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Supreme Court Hears Redistricting Case

February 29th, 2012 by Mike Vasilinda

In 2010 voters overwhelmingly told state lawmakers to draw new political maps without any favoritism for those in the legislature. Today, the task of deciding if lawmakers followed voters’ instructions fell to the Florida Supreme Court. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, a divided court seemed unsure of what it should do next.

By a two-to-one margin, voters in 2010 told lawmakers to be fair when drawing new districts. Keep them small, keep them compact, don’t favor an incumbent or party, said voters. But what they meant has never been interpreted by Florida’s Supreme Court.

The court got differing advice. State lawmakers said the court should take their word for it–they followed voters wishes.

Coherent approach on how to apply and implement all of the standards,” George Meros, attorney of House of Representatives said. “This House map does so, and does so without any nefarious intent.”

But the City of Lakeland, which got split in two, says the city is a perfect example of not being compact or following political boundaries

Unless we redrew the whole map, we can’t help Lakeland,” Supreme court Justice Barbara Pariente said.

Yes, your honor, we think they should redraw the whole map,” the attorney for the city of Lakeland replied.

And the League of Women Voters and Fair Districts argued the maps still favor incumbents in the Senate, where none are pitted against each other. And they favor the GOP in the House.

Both maps build in a very significant advantage for the Republican party over the Democratic Party,” Paul Smith with the League of Women Voters said.

The court was told that interpreting what voters meant was their job and lawmakers shouldn’t be taken at their word.”

It could be fairer, that’s the main issue with the House,” Smith said. “But the Senate map, they disregarded a lot of this stuff and it’s a very biased map in terms of partisanship.”

The court has until next Saturday to rule on the maps.

Posted in Legislature, State News, Supreme Court | No Comments »

Concussion Bill Nears Finish Line

February 29th, 2012 by flanews

Every year thousands of Floridians suffer traumatic brain injuries. Many of the injured are high school athletes, who get back in the game after suffering a concussion. As Whitney Ray tells us, legislation would take the decision to keep playing out of the hands of players and coaches and make doctors decide.

High junior David Goldstein’s new game is politics. David suffered a concussion during a championship soccer game, and played through his injury.

“We were losing two nothing and I figured I need do everything I can for my team,” said David.

It was a dangerous decision.

“For over three months after my collision, I was sensitive to light and sound, my balance was distorted. I was depressed,” said David.

Athletes who keep playing after suffering a concussion risk brain injury or even death, but in the past it was expected; even applauded. Coaches would perform an on field test. A right answer got the player back in the game. There’s just one huge problem; most coaches aren’t doctors.

“For too long we have said you know what, shake it off, you’re fine, it’s just a bump on the head, go on and get back in the game,” said Flores.

State Senator Anitere Flores is sponsoring a bill requiring medical professionals to decide if an injured athlete can keep playing.

“It has to be someone trained in the management of concussion,” said Flores.

As for David, he’s back on the soccer field “There are bigger things than one game,” he said, and better equipped to protect his health.

The Florida High School Athletic Association has already adopted rules to protect players who’ve suffered concussions. A spokesman for the FHSAA says the legislation will help solidify their new rules.

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

Trails for Sale Bill Passes Senate

February 29th, 2012 by flanews

Your favorite walking trail may soon have a corporate sponsor. A bill to allow the state to sell naming rights to seven Florida trails passed the senate today. Senator Stephen Wise is sponsoring the trails for sale bill. Wise says it will help keep the trails funded in a tough budget year.

“I think it will be a way to have additional dollars to upkeep those trails and I think it’s going to be a great way to do it,” said Wise.

The bill would only allow the sponsorship signs in parking lots and trail access points. The bill now moves to the House.

The Seven Trails
Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail
Blackwater Heritage Trail,
St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail
Nature Coast State Trail
Withlacoochee State Trail
General James A. Van Fleet State Trail
Palatka-Lake Butler State Trail

Posted in Legislature | 1 Comment »

Civil Rights Hall of Fame

February 29th, 2012 by flanews

The first three inductees into Florida’s Civil Rights Hall of Fame were named today.

Former Florida Senator Claude Pepper, Mary Bethune, and C.K Steele were all inducted postmortem. Pepper sponsored the Equal Rights Amendment. Bethune created a school for black girls that later became Bethune-Cookman University. Steele protested segregation and helped organize the Tallahassee Bus Boycott. Florida Representative Alan Williams sponsored the bill that created the state Civil Rights Hall of Fame.

“The legacy built by these inductees is one we must carry today. We carry it now in our state’s history. We must carry it with everything that we do,” said Williams.

