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Judge to Decide if Pension Cash will be Held or Invested

June 30th, 2011 by flanews

A Leon County Judge will spend the night trying to decide if the state should set aside the pension contributions it will begin collecting from government workers tomorrow. Teacher and police unions are asking a judge to force the state to hold the money instead of investing it. As Whitney Ray tells us, holding the cash could cost the retirement system tens of million of dollars in earned interest.

Starting Friday, the state and some city and county governments will begin holding back three percent of their employees paychecks. A court case challenging the legality of the deduction has been scheduled for October.

Lawyers representing teachers and police officers were in court Thursday asking a circuit judge to force the state to put the money aside until a final ruling is issued.

Without the intervention of your honor there will not be a pathway to get the money back, said Ron Meyer, FEA attorney.

An attorney for the state told the judge holding the money instead of investing it would cost the state retirement fund millions of dollars.

Tens of millions of dollars would be lost in terms of investment opportunity, said Blaine Winship an attorney for the state.

But once both sides finished making their case, the bigger issue still remained.

That issue likely wont be decided until it reaches the Florida Supreme Court. In the meantime both sides will be debating the constitutionality of forcing state workers to contribute to their retirement.

The unions argue the forced contribution violates Florida statutes because a pension, fully funded by the state, is part of their contract.

Ron Meyer, the attorney representing the Florida Education Association, says both sides are committed to moving the issue through the courts quickly.

By the time it gets to the supreme court I would think we might be looking at a years litigation, said Meyer.

But until then the 655-thousand government employees in the Florida Retirement System will continue to see smaller paychecks.
The judge ended the hearing just before four this afternoon and is expected to make a ruling on the injunction, by email, before midnight.

Posted in State News | 1 Comment »

Pension Contributions Looming

June 29th, 2011 by flanews

Payday will come one day early for state workers this week. The Thursday pay checks will be the last state workers receive without an automatic three percent pay deduction for their retirement plans, unless, as Whitney Ray tells us, a lawsuit on behalf of teachers and police officers to block the contributions is successful.

Teachers, police officers and firefighters are among the thousands who will see smaller paychecks starting in July. A new state law requires a three percent contribution for the 655-thousand government employees in the Florida Retirement System. The law is being challenged by the teachers and police officers.

Anybody who has become a state employee entered state employment thinking they were getting one pension system and now all of a sudden they are getting an entirely different pension system, said PBA General Council Hal Johnson.

The proceedings begin Thursday. The unions want the pension money put aside until theres a final ruling on the legality of making state workers pay for their retirements.

The pension contribution plan has been in the works for more than a decade. This is a 233 page report released by Florida TaxWatch. Its full of cost savings ideas. The pension contribution was the top on the list. We spoke to TaxWatch President Dominic Calabro by phone.

Keep in mind that there is no contractual requirement that state government offers a job in state government or a spot in the Florida retirement system, so government employment and government service is not a right, its a privilege, said Calabro.

The contributions are expected to save the state 1.4 billion dollars a year, but if a judge rules in favor of the unions, it could actually cost the state money. Theyre asking a judge to return the money collected with interest.
Florida state workers are the lowest paid per capita in the country. Theyre also the only state workforce in the union until now, not required to contribute to their retirement.

Posted in State News | 4 Comments »

Whiley Vs. Scott

June 29th, 2011 by flanews

The Florida Supreme Court will decide whether or not Governor Rick Scott overstepped his authority when he froze new rules when he took office.

One rule he froze would have made it easier for Rosalie Whiley to apply for food stamps. Whiley is blind. A new rule would have allowed her to apply online. When it was put on hold she sued. Today the state Supreme Court heard her case. Eric Draper, with Audubon of Florida was on hand for the hearing. He says the rule freeze doesnt just affect disabled Floridians, it also hurts the environment.

Environmental rule making has gone dark. We dont know what is going on. These are rules that protect our springs, our rivers, our lakes from over consumption and they are rules that protect the Everglades, said Draper.

Shortly after Scott froze the rules in January he told reporters the freeze would speed up development and grow Floridas economy.

Posted in Environment, Rick Scott, State News | 5 Comments »

Fresh Food for Florida Schools

June 29th, 2011 by flanews

The apron and ladle of Florida school lunches has been handed over to the Commissioner of Agriculture. Commissioner Adam Putnam spoke to the Capitol Press Corps today about how he plans to make Florida students healthier. Putnam wants to put more fresh fruits and vegetables on school lunch trays.

