is over and for the fifth straight year Florida emergency managers can breathe a sigh of relief.

“For the first time in recorded history this is now five years in a row that a hurricane has not hit Florida or struck the East Coast of the United States,” said Dave Halstead the Director of the Department of Emergency Management.

That means for half a decade Florida insurance companies haven’t had to pay massive claims, but it’s not all rosy. Industry Expert Bob Lotane says rates are still too low to adequately prepare insurers for a major storm hitting a large city.

“The insurance commissioner himself has testified to the cabinet that a majority of companies are not reserving money at the rate that they need to, to be ready for a hurricane,” said Lotane.

Lawmakers want to make it easier for insurance companies to raise rates up to 10 percent a year. Legislation loosing regulations on the industry landed on Governor Charlie Crist’s desk twice in the past two years and both times he vetoed the bills. Crist has faith the war on insurance rates he started will continue.

“I certainly hope for the people and myself that they continue to go down,” said Crist.

But 2011 is likely to be different. A new governor and a GOP supermajority in the House and Senate could mean the legislation sails through the process, and insurance companies will no longer have to ask the state when they want an increase. The legislation is already in the works and is expected to begin the committee process when lawmakers come back to Tallahassee next week.

Posted in Housing, Insurance, Legislature, State News | 3 Comments »

Busy Year for Emergency Workers

November 30th, 2010 by flanews

Florida exits another hurricane season without a hurricane, but that doesn’t mean Florida Emergency workers have had it easy. The year began with the Haiti Earthquake. The Florida Emergency Operation Center was key in transporting response crews and supplies to the small island country. Then in April the BP oil spill kept emergency workers busy though August. There were also 19 named storms to monitor this year. Department of Emergency Management Director Dave Halstead says the greatest challenge was by far the oil spill.

“It challenged the team more than a tropical storm would have. This was the worst environmental disaster in the world and this team, the Department of Environmental Protection, The Department of Health, under the leadership of the governor came together to support the local government,” said Halstead.

Halstead points to cooperation from local communities as the reason the state was effective in its response to the oil spill and the Haiti Earthquake.

Posted in Environment, Gulf Oil Spill, Hurricane Season, State News | 3 Comments »

Publics Gets First Look at Taj Majal

November 30th, 2010 by Mike Vasilinda

The public is getting its first sneak peak inside an elaborate new court house that has been dubbed the “Taj Mahal” by lawmakers and writers alike. But some of thew most opulent areas are off limits for pictures.

The appellate courthouse is massive, 109,000 square feet.

Inside a glass domed ceiling sits a 70 foot space for spectators. Each of the fifteen judges has a suite, but the judge’s suites are off limits to the public and photographers.  Lauren Engel from Department of Management Services says their hands are tied.

“It’s security reasons. We follow the federal protocols on that, so we just follow what they set up.”

But even though the chambers are off limits, CFO Alex Sink provided a glimpse of the judicial suites with still photos collected during her audit. They show each chamber with a private bath and kitchen complete with granite counter tops.

What you won’t see on the walls of this elaborate building is expensive art work. The CFO denied payment for hundreds of framed pictures in August, an expense she called excessive.

“This is imported African mahogany” Sink said at the time, while holding a piece of courthouse trim. “There are 20 miles of this mahogany in this building.”

The agency responsible for construction has been criticized for letting judges lavishness run unchecked, but Lauren Engel says the agency was just doing what it was told.

“DMS worked with the courts to put out a building that was completed on time and on the budget we were appropriated by the legislature,” Engel said.

Lawmakers are expected to conduct their own investigation in the construction early next year.


Posted in State News | No Comments »

Cyber Monday Sales Tax

November 29th, 2010 by flanews

By the end of the day an estimated 107 million shoppers will be waiting for shipments from purchase they made online. Cyber Monday sales are expected to climb 11 percent. As Whitney Ray tells us, the news is good for the economy, but bad for the state, because many online shops don’t collect sales tax.

It was quiet in Susan Frisbee’s gift shop Monday. The only noise was from Susan’s workshop where she was grinding glass, but throughout the state.

Shoppers searched for deals and clicked on bargains during the busiest online shopping day of the year. It’s hard for Susan’s glass shop to compete when millions of people are shopping from home and work.

“When you buy locally you are supporting your local small businesses and large businesses. The sales tax stays in town. The money stays in town,” said Susan.

The playing field isn’t level. Susan charges a six cent state sales tax and local taxes. Online store without locations in Florida don’t collect sales tax. It will cost the state an estimated 10 million dollars by the end of Cyber Monday. Florida TaxWatch says between two and four billion dollars goes uncollected every year.

