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Florida Conservation Coalition

November 30th, 2011 by flanews

A group of environmentalists are fighting to reverse policy changes they say have jeopardized Florida’s water supply. A nonpartisan group of politicians, environmentalists and citizens joined to form The Florida Conservation Coalition. As Whitney Ray tells us, the coalition says massive budget cuts and blows to the state’s land buying program could are threatening Florida’s drinking water.

Turn on the tap and you expect safe drinking water, but that may not be the case soon says this group of environmentalists and politicians who claim cuts to conservation programs threaten the water supply.

“2011 Reversed 40 years of Florida’s progress in water and land conservation,” said Graham.

Former Governor and US Senator Bob Graham now serves as head of the Florida Conservation Coalition. Graham says a 700 million dollar funding cut to the state’s five water management districts is destroying decades of conservation work.

“The water management district which has represented the state in the federal state partnership has been striped in terms of its professionals, its funding and its authority,” said Graham.

The cuts passed by lawmakers in May, resulted in hundreds of layoffs, including scientists and engineers.

Cutting the cash flow is also keeping the state from buying land for conservation near rivers and streams.

The cuts, helped state lawmakers balance the budget and give homeowners a 200 million dollar tax break, but Environmentalists say you can’t put a price on clean water.

“We want to stop the harm that’s being done right now to the environment then we can start talking about what we need to do to start fixing things,” said Eric Draper with Audubon of Florida.

In an op-ed published Sunday, Governor Rick Scott wrote a healthy environment is key to Florida’s Economy. The coalition plans to hold the governor to his words.

Posted in State News | 5 Comments »

FAMU Band Director Speaks Out

November 28th, 2011 by Mike Vasilinda

Orlando Sheriff’s deputies were due back in Tallahassee Monday to continue their investigation into the hazing death of drum major Robert Champion at the band’s last performance. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, fired FAMU Band Director Dr. Julian White spoke publicly today for the first time, telling reporters he did everything possible to prevent the tragedy.

Just over a hundred of FAMU’s band members prayed and chanted outside the university president’s office in support of their fired band director.

“I just know we need to support our staff,” band member Jonathan Williams said. “That’s all I know.”

They had come for a meeting with the University President that never happened.

President James Ammons was busy meeting with former Attorney General Bob Butterworth. Butterworth is the co-chair of a task force whose mission is to get to the bottom of hazing.

It has its work cut out.

Band founder William Foster was quoted more than a decade ago by the Tallahassee Democrat, saying that hazing has been around since the 1950s.”

Band Director Dr. Julian White is contesting his firing.

“I took the necessary steps,” Dr. White said.

White says he agrees with the first ever suspension of a college band and he says Robert Champion’s death could have been prevented if administrators had heeded his warnings.

“I wish they had suspended the students from school,” he said. “If some strong actions had been taken then Robert Champion may well be alive now.”

We asked why hazing has been so difficult to stamp out.

“Because it’s a culture, not just a Florida A&M culture, it’s a college phenomenon,” White said.

And as the investigation continues, university flags on the FAMU campus are at half staff.

Posted in Education, State News | No Comments »

Bright Futures for Grad School

November 23rd, 2011 by flanews

Proposed changes to the Bright Futures Scholarship program could encourage early graduation, free up space at state universities and keep the brightest students in Florida. As Whitney Ray tells us, the plan is to allow students to use Bright Futures for grad school and summer courses.

When high school senior Eric Feely begins his college career next fall, he’ll be on a fast track to graduation.

“I’ll have English out of the way for good. I’ll have science and math,” said Feely.

Eric takes duel enrollment classes and receives college credit while still in high school. He is in line to receive a Bright Futures scholarship. The award will pay for his undergraduate classes, but since Eric already has college credits, some of the scholarship may go unused.

Changes to Bright Futures being presented to state lawmakers next month, could allow Eric to use what’s left on grad school. Ed Moore is a member of the Higher Education Coordinating Council, the group recommending the changes. Moore says they would help keep the brightest minds in the state.

“It would help entice them to go to Florida graduate schools, if you go to grad school in Florida, you are most likely to stay in Florida and work in Florida,” said Moore.

The recommendations also include allowing students to use Bright Futures in the summer. Both changes would encourage early graduation and free up class space for incoming students.