I would like to build an infrastructure where you are seeing a lot of more fresh salad bars in the school system, particularly for the older grades, said Putnam.

Putnam is still working out the details of his plan. The federal government still has to give him the ok. If they do Putnam will officially take over school lunches in January of 2012.

Posted in State News | 1 Comment »

No State Ban on Fireworks

June 29th, 2011 by flanews

There will be no statewide ban on fireworks this Fourth of July weekend. Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam told reporters today there has been enough rain to make a case for the explosives, although county bans will likely stay in place.

Given the good rains that we have had in the last week I do not anticipate a statewide burn ban order coming from this office, said Putnam.

The number of wildfires has dropped by about half from a week ago when more than four hundred fires burned through the state.

Posted in State News, Weather | 1 Comment »

State to Visit Homes of Drug Users

June 28th, 2011 by flanews

Welfare recipients who fail a drug test and have kids will receive a visit from the state. The random tests begin July 1st. A rule being administered by the Department of Children and Families would require recipients who fail the test to be reported to the states child abuse hotline. As Whitney Ray tells us, a caseworker would then be sent to the welfare recipients home to offer help.

Random drug tests for welfare recipients who receive temporary cash assistance will begin July 1st. People who fail the tests and have kids will be reported to the states child abuse hotline. The Department of Children and Families will then send a caseworker to the house.

We spoke with DCF Spokesman Joe Follick on his cell phone. Follick says just because a welfare recipient is abusing drugs doesnt mean theyre are abusing their kids.

Reporter: Is drug abuse or drug use a reasonable action to remove kids from their homes?
Follick: You cant make that kind of statement because every family is unique.

Child Advocate and Director of the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy Karen Woodall says the tests and home visits are more regulation than is needed. She fears people who fail the test because they are taking prescription medication could have a harder time with the state.

Once you go down the path of referring people to child abuse hotlines if you dont know for absolute certain that theres a problem and that theres abuse and theres neglect, youre opening up a whole can of worms, said Woodall.

The American Civil Liberties Union says the random tests and follow up checks are a violation of the fourth amendment of the US constitution. The ACLU is watching the states actions and may file a lawsuit.

DCF says the purpose of the visit would be to offer assistance, but drug assistance programs funded with tax dollars would be off-limits, because the new law prohibits taxpayer help to welfare recipients that fail the drug test

Quick Facts

There are 93-thousand Floridians receiving temporary cash assistance.
The average recipient received 240 dollars a month.
DCF will randomly select 4-thousand recipients to test four times a year.
The tests cost about a hundred dollars a piece.
If the recipient passes the test, the state will reimburse the one hundred dollars.

Posted in Children, State News | 1 Comment »

State Worker Help Website

June 28th, 2011 by flanews

When the new state budget takes hold July 1st thousands of state, county, and city workers will have their jobs eliminated.

In preparation for the layoffs a coalition of career councilors, educators and charities in the eight counties surrounding the state capital are offering assistance. The group is launching a website to provide information about food assistance, unemployment benefits, networking and career advancement. Tallahassee Community College President Jim Murdaugh says the information provided on the website with help the thousands of job seekers to get back on their feet.

None of us wanted this to happen, we can start with that, but now that it has happened, we choose to look at the glass half full. We choose to say to those folks who are affected this is an opportunity to make some decisions for the rest of your life and we are here to help you, said Murdaugh.

The website is www.bigbendworks.com and is for people looking for work in the eight county surrounding Tallahassee, the areas where state worker are expected to feel the most pain.

Posted in State News | 1 Comment »

Water Vs. Fire

June 27th, 2011 by flanews

Florida firefighters are receiving a helping hand from Mother Nature. Weekend showers over much of the state helped extinguish about a hundred wildfires. More rain is expected through the fourth of July, but as Whitney Ray tells us, even if it rains all week, the drought is so severe it will barely put a dent in the fire danger.

At the height of Floridas wildfire crisis last week more than 4-hundred fires burned throughout the state. A wet weekend helped firefighters extinguish about a hundred of those fires and more rain is in the forecast.

State Meteorologist Amy Godsey says Florida is in for at least five rainy days.

A little bit higher further South, around toward southern and central Florida areas, but even in northern Florida above normal rain chances continuing through much of the week, said Godsey.

Most of the state will get about an inch and a half of rain. This is a six inch rain gage. Meteorologists say this will have to be filled twice before the drought condition subsides and the fire danger ends.

Florida Forestry Service Director Jim Karels buried two brave firefighters this weekend. The men died fighting a North Florida blaze. Karels says the week of rain is a good sign.