The Civil Rights Hall of Fame is located on the first floor of the state capitol. Plaques with a picture and story of each inductee will be posted on the wall. Every year someone who fought for civil rights in Florida will be added.

Posted in Civil Rights, Legislature, State News | 3 Comments »

TaxWatch, Children’s Advocates Rally Late in Session

February 29th, 2012 by flanews

Laws to help better educate preschool students in Florida are under attack, according to a group of children’s advocates. Legislation to make testing for learning disabilities and speech impediments in Pre-K students optional is close to becoming law. Today Florida TaxWatch joined with the Children’s Movement of Florida at the state capitol to ask lawmakers to keep the test mandatory. TaxWatch President Dominic Calabro says in the long run the investment will pay off.

“While there’s not causality, there is a correlation between better learning and reduced delinquency and crime and thats where the TaxWatch Center for Smart Justice has been very supportive of these endeavors,” said Calabro.

Lawmakers are also considering limiting the number of early learning coalitions throughout the state to 25.

Posted in Children, State News | 2 Comments »

Unaccompanied Youth, Score Big Legislative Win

February 29th, 2012 by flanews

Five high school students are changing lives and state law tonight. These Armwood High School students helped create legislation to help teens who have been abandoned by their parents, but are too old to enter foster care. They’re called unaccompanied youth and in many cases they can’t get a drivers license or participate in school activates because they don’t have parents to give their consent. Twenty-one kids at Stephanie Walker and Tori Wilson’s high school face those problems everyday.

“They can’t get their birth certificate. They can’t get their license. They can’t sign a lease for a house, so they are pretty much homeless. We just really want to better their future because they pretty much can’t do anything without any of those documents,” said Walker.

“A lot of our students at school are going through this right now and I’m even in classes with some of them and it’s humbling to know I would be able to help them out,” said Wilson.

State Representative Rich Glorioso sponsored the bill. It came out of a contest he hosts called “It ought to be a Law.” The contest allows citizen to propose legislation.

“This will allow them to get their rights and take care of themselves. There are a lot of organizations helping these kids, but they can’t help them if they don’t have the identification. This gives them the identification,” said Glorioso.

The bill has passed both chambers and is headed to the governor’s desk. If he signs it, the estimated 65-hundred unaccompanied kids will have an easier time getting identification, applying for college and landing a job.

Posted in Legislature, State News | 1 Comment »

University Funding on Track

February 28th, 2012 by Mike Vasilinda

House Agrees with Senate Funding Plan after standoff.

A disagreement over University funding almost scuttled an on time agreement on the state budget. The House wanted to cut higher Education funding by 200 million. The Senate chose to use four hundred million in cash reserves being held by the universities. Late this afternoon, the House agreed with the Senate plan for Higher Education funding. Senate appropriations Chairman JD Alexander says the Senate was in no mood to cut University funding.

“I don’t believe the Senate would support a two hundred million dollar recurring cut to ongoing University operations. It’s hard enough to ask for some of the cash, excess cash back. We all are struggling with that” Alexander told reporters.
By using the University reserve cash, the Legislature is able to avoid deeper cuts in health and human service needs and other programs. Lawmakers have until midnight next Tuesday to reach an agreement that will send them home on time.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

New School Grading Scale

February 28th, 2012 by flanews

Making the grade just got harder for Florida schools. The State Board of Education passed tougher grading requirements in Tallahassee today. The Board conceded some of the strictest rules it was considering after parents and teachers complained, including a rule to give schools an automatic F if less than a fourth of its students can read at their current grade level. Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson says the meeting was productive for two reasons.

“Number one we want to move forward, we want an accountability system based on where Florida stands, we think that’s important. Number two, is a lot of dialog. You saw democracy in process, the give and take of how we should move and where we should move,” said Robinson.

The board discussed counting test scores from students with disabilities and students with English as their second language in the school grades. Rosanne Wood, a retired high school principal, says punishing schools for the challenges of their students isn’t fair.

“For these at-risk students who are having trouble graduating, instead of punishing schools if they don’t graduate on time, reward them for every student they do get to graduate on time and then the schools would be saying come on in,” said Wood.

The board voted to form a task force to study how to hold schools accountable for their disabled students without being too harsh.

Posted in Education, State News | 6 Comments »

Animal Rescue Act

February 28th, 2012 by flanews

It’s called the Animal Rescue Act, but tonight some animal rights activists are urging lawmakers to vote against it. Yesterday PETA released video of an animal rescue shelter in Madison County, where 700 cats were being kept in filth and disease. They say the animals were victims of hoarding. As Whitney Ray tells us, PETA says if lawmakers pass the Animal Rescue Act pet hoarding will run rampant…. We must warn you… some of this video may be hard to watch.