“Under the current law people owe the sales tax even on purchases they make over the internet. It’s a matter of collection. Most retailers don’t collect that and remit it to the state,” said Robert Weissert with Florida TaxWatch.

Most shoppers don’t even know they owe the tax. To follow the law online shoppers have to visit the Department of Revenue’s website, print a tax form, list the items purchased, do the math, and mail in a check. And you got to do it four times a year. The form to fill out to pay taxes on online purchases is the DR 15 MO. You can download the form at dor.myflorida.com/dor/forms/2010/dr15mo.pdf

Some State lawmakers want to make paying the tax easier, but for now Florida retailers like Susan will have to compete with online stores charging six percent less.

Posted in Economy, State News, Taxes | 1 Comment »

Online Shopping Safety Tips

November 29th, 2010 by flanews

Millions of Floridians will shop online this holiday season, and thousands of them will be ripped off. Online scammers are trying to steal your credit card information. The Florida Attorney General’s Office has tips for online shoppers. They say beware of pop ups. Never give out your social security number and try to use websites with https in the suffix. The ‘s’ stands for secure, but Attorney General spokeswoman Sandi Copes says even web addresses with https aren’t foolproof.

“Someone could have purchased that secure site, and sure your information is secure, but it could securely be going to a scam artist. So just be mindful of that. Shop with caution, do your research and be educated,” said Copes.

Copes says shoppers should use trusted sites and if a deal seems too good to be true, then it probably is.

Posted in Economy, State Budget, State News, Taxes | 1 Comment »

FHP: All Hands on Deck

November 24th, 2010 by flanews

A huge spike in holiday travel can be seen on Florida’s roadways today. Triple A estimated 2.2 million Floridians are making Thanksgiving trips, up 11 percent from last year. 94 percent are traveling by car. As Whitney Ray tells us, Florida Highway Patrol is responding with all hands on deck.

FHP Trooper Mark Baker is looking for speeders, and it doesn’t take long until he catches a driver going 83 in a 70.

Baker issues a warning and quickly pulls up next to another trooper on Interstate 10.

And just minutes after the first stop trooper Baker caught another traffic violator. This one wasn’t following Florida’s ‘Move Over’ law.

Drivers are supposed to pull one lane over when passing a trooper conducting a traffic stop. If they can’t get out of the way, they’re supposes to slow to 20 miles below the speed limit.

“She was unable to move over because there was a semi next to her. That’s fine, but you need to drop to 20 below the posted speed limit. I turned my rear radar on and clocked her around 65, 70 MPH,” said Baker.

Trooper Baker wrote the driver a warning. He’s just one of thousands of troopers watching the roads now through Sunday. It’s all hands on deck at FHP.

“Everybody from the office, basically everybody is coming out to come help protect the roads, make it a little bit safer for everybody to travel,” said Baker.

The Danford family is glad to hear it. After hearing reports of increased travel, the family loaded up the minivan early Wednesday morning in Jacksonville and headed to New Orleans.

“People are traveling on at a brisk pace obviously, but they don’t seem to be in that much of a hurry,” said Richard Danford.

FHP is asking drivers to be courteous on the roads and obey speed limits this travel season. If you don’t, expect to see blue lights.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Tow and Go

November 24th, 2010 by flanews

Drivers who have too much to drink this holiday season can catch a ride from Triple A and Budweiser and not have to worry about finding their car in the morning. The Tow and Go program begins today and runs through January 2nd. People who’ve had too much to drink can call 1-800-AAA-Help and a tow truck will pick up them and their vehicle. Brenda Smith with AAA says since the programs inception in 1998, they’ve kept nearly 12-thousand drunk drivers off the road.

“We come, collect the keys to the vehicle, then go in and collect the driver. The driver goes into the AAA wrecker with the AAA driver and we take you to your home. So everyone is safe,” said Smith

AAA keeps the rides confidential.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

No Turkey for Lawmakers

November 24th, 2010 by flanews

State lawmakers will need to fill up on turkey this Thanksgiving because legislative leaders say there’s no room for the birds in the state budget. Turkeys are special projects lawmakers sneak through the budget process. Florida’s new House Speaker and Senate President say there will be no money this year for Community Budget Issue Requests (CBIRS). Florida TaxWatch, a nonprofit research group, combs the budget every year to uncover government waste. Spokesman Robert Weissert says legislative leaders are moving in the right direction.

“The legislature is sending the right signal of fiscal responsibility. We are really going to clamp down, focus on the core, vital services and find a way to fill the budget hole without raising taxes,” said Weissert.

Last year a similar call was made, but 61 million dollars worth of projects that didn’t go through the normal legislative process made it into the state budget. The last time TaxWatch found no turkeys was 2003.