The summer pattern are starting to kick in possibly, thats what we need, we need that thunderstorm and they slowly feel in to where it gets better to where we can control it on a day to day basis, said Karels.

Despite the weekend of rain 32 counties remain under a burn ban and fireworks are on the outs in most of the state. Whether skies light up with fireworks this coming weekend will depend on how much of a soaking the state receives between now and then.

We said it in the past, but this weeks forecast really sheds light on just how much rain the state needs to come out of the drought. Firefighters say its going to take a tropical depression, which hovers over the state for a few days. Theyre hoping for a storm without strong winds.

Posted in State News, Weather, Wildlife | No Comments »

Progress Florida Questions Haridopolos Book

June 27th, 2011 by flanews

70 people have purchased a book written by Floridas Senate President Mike Haridopolos. The sales have brought in four hundred and eighty-eight dollars for Brevard Community College, the state school that paid Haridopolos 150-thousand dollars to write the book. Progress Florida, a left leaning political group, began investigating the sales a few months ago, after the deal between Haridopolos and the college was brought to light and critics claimed the book wasnt that good. Damian Filer, the groups political director says taxpayers are being ripped off.

He controls the first rings of this state, and I think the taxpayers have a right to know that while he cutting funding for our schools, hes putting money from the schools to his pocket, said Filer.

The book is called Florida History and Legislative Processes. Its 175-pages double spaced and its eBook version is for sale on Amazon for ten dollars.

Posted in Legislature, State News | No Comments »

Florida Highway Patrol Almost Disbanded

June 27th, 2011 by Mike Vasilinda

The Florida Highway Patrol has been patrolling Florida roadways since 1939. It was created to provide uniform traffic enforcement and investigation across the state, but as Mike Vasilinda tells us, there was a serious attempt this past legislative session to give the FHPs duties top local sheriffs.

Florida Highway Patrol troopers came close to wearing the green uniforms of Sheriffs deputies this past legislative session. The jobs of more than 1500 troopers were almost given to local sheriffs. It would have been the biggest outsourcing in recent history and it was backed by Governor Rick Scott. It was the Sheriffs, not the patrol, that pushed back and said no.

If a deal was worked out, the funding might be here one year and the funding could disappear in the next legislative session, Harrell Reid, president of the Florida Sheriff’s Association said.

The switch could have potentially raised local property taxes, but the fight is not over.

Tucked into a Senate Bill is legislation requiring a study of consolidating all law enforcement functions, everything from the FHP to the Fish and Wildlife Commission, Agricultural agents and more. That same legislation moved DOT officers who inspect large 18-wheelers to the Highway Patrol.

When state government reorganized in the late 1960s, law enforcement agencies were purposely kept apart so no one agency would have total control.

Rick Scott side stepped the question of why he was willing to transfer the Patrol to local sheriffs, and instead talked about what he hopes the study finds.

Its good to have a conversation about how can we do a good job with what the state ought to be involved with in law enforcement, Scott said.

The study is due before lawmakers meet in January.

Posted in Highways, Legislature, State News | 28 Comments »

Firefighter Laid to Rest

June 24th, 2011 by flanews

The first of two fallen Florida firefighters was laid to rest today. The men died Monday fighting a wildfire in North Florida. As Whitney Ray tells us, the battle to extinguish Floridas 350-thousand burning acres continues as friends and family of the fallen mourn.

Hundreds of friends, family and firefighters took time Friday to mourn the loss of 31 year old Josh Burch. Burch and his coworker Brett Fulton died Monday fighting a wildfire in Hamilton County.

Their deaths are sending shock waves of sorrow through the firefighting community.

And inside the sanctuary, it was standing room only as nearly one thousand friends, family, and coworkers remembered Josh as a father, husband and firefighter. But the one thing he will ultimately be remembered as is a hero.

A flag-draped coffin carried the fallen firefighter to his final resting place. Bagpipes played. People cried.

Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam thanked Josh’s family for his service.

“He leaves a rich legacy of his calling of his firefighting that all these other men and women in uniform will continue to affirm with their work everyday, said Putnam.

As hundreds of firefighters gave a final farewell to one of their own, thousands more continue to risk their lives, battling 350-thousand acres of Florida wildfires. The funeral for Brett Fulton, the other firefighter who died Monday, will be held tomorrow in Lake City at 10:00.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

NASA Vessel Visits

June 24th, 2011 by flanews

A space vehicle that will one day carry six astronauts to the International Space Station and beyond is first making a trip around the US. This weekend it is parked at the Challenger Learning Center in Tallahassee. The Multipurpose Crew Vehicle is being touted as the future of space exploration. MPCVs are smaller and set to replace space shuttles in 2016. Astronaut Charles Hobaugh hopes the new technology will help humans one day live beyond Earths orbit.