They were supposed to be rescued, but their safe haven became their hell.

Seven hundred cats were found at a rescue shelter 50 miles east of the state capitol, living in filth and disease. An undercover PETA investigator shot this video showing dozens of cats suffering from upper respiratory infections.

The disease was passed from feline to feline. Many of the animals died. PETA says the cats were victims of hoarding.

And the animal rights group warns, hoarding could expand under a well-meaning bill in Tallahassee. The Animal Rights Act would require government shelters to try to find no kill shelters for all its animals before they are euthanized.

Sonya White runs a no kill shelter. She says there isn’t enough room to adequately care for all of Florida’s stray cats and dogs.

“We don’t have the resources available,” White.

White says if the Animal Rescue Act becomes law, people who mean well will open up shelters, but not have the resources to take care of the pets.

“There are people who are not capable financially or with other resources to handle rescuing animals,” said White.

Senator Mike Bennett is sponsoring the Animal Rescue Act. He says his bill is about saving cats and dogs, and there’s no proof it would create more hoarding.

“We should encourage, instead of euthanizing these animals, encourage people to adopt them,” said Bennett.

Two-thousand animals are euthanized every day in Florida. Bennett and PETA disagree on how to immediately lower that number, but agree spaying and neutering helps. So far 250 cats have been removed from the shelter in Madison County. The cats are being taken to shelters in Jacksonville. Some of the animals are in such poor health they may have to be euthanized.

Posted in Legislature, State News | 6 Comments »

High School Athlethic Rules Change Under Fire

February 28th, 2012 by Mike Vasilinda

Major changes to High School athletics could be coming to a public school near you if several state lawmakers have their way. Legislation pending at the state Capitol would require public school athletic programs to allow immediate transfers from both public and private schools. The legislation has athletic officials up in arms.

800 schools belong to the Florida High School Athletic Association. It regulates when athletes are eligible to play and whether they have to sit out for a period after transferring. State Senator Steve Wise would change all of that. Wise’s legislation would allow students to be eligible to play immediately after transferring from either public or private schools.

“If there’s no basketball team at your school, or no football team at your school, why can you not go to another school and play, because maybe, your parents want you at this small private school” says the term limited legislator.

The change is drawing heat from the existing high school athletics governing body.

Opponents say the change will only open the door for athletes shopping for high schools where they want to play, encourage coaches to actively recruit and cut secret deals with private schools, and they say it will make academics second to athletics.

Ron Sachs represents the Florida High School Athletic Association. He says the legislation would be setting a bad precedent. “It would turn high school sports almost into professional promotion of coaches luring athletes from their own schools just so they can bolster their own teams. You can’t do that. It’s against the rules. Changing the law so that you can break those rules is a bad idea and it teaches bad sportsmanship to kids all over the state” says FHSAA spokesman Sachs.

State rules currently say that once student-athletes practice for one school during a school calendar year, they can’t play at another school that same year without receiving a waiver. The legislation is ready for a vote on the House floor and has one more committee stop in the Senate before being voted upon by the full Senate.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Schools as Gathering Places

February 28th, 2012 by Mike Vasilinda

State Representative Peter Nehr wants to return public school playgrounds back into community centers. Nehr has legislation requiring school districts to allow outside activities on school grounds during non school hours. Nehr says that’s the way it was when he was growing up…but changed in recent years.

“All of a sudden, because of law suits, schools started to close up all of their facilities. So now, most schools in Florida have a fence around them with a padlock. You can’t get in.. It’s ridiculous. Kids are being forced to stay home, watch video games, and they are doing all kinds of things that are not conducive to good health” says Nehr.

The legislation, which is set for a final vote in the state House on Wednesday, would exempt schools from lawsuits when they are doing the right thing making facilities available.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Children’s Hospitals Face Life-threatening Cuts

February 27th, 2012 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s fourteen children’s hospitals are facing cuts ranging from 98 million in the Senate budget to just under 50 million in the House budget. Parents call the cuts devastating, and as Mike Vasilinda tells us, parents from across the state went to the Capitol today to say, “please don’t do this.”

A Tampa mother with a wheelchair bound daughter,

It could be you, it could be your child that’s in this situation,” Tisha West said.

an Orlando father who was told his son would only live hours,

J.P. will enter the third grade next year,” Jeff Cousins said.

A Ft. Lauderdale mother whose daughter was born premature.

Our lives would be very, very different if these things weren’t made available to us,” Susan Elmore said.

All came to the Capitol to complain that cuts to Children’s hospitals could cost lives.