Posted in Education, Legislature, State News | 4 Comments »

As Employees Wait, Pension Fraud Grows

November 23rd, 2011 by Mike Vasilinda

More than half a million public employees are the latest targets for investment fraud scam artists. Uncertainty over retirement contributions and the possibility governments will make changes in pension plans has, as Mike Vasilinda tells us, opened a new door for scam artists.

There are more than 550 thousand public employees enrolled in the Florida Retirement System. Since July, the state has been taking three percent of their paychecks as a retirement contribution. And that’s causing many to look at private pension plans that may not be in their best interests.

“We found that a number of those were charging very, very high commissions,” Wayne Blanton with the Florida School Boards Association said.

One person ended up with money they couldn’t touch for a decade.  Some plans are so complex that even career insurance regulator Robin Westcott says she has trouble understanding the policy.

“It is so important for consumers to be educated and understand the products that they are buying, especially in today’s economy,” Westcott said. “Many of our seniors have experienced this type of difficulty.”

More changes are almost certainly on the table as lawmakers struggle to make ends meet. Governor Rick Scott wants all new hires to go into what is called a defined benefits plan. That’s where employees manage their own retirement. Westcott says the best that you can do is think twice and ask questions.

“Talk to the agent that’s selling you that policy,” she said. “They should be knowledgable and informed. They are an agent of the company. They should understand the nuances of the product that they’re selling.”

In addition to asking questions, those planning for retirement should get several proposals. After signing a contract, customers have 21 days to cancel.

An independent investment council made up of public employers and public servants has received a 750 thousand dollar grant to educate public employees on what plans may or may not work for them.

Posted in Pension, State Budget, State Employees, State News | 2 Comments »

FAMU Band Activities Suspended in Wake of Student Death

November 22nd, 2011 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida A&M University President James Ammons has suspended all band activities following the death of Drum Major Robert Champion on Saturday. The cause of death is still being investigated, but rumors of hazing are rampant on campus and the school’s President says he will form a task force to end the unhealthy culture surrounding the band.

Drum Major Robert Champion collapsed and complained of trouble breathing after exiting the band bus in Orlando on Saturday. Junior Eugene Jones says campus is a buzz about what happened. “I’ve been hearing crazy things about how they were saying they were hitting the guy as he walking by the bus,” says the Gainesville resident.

The hazing reports are unconfirmed, but hazing at FAMU is nothing new. Earlier this year thirty students were suspended from the band for alleged hazing.

In 2001, a band member was hospitalized and recovered. Then five fraternity brothers stood trial in 2006 for alleged hazing. A prosecutor told the judge, “The hazing resulted in serious injury.”

On Tuesday, University President James Ammons held a hastily called news conference. He announced the end of all band activity until the cause of death is determined.  “This suspension is effective immediately” said the President.

Ammons is also forming a task force. He wants to look into the prevalence of hazing on campus, but he stopped short of saying that was what caused Champion’s collapse.

“Hazing is illegal. And is something that should not happen. I am committed to making certain that we end this practice” says Ammons.

Sheriff’s investigators from Orlando are on the FAMU campus investigating the death. Band members have been told to cooperate with police but were also threatened with losing their spot on the band if they talk with the media. Hazing is a third degree felony in Florida.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

FSU Food Bank Providing for Needy

November 22nd, 2011 by Mike Vasilinda

Since classes started in August, more than 200 FSU students down on their luck have taken advantage of a campus food bank. They don;’t need to prove they can’t afford to buy food, but they must show an ID. The cans and package goods are collected  from various campus events. Associate Dean of Students Robin Leach says the number of students in need is growing every year.

“It came about a couple of years ago with the economy the way it was and a student told us she didn’t have food and was in fact she was stealing food. So we just brainstormed and the residence halls were closing down, and we we used the first food from that, the first Chuck it for Charity a couple years ago and since then the response has just been overwhelming” says Leach.

Peanut butter, macaroni and cheese, and ramen noodles are the most popular items in the food bank.

Posted in State News | 5 Comments »

Trouble in Toyland: 26th Annual Report

November 22nd, 2011 by flanews

A warning to parents tonight, some of the presents on the selves this holiday season are dangerous. The Florida Public Interest Research Group released its 26th annual Trouble in Toyland report today. As Whitney Ray tells us, it highlights several dangerous toys and also tells parents what to watch for.