A single species planet really doesnt have a chance at living forever. Youve got to be able to explore what else is out there and look for the other homes and see if there is a way of colonizing outside of our own planet, said Hobaugh.

The last space shuttle launch is scheduled for July. The Orion program, which is responsible for the new space vehicle, is expected to save hundreds of jobs at the Kennedy Space Center.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Scotts Image

June 23rd, 2011 by flanews

Depending on which poll you look at Governor Rick Scott has one of the lowest job approval ratings in the country. A poll released this week, that opponents say is slanted in favor of Republicans, still shows that more than half of Floridians disapprove of the job Scotts doing. As Whitney Ray tells us, Scott says hes focused on jobs, not polls, but a retooling of his closest advisors suggests otherwise.

Go to RickScottforFlorida.com, click on the Take Action button and in just a few seconds you can send a prefabricated letter to seven newspapers, telling them what a great job Rick Scott is doing.

Even his mom is on the site boasting about her son. The RPOF website also has a link enticing Scott supporters to cheer on the Governor.

For those without computers there are robo-calls. There have been three so far. The Republican Party is sponsoring the canned messages from the Governor.

Its all in an effort to improve the governors image. And a less scientific poll by Republican operatives, suggests its working. They put Scotts job approval rating at 45 percent; a month after a more traditional poll said just 29 percent of Florida voters were pleased. Scott says hes not paying attention.

The real test is do we get our state back to work and thats the poll I look at, said Scott.

His opponents say the only way Scott will improve his image is by changing his policies.

The only thing that the governor should do is change course by changing his viewpoints and policies, said Eric Jotkoff, a spokesman for the Florida Democrats.

Changes coming to the Governors office may help. Two of his top advisors are on the outs and more seasoned politicos are expected to take their positions. Both the staff members leaving Scotts office were part of his team of outsiders. Several names have been circulating around Tallahassee about who might replace the advisors, with most political experts agreeing the governor needs people with more political experience.

Posted in Rick Scott, State News | 11 Comments »

Memorial Services for Fallen Florida Firefighters

June 23rd, 2011 by flanews

Funeral arrangements have been set and accounts set up for two Florida firefighters killed in action. Josh Burch and Brett Fulton were killed Monday in Hamilton County when a gust of wind swelled the fire they were fighting engulfing the two men. A memorial service for Burch is being held Friday. Saturday Fulton will be honored. Governor Rick Scott will not be attending the funerals but he did offer his condolences to the firefighters families.

Your heart just goes out to the families. Ive spoken to their spouses. Theres nothing you can say when something like that happens, said Scott.

Accounts have been set up in Gainesville at the SunState Federal Credit Union, and in Tallahassee at the FLAG Credit Union on behalf of the families. The Division of Forestry is also accepting letters of condolences on behalf of the firefighters families.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Wildfire Dangers Still a Concern

June 22nd, 2011 by Mike Vasilinda

Triple digit temperatures and little rain fall, especially in the Panhandle, is turning Florida into a tinder box. Much of the state remains in a drought, as Mike Vasilinda tells us.

As Wednesday began, 380 active fires were being fought. More than 400,000 acres of state and federal lands are burning, and in Hamilton County, where two firefighters lost their lives on Monday, cleanup operations continued on the Blue Ribbon Fire, now 100 percent contained.

We continue to have extreme drought, and dry, windy conditions, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said.

In 1998, one of the worst fire years on record, there were fewer fires, but they were larger. Interstates were closed and more than a hundred homes and businesses were destroyed. So far this year 20 houses have been lost.

But fires dot the I-4 corridor and affect every area of the state. Increasing rain is forecasted, but firefighters say storms can be a mixed blessing.

With that comes lightning, so we would just have more fires, State Forestry Director Jim Karels said. But if we can get rain, that 50 percent rain chance each day, it starts to get better.

Funeral arrangements for the firefighters who died on Monday are being made. The Department of Agriculture says there is a lesson in their deaths: fire moves quickly and unpredictably.

This fire really exploded in size in a very short period of time, Putnam said. And it caught them.

Florida remains so dry, 28 counties currently have burn bans and the list is growing daily.

The drought index is up 5 points since Tuesday, to 595. A ranking of 800 would be a desert.

Posted in Environment, State News, Weather | No Comments »

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