These cuts may spell the end of programs that are saving children’s lives,” Lindy Kennedy with the Safety Net Hospital Alliance said.

Keith and Tammy Smith’s daughter Rachel spent the summer on a ventilator waiting for a new heart. Monday she was with her parents. Keith says without medicaid funding, the family couldn’t afford Rachel’s prescriptions.

She got real weak,” Keith Smith said. “To see her up, walking about now, is just a real miracle.”

Lawmakers have just over a week to get their budgets done and there are significant differences between the way the House and the Senate treat children’s hospitals.

We asked Senator Joe Negron, the man in charge of healthcare funding, what he would say to the parents.

Our goal between now and when session ends is to reduce and mitigate the rate reductions as best as we can,” Negron said.

In the end, the programs are likely to see some cuts. But whether that saves money is up in the air, since many parents will just start showing up at emergency rooms where care is much more expensive.

None of the parents who went to Tallahassee today said they ever thought they would need government assistance for their children. But two of every three children served in a children’s hospital receive Medicaid assistance.

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

Citizens Bill Ready for Senate Floor

February 27th, 2012 by flanews

Everyone with a property insurance policy in Florida is paying for hurricane damage from 2004 and 2005. The reason, Citizens Property Insurance didn’t have the cash on hand to pay all its claims. The state run insurer of last resort has now grown to 1.4 million policies. As Whitney Ray tells us, state lawmakers are trying to lower the risk, but disagree on how it should be done.

If you insure a house, a car or even a boat in Florida, you may be shocked to know that your policy includes charges for hurricanes that hit in 2004 and 2005.

Stephanie Wilson’s car insurance policy includes a 10 dollar assessment for those storms.

“I don’t think it’s fair,” said Wilson.

The average homeowner pays 30 bucks a year. Those payments will continue through 2017.

Citizens Property Insurance has more risk than reserves, and since the state runs Citizens, when it can’t pay its claims, the costs are passed on to every policyholder in Florida through emergency assessments.

State Senator Garrett Richter is sponsoring legislation to lower the risk by allowing out-of-state insurance companies to take Citizens policies.

“Citizens of Florida are on the hook for 500 billion dollars in exposure if hurricanes come and I think everyone can agree that we need to shrink Citizens and take it back to insurer of last resort,” said Richter.

State Senator Mike Fasano agrees that Citizens is taking on too much risk, but opposes the bill because the companies that would write the new policies are out of reach of Florida regulators.

“They have no recourse if the insurance company, the out-of-state, unregulated surplus-lines company, were to all of a sudden, which they will, raise rates because they don’t have to get approval from the Office of Insurance Regulation,” said Fasano.

If nothing is done and a major storm hits a large Florida city, emergency assessment could jump from 30 dollars a year, to more than 400. The bill has already passed the House. If it passes the Senate and is signed in to law, out-of-state companies could begin taking customers from Citizens. The customers they pick would receive a notice in the mail. If a policyholder didn’t want to leave Citizens, they would have to respond to the letter.

Posted in Hurricane Season, Insurance, Legislature, State News | No Comments »

Senator and Representatives Start Your Engines

February 27th, 2012 by flanews

We are just hours away from the start of the Daytona 500. Rain delays have thrust the race in to prime time for the first time ever. The race comes as state lawmaker debate a bill to make NASCAR Florida’s official state sport. Senate President Mike Haridopolos says he’s a fan and is willing to let his chamber vote on the bill.

“I don’t know if it should be the official sport. It is the place where NASCAR was born. 250-thousand people go to the race and it has a great economic impact. I would have no objection if that comes up for a vote,” Haridopolos.

NASCAR was born out of stock car races on a stretch of Daytona Beach. The Daytona 500 official begin was 1959.

Posted in Legislature, State News | No Comments »

Session Could Run Long

February 27th, 2012 by flanews

The 2012 Legislative session may run long. It’s scheduled to end in two weeks, but a ruling on last year’s pension contribution bill could keep lawmakers in Tallahassee longer than expected. If the judge rules in favor of state workers who say the three percent contribution bill was passed illegally, Senate President Mike Haridopolos may ask lawmakers to stay late.

“Clearly we believe what we did last year is the correct thing, saving the state over a billion dollars not only last year but in years to come, and it’s what I believe 47 other states already do, asking state employees to contribute to their pension program,” said Haridopolos.

Redistricting may also keep lawmakers long. New district maps are being challenged in front of the state Supreme Court Wednesday. If the justices find faults, lawmakers may be asked to stay and fix the mistakes.

Posted in Legislature, State News | No Comments »

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