From pocket sized dinosaurs to toy motorcycles, the list of gifts that could bring more harm than cheer this holiday season is extensive.

These are just a few of the items that made the Trouble in Toyland Report released by the Florida Public Interest Research Group. This is the 26th year of the report. So far it’s help get 150 different toys off the shelves. Many because they present a choking hazard.

Using a toilet paper roll you can test a toy or a toy part to see if it’s a choking hazard for kids three and under. Just take the toy. Drop it over the rim… if it falls through the hole it’s too small.

There are other, not so visible dangers. Lead and other toxic chemicals can be hidden in paints and plastics. Some meet the minimum federal regulatory standards, but consumer advocate Brad Ashwell says that’s not good enough.

“The funny glasses have chemicals that cause reproductive disorders. Not so funny,” said Ashwell.

The danger doesn’t stop there.

Reporter: It’s too big to choke on and we are not sure if it’s toxic, what’s wrong with this toy?
Ashwell: This toy is excessively loud if held close to a child’s ear it could cause hearing problems.

One in five children will suffer hearing damage by their 12th birthday. Ashwell says dangerous noise levels are hard to test for, but if it sounds loud to you then it’s probably too loud for your child. For a list of toys PIRG says are unsafe you can visit their website toysafty.mobi. The sight is also available on mobile devices so consumers can look up a toy while they are shopping.

Posted in Children, State News | 1 Comment »

LIHEAP Cuts, Could Leave Thousands Cold

November 21st, 2011 by flanews

Federal Budget cuts may leave thousand of Floridians in the cold. To balance the budget congress is looking at a two billion dollar cut to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. As Whitney Ray tells us, one state lawmaker has found extra money for the program, but it’s not nearly enough to cover the proposed cuts.

Over the past two years the amount of unclaimed utility deposits has risen to 4.7 million dollars a year. Right now the money goes to the Department of Education. If the law is changed, education will have to find 4.7 million dollars somewhere or make cuts.

Patricia Walton and her fiancé Domingo are both disabled. They live on a fixed income and have to watch their utility costs closely.

“Right now I would say it’s 119. So I’m afraid it might get too high,” said Walton.

The couple wants to enroll in the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, but the money may not be there. Congress is calling for cuts to the program to balance the budget.

“We are barely making it. All my bills go directly on one check,” Walton.

The cuts would lower Florida’s portion from 110 million dollars a year to about 30 million. Dorothy Inman-Johnson runs a nonprofit that administers the program. She says the cuts would leave thousands of seniors without heat or air.

“We probably have enough money to operate from maybe two, three months and then we would probably be out of money,” said Inman-Johnson.

One state lawmaker has a plan to fill the void left by the federal cuts, using unclaimed utility deposits. State Senator Gary Siplin filed a bill that would bring in about four million dollars a year for the program.

“Seniors have to decide between paying their light bill, their prescription drug bill and buying food and I think that’s gross and unfair,” said Siplin.

The money is miniscule compared the 80 million dollars congress wants to cut. But the average benefit awarded in Florida is 500 dollars, which means not counting administrative costs, the money could help 8-thousand low-income Florida’s pay their bills.

Posted in Economy, State Budget, State News, Utilities | 2 Comments »

Bright Future Changes

November 21st, 2011 by flanews

A plan to encourage college students to finish their undergraduate degrees faster will be laid out for lawmakers before the end of the year.

One of the changes would allow students who finish their degrees early to use their left over Bright Futures scholarships to pay for grad school. Ed Moore, President of Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida, says it would free up enrollment space for more students and keep the best and brightest in the state.

“It would help entice them to go to Florida grad schools. If you go to grad school in Florida you are more likely to stay in Florida and work in Florida,” said Moore.

Moore is a member of the Higher Educating Coordinating Council in Florida. The group will give their plans to lawmakers before the end of the year.

Posted in Legislature, State Budget | No Comments »

Unemployment Hits 10.3 Percent, 28 Month Low

November 18th, 2011 by flanews

Some good news as we enter the holiday season. Florida’s unemployment rate is at a 28 month low. Labor statistic released today show unemployment fell to 10.3 percent in October as the state added 95-hundred jobs. As Whitney Ray tells us, the decrease comes as retailers are hiring 35-thousand seasonal workers for the holiday shopping season.