Posted in State Budget, State News | No Comments »

Eyewitness Testimony Faulty

November 23rd, 2010 by Mike Vasilinda

The Florida Innocence Commission has been told more than 200 inmates in Florida prisons are incarcerated based upon faulty eyewitness testimony. More than two dozen inmates have been freed based on DNA evidence in recent years, but DNA isn’t always available.

Rudolph Holton was released from prison in January 2003 after spending 16 years there based on unreliable eyewitness testimony. On the day he was released he was asked “Did you ever think this day would come, 16 years sitting there?”

His response: “Yes, but I needed the right attorneys.”

In 2006 Alan Crotzer was freed after almost 25 years behind bars. DNA proved he didn’t commit the rapes that sent him to prison. He says his case proves eyewitnesses can be wrong.

“Especially when its a cross-racial identification involved, you know, if i said that we all look alike but from one race to another, but when you cross racial identification, identifying someone, you can be wrong,” Crotzer said.

Really Wrong. Evidence shows that one in three eyewitness identifications are just flat out wrong.

At the Innocence Project a thousand or more new cases are examined each year. President Mike Minerva is a former public defender who has examined hundreds if not thousands of eyewitnesses.

“Eyewitness identification is really opinion testimony. It’s someone’s perception of what they saw, or what they thought they saw,” Minerva said.

But Minerva says there are ways to improve eyewitness testimony, including not showing the witness a batch of photos at the same time.

“Show a witness a group of pictures they are going to try and pick someone out” he said.

Experts suggest there are at least 200 innocents behind bars because of faulty eyewitness identifications.

Experts also recommend police use detectives who are not involved in a case or who do not know who is a suspect when they are showing pictures to a witness. They also suggest showing the pictures one at a time rather than in a group.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Economic Recovery Coming Slowly

November 23rd, 2010 by flanews

Florida’s economy will rebound it’s just going to take time. State economists say a million jobs will be created in Florida by 2018. As Whitney Ray tells us, that’s not fast enough for many college students and Florida’s 1.1 million unemployed who want work now.

His plan to fix the economy and get people back to work won Governor-Elect Rick Scott a chance to make good on his promises.

Scott says he can create 700-thousand jobs in seven years. State economists say a million jobs will be created in the same period of time because of the natural peaks and valleys of the economic cycle.

Rob Weissert with Florida TaxWatch says despite the report Scott and newly elected GOP leaders will still have a vital role to play in the recovery.

“They do have a huge role in making sure we have the right business environment. That’s incredible important for all elected officials to be focused on,” said Weissert.

But whether it’s Scott or the cyclical economy creating jobs, Florida’s 1.1 million unemployed have a rough row to hoe. Students at Florida State University say seven years is too long. John Cleland will graduate in less than four years.

“It’s definitely difficult, like I’ve been looking for jobs. I’ve had jobs. It’s definitely difficult to get a job,” said Cleland.

Ugandan student James Arinitwe will need a job after graduation to stay in the states.

“It worries me a lot, especially for me graduating as an international student. We have that window to get a job. If you don’t get a job you have to go back home,” said Arinitwe.

But once the recovery starts economist expect gains in the job market to be expediential. Scott’s transition team says the 700-thousand jobs the Governor-elect plans to create over the next seven years is on top of the million predicted by state economists. 1.7 million jobs would not only put the 1.1 million unemployed back to work, but also the jobless who don’t show up in labor statistics because they’ve stopped looking for work.

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

Trouble in Toyland

November 23rd, 2010 by flanews

Christmas and Hanukah presents are suppose to bring joy to kids, but they could also bring death.

Florida Public Interest Research Group is warning parents of dangerous toys for sale this holiday season. PIRG tested toys for toxic chemicals, choking and suffocation hazards. Brad Ashwell a spokesman for the group says many of the toys on the list meet minimal government safety standards.

“Even one toy related death is too many and that’s why we really need stronger limits on the amount of chemicals that can be placed in toys,” said Ashwell.

PIRG released its 25 annual Trouble in Toyland report today. This year there’s a website accessible on smart phones to help parent to read the report as they shop. The address is www.toysafety.mobi

Posted in Children, State News | 1 Comment »

Quadruple Murder

November 22nd, 2010 by flanews

Police are trying to track down the person or persons who brutally murdered a family of four. The bodies of a mother and her three kids were found Saturday morning in their Tallahassee home. As Whitney Ray tells us, the grieving process is underway for students who went to school with the young victims.

Gabrielle Emery lost a neighbor, and her three kids lost playmates after someone brutally murdered a family of four in their Tallahassee neighborhood.

“It’s a tragedy. It kind of shakes me up and makes me protect my kids a little more,” said Gabrielle.