A job is on many wish lists this holiday season, and the timing may be just right. Retailers are expecting a slight increase in sales and plan to add more seasonal jobs

“Retailers are adding 35-thousand, 35-thousand, seasonal jobs, for Floridians this year,” said Florida Retail Federation President Rick McAllister.

4-thousand of those are JC Penney jobs. That’s 20 percent more than last year. Store Manager Ken Dehart says some of those positions will become permanent.

“I can stand here and honestly say in 28 years in the business, all in stores, I have never had to dismiss truly outstanding associate from our stores,” said JC Penney Tallahassee Store Manager Ken Dehart.

Florida’s unemployment rate hit a 28th month low Friday, down from 10.6 percent to 10.3. But the celebration will be short lived. There are still 955-thousand people out of work.

That means competition for the seasonal positions will be fierce, with many overqualified people in the hunt.

Department of Economic Opportunity Chief Economist Rebecca Rust says even if some of those overqualified seasonal workers land fulltime positions they could still be counted as underemployed.

“They could receive a higher wage job if the economy had openings available, so in that case, yes, it would still be considered underemployed,” said Rust.

If you count the underemployed and the people who’ve stopped looking for jobs, Florida’s unemployment rate climbs to 18.2 percent. The good news is, for 10 months it’s has been improving. Holiday hiring technically begins in October so some of those jobs are showing up in today release.

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

Proposed Parole Changes

November 18th, 2011 by flanews

56-hundred inmates sentenced to life before 1994 are eligible for parole every two years.

The reason: they were sentenced before life meant life in Florida. The parole hearings make it hard for families of the victims to rest easy. State Senator Greg Evers wants to change the hearings from every two years to seven years to give the families a little more breathing room.

“They are constantly living under the cloud that the perpetrator will be allowed out of prison. SO its every two years they have to go through this. So why do we allow them to re-victimize the victim to start with,” said Evers.

The bill was scheduled for a Senate hearing Thursday, but it was temporarily passed to give Evers time to work out some glitches with the House sponsor.

Posted in Criminal Justice, Legislature, State News | 4 Comments »

Fixing Assisted Living Facilities

November 17th, 2011 by flanews

A laundry list of recommendation to fix problems that led to the neglect and deaths of residents in assisted living facilities was given to state lawmakers today. Two senate committees joined forces to review the recommendations and discuss how they would be implemented. As Whitney Ray tells us, senators say they can’t let another session pass without reforming the industry.

The 12 deaths laid out in this senate committee report are gruesome. A 74 year old woman in Kendall, tied up for six hours, died trying to free herself. In Hialeah a 71 year old man was left in a tub of scalding hot water. The burns later killed him. The list goes on. The victims were residents of assisted living facilities in Florida.

Randy Gray can sympathize. He lost both his parents in separate nursing home accidents that could have been prevented.

“She was calling out for help but the people there considered her to be a complainer so they said they would catch her some other time,” said Gray.

Grey told a joint senate committee Thursday the only way to stop neglect is to put cameras in resident’s rooms.

Grey says the great thing about a camera is it can be hooked up online and family members using a pass code can watch their loved ones anywhere there is an internet connection.

Cameras were not part of a list of recommended fixes given to lawmakers. The list includes shutting down bad facilities sooner and giving the ombudsman more authority.

Brian Lee is Florida’s former ombudsman. He was let go after asking too many questions. Lee says the reforms area a good start.

“We would refer things to the agencies and then they would go out there, not see them and there would be no justice for the residents, so this really gives the ombudsman and opportunity to have more teeth,” said Lee.

Members of the joint committee say they can’t let another session pass without major reforms and have committed to drafting a bill. Other fixes include allowing the ombudsman to talk to reporters and penalizing assisted living facilities for past problems, even if the situation is fixed once the state investigates.

Posted in Legislature, State News | No Comments »

Mega Casinos’ First Hearing

November 16th, 2011 by Mike Vasilinda

Three of the world’s largest casino operators testified today that Florida could reap millions from allowing destination casino and convention resorts, although as Mike Vasilinda tells us one of the most enthusiastic operators called for a slow approach to expanded gaming.