It’s still too early in the investigation for police to talk about what happened in this home over the weekend, but some officers say it’s the most gruesome crime scene they’ve ever witnessed.

Monday forensic investigators from Georgia assisted Tallahassee police, looking for fingerprints and DNA. A recent string of burglaries in the area suggest a random attack, but investigators say there were no signs of forced entry leading them to believe the victims knew the killer.

“We are not sure exactly how they got into the house or was this someone who was known to the family,” said McCranie.

A Facebook page memorializes victims Brandi Peters, her three year old son and twin six year old girls.

And the news of the murders reached the twins kindergarten classes Monday morning where administrators were prepared with grief councilors. The classes flipped through a photo album of the girls and drew pictures in remembrance.

“Our psychologist explained to them this morning that the girls were going to heaven and they started talking about their animals that were in heaven and other relatives so they understand that they are gone and they will not be coming back,” said Pam Hightower, the principal at Bond Elementary.

And while the community grieves, the long arm of the law is searching for clues to find out who would have attacked this defenseless family just days before Thanksgiving.

Tallahassee Police need help tracking down Peters’ extended family. They’re asking anyone who knew 27 year old Brandi Peters to call them at 891-4200.

Posted in Criminal Justice, State News | 19 Comments »

Students Pitch in to Feed Homeless

November 22nd, 2010 by flanews

A group of Florida State University students is collecting donations to feed the homeless.

The FSU Public Interest Research Group has already collected 500 hundred dollars. They plan to use the money to feed homeless people in Tallahassee Tuesday night before they leave home for the Thanksgiving holiday. FSU PIRG member Chris Norcross says student have been generous.

“One student dropped a 20 dollar bill. Some days we get 10 dollars from some students so it’s been very successful,” said Norcross.

The group is almost at its goal of 6-hundred dollars. FSU PIRG is a non-profit, non-partisan activist group trying to get students involved in voting, government and charity work.

Posted in Economy, State News | 1 Comment »

Unemployment Rate Stagnant

November 19th, 2010 by flanews

Florida’s unemployment rate is holding steady at 11.9 percent, according to labor statistics released today. The rate remains high as people looking for work are getting word from Washington that there’s no more money to extend benefits. As Whitney Ray tells us, extending the benefits would cost taxpayers 12 billion dollars.

Mary Johnson lost her restaurant job in late 2008. With no unemployment benefits, she’s living on food stamps and doing odd jobs.

“Sales and lots of cleaning jobs,” said Mary.

Some Floridians will soon need a lesson in survival from Mary. At the end of the year three federally funded unemployment programs are set to expire and thousands will have no income.

“We estimate that approximately 100-thousand Floridians will lose these benefits on or around December 4th, and approximately 40-thousand a week thereafter,” said Robby Cunningham, a spokesman with AWI.

A stalemate in Congress is causing the benefits to expire. Lawmakers could reach an agreement in December to reinstate some of the programs, but with Congress making a right turn with new members in January any extension could be short lived.

At issue is borrowing 12 billion dollars to extend the benefits for three months. Conservatives say we can’t afford it, but they are anxious to pass a 200 billion dollar tax cut for the wealthiest Americans. In the meantime state business taxes are tripling to pay for the unemployed.

“It will difficult for many businesses to afford that kind of an increase at a time when they’d rather be spending dollars hiring new employees,” said David Hart with the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

The tax won’t come down until Florida’s unemployment rate drops. Labor statistics released Friday show the state’s unemployment rate stagnant at 11.9 percent.

The Agency for Workforce Innovation will be working over the Thanksgiving weekend to help people find out if their federal benefits are in jeopardy. They are also asking job seekers to logon to Employflorida.com to look over the more than 200-thousand jobs posted there.

Posted in Economy, State News, Unemployment | 1 Comment »

Unemployment Taxes Go Up Jan 1st.

November 19th, 2010 by flanews

State unemployment taxes are tripling to help pay unemployment benefits.

Florida’s unemployment rate remains at 11.9 percent. Nearly 1.1 million Floridians are out of work. In January most businesses will see their per employee rate rise from 25 dollars to more than 70. How much a business pays depends on several factors including how many people the company has laid off or fired. David Hart with the Florida Chamber of Commerce says the only fix for the tax problem is job creation.

“The solution to this problem is getting Florida back on track in terms of job creation. As people go back to work that unemployment compensation tax rate will go down. So that’s the prescription and right medicine for this cold,” said Hart.

The Chamber of Commerce will be watching the newly elected members of the state cabinet and legislature to see that they make good on their promise to create jobs.

Posted in State News, Unemployment | 1 Comment »

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