This is what a two billion-dollar convention and casino would look like, according to Genting, the largest gaming operator in the world. Legislation being considered would create three such casinos. Colin Au, CEO of the gaming giant, used blunt language to brush back claims that casino expansion would cost the state jobs.

“That’s bull****. 95 percent would be from Miami-Dade and Broward,” Au said.

Two other gaming giants, MGM and Sands, as well as two unions agreed on job creation.

“There will be thousands jobs for construction workers,” Alan Feldman with MGM Resorts said. “That will be followed very closely by thousands more permanent, both direct and indirect, jobs.”

But existing South Florida dog and horse track casinos told lawmakers they could not survive without the same low tax rate as a mega gaming house.

“There’s going to be normal cannibalization when new gaming product comes into a market,” Don Mitchell with the Isle of Capri Casino said.

And one casino operator, Sands, suggested that three mega casinos are unsustainable.

“Our suggestion would be that they should start with one now and incentivize the maximum investment from a company, and then take it slow,” Andy Abboud with the Sands Corporation said.

No vote was taken.

Those counting the votes say the biggest problem was going to be in the Florida House. Making expanded gambling this year anything but a sure bet.

Only the Florida Restaurant Association came to the hearing to say no to expanded gambling. A Seminole Tribe representative was also there but did not speak. The latest gaming plan likely violates the states compact with the tribe and could result in the tribe cancelling payments.

Posted in Gambling, Legislature, State Budget, State News | 2 Comments »

Two Claims Bills Seek Passage in the Legislature

November 16th, 2011 by Mike Vasilinda

William Dillon and Eric Brody shook hands before a Senate hearing today. The two are the two most famous people seeking cash from the state. Dillon spent 27 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Brody had his future taken from him 13 years ago when a Broward Sheriff’s Deputy crashed into him. Brody is seeking 15 million from the state, which is half of what a jury awarded, and Dillon wants fifty thousand for each year he was in prison. A special master found most evidence used against Dillon was fabricated.

“For me it was the prosecutors not really looking into the justice in the sense of the actual truth of the evidence,” Dillon said. “And the detectives were basically just creating evidence. Anything that they thought would be favorable to the state.”

Reporter: Which was later discredited.

“All of it,” he said.

Both claims have the backing of the Senate President and will likely clear the Senate in the first week. The state house has so far resisted paying the claims.

Posted in Civil Rights, Criminal Justice, Legislature, State News | No Comments »

Gretna Gaming Expansion

November 16th, 2011 by flanews

A prime example of why sponsors of a resort-casino bill want a Department of Gaming was on display today near the state capital. The small city of Gretna is showing off its new barrel racing arena. Bets on races will begin next month, poker will soon follow, and eventually, if voters approve, slots. As Whitney Ray tells us, supporters of a resort-casino bill say it’s the type of gaming the state doesn’t need.

A new barrel racing track 30 miles west of the state capital is almost ready for action. A test run was held Wednesday. Next month the betting begins.

When the horses aren’t sprinting around barrels, people can play poker. And if voters approve in January, Creek Entertainment Gretna will add 2-thousand slot machines.

“We will work toward the plans that we have been presenting which show a very big build out and will be a resort destination here at I10 and Gretna,” said Jay Dorris, President of PCI Gaming Authority.

With a yes vote Gretna would have more slots than people. The town’s mayor says gaming will bring a hundred jobs to his poverty stricken community.

“I’m sure that we will have some opposition, but the main thing for people around here is, they are looking for jobs,” said Clarence Jackson, Gretna Mayor.

But this is exactly the type of gaming expansion sponsors of a resort casino bill say they don’t want. They say it preys on locals and doesn’t encourage the type of international tourism a mega resort casino would attract.

They want to open the doors to three Vegas-style casinos, and create a department to keep smaller gaming businesses out.

“One more operation is going to open up that is going to be predatory gaming. It’s going to work with the citizens of the state. It’s going to be regional only and it’s not going to bring in the international tourist,” said Senator Ellyn Bogdanoff.

The bill’s sponsors say in the long run the legislation would lead to a gaming reduction, but before the bill is voted on, people in Gretna will already be picking a horse and playing the odds.

Besides the expansion in Gretna, several other counties including Palm Beach are considering adding slot machines.

Posted in Legislature, State News | 1 Comment »

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