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Won’t Back Down Legislation

September 28th, 2012 by flanews

A drama with a controversial political message is debuting nationwide today. Won’t Back Down tells the story of a mother who fights to improve her daughter’s failing school, but as Whitney Ray tells us, that same story was told to state lawmakers earlier this year in a failed attempt to bring more charter schools to Florida.

Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a single mother, whose dyslexic daughter is being neglected at an inner city school. Won’t Back Down tells the story of how she and another parent tuned things around.

The movie is loosely based on a true story about parents in California who petitioned to turn a failing school into a charter school.

The real story inspired a bill in Florida call the Parent Empowerment Act. It would have allowed parents to petition the state to have their child’s failing school taken over by a charter school company.

But before all the silver screen drama, the story behind Won’t Back Down, brought political drama to here to the state capitol, during the final hours of the 2012 legislative session.

The Parent Empowerment Act was all but a sure thing, until questions arose over who would own the schools tax dollars built if a charter school company took over.

Teachers unions expect the bill to be back next year and say the movie proves a massive money campaign will accompany the legislation.

“Just imagine how much money the people that are backing this had to put up in order to get a major Hollywood production,” said Mark Pudlow with the Florida Education Association.

Won’t Back Down has a 35 percent rating by critics on Rotten Tomatoes, but 60 percent of people who watched the movie liked it.

California is the only state that’s passed the legislation, but the Parent Trigger bill is getting support from the American Legislative Exchange Council, which means lawmakers throughout the country will be asked to sponsor it in their state.

Posted in State News | 1 Comment »

Kindergarteners Learn Sex Abuse Prevention

September 27th, 2012 by flanews

Explaining sex abuse to a child may seem like a tall task, but one former victim has developed a lesson plan that addresses the sensitive subject head on, and as Whitney Ray tells us, it’s being taught to kindergarteners throughout the state.

By the smiles on their faces it’s clear these kindergarten students are having fun.
But they’re also learning and what they’re being taught could one day save their lives.

Their teacher is Lauren Book, a former sex abuse victim turned child advocate. In 2009, Book publically broke her silence about the years of abuse she suffered at the hands of her nanny.

For three years she’s walked the state to raise awareness. And now she’s turned her struggle into a six week course teaching kindergartener students how to avoid sexual predators.

“We do address the differences between safe touch and unsafe touch and we do that from a place of fun not fear,” said Book.

The course is in elementary schools statewide and through this picture book kids are taught how to report sexual abuse by explaining the difference between a safe secret and an unsafe secret.

Book: Let’s say that you have a secret to tell at school, who would you tell?
Kids: A teacher.

The program spares the children the ugly nature of abuse; instead it teaches them how to spot possible predators.

“Ninety percent of the time children are abused by someone they know, they love and they trust, so 90 percent of the time it’s someone in that familiar relationship, someone in that school. A lot of times kids think it’s someone wearing black, with messy hair,” said Book.

The program is called Safer, Smarter kids and it’s already expanded beyond Florida. The New York Yankees have just donated money to have the course taught in the Bronx.

After kids finish the Safer, Smart Kids Program in kindergarten they enter another program called Speak Up, Be Safe, which lasts through 5th grade. Florida is the first state in the union to implement sex abuse prevention courses for K through 5th grade.

Posted in State News | 3 Comments »

Florida’s Pension Trouble

September 26th, 2012 by flanews

A crisis is on the horizon for local governments trying to pay retired workers. A report by the Leroy Collins Institute released today shows most municipal pensions are underfunded and getting worse. As Whitney Ray tells us, if the crisis continues more of your tax dollars will be used to pay benefit instead of paying for services like police and fire protection.

Aurora Hansen has worked for the City of Tallahassee for 23 years. She’s nearing retirement and her government pension is a major factor in her future plans.

“It’s going to be very beneficial for living expenses and for our quality of life,” said Hansen.

Luckily for Aurora, Tallahassee has a healthy pension fund, but statewide the outlook is a bit more bleak.

According to this report released Wednesday by the Leroy Collins Institute, in 2010, for the first time in state history, payments to retirees in the typical Florida pension fund far outpaced the money coming into the fund.

“A troubling new trend may be emerging where annual payouts exceed contributions,” said Dr. David Matkin.

The report doesn’t provide a city by city breakdown. Instead it looks at the average pension in Florida from 2005 through 2011.

“We take on the tough issues. We take on the issues that maybe other people aren’t looking at and we want to take them on in some depth,” said Dr. Carol Weissert.

While the economy has hurt investments, the report claims Florida’s pension problems were around long before the Great Recession.

“These municipal pension issues were not created overnight and they can not be solved overnight,” said Matkin.

Researchers says cities will have to make tough decisions to avoid a major pension crisis, although they don’t fear any cities going bankrupt in the near future and they believe municipal workers will continue to collect their retirement.

This report looked at all of Florida’s 492 public pension funds. The funds cover 115-thousand workers. The report doesn’t offer solutions, but in past reports the Leroy Collins Institute has recommended increasing the retirement age and limiting retirement benefits government workers receive for working overtime.

Posted in State News | 2 Comments »

State, LWV Launch Voter Campaign

September 25th, 2012 by flanews

There is almost no path to victory for presidential challenger Mitt Romney that doesn’t include winning Florida. A key part of winning Florida is registering Republicans to vote. As Whitney Ray tells us, voter registration is way down when compared to 2008, but a campaign launched today aims to kick registration efforts for all parties into overdrive.

These FAMU students are registering people to vote, but they’re going to have to speed up their efforts if they plan on catch up with 2008’s voter registration numbers.

“I think there is definitely a catching up we need to do in Florida in regards to voter registration,” said Ciara Taylor.

There are a lot of ways to look at the data and a lot of factors involved, but if you compare January 2008 though July 2008, and then look at the same time period this year, you’ll see roughly 210-thousand fewer voters have registered.

But there’s still plenty of time to sign up before the General Election. Floridians have until October 9th to register. The Florida Division of Elections is launching a campaign to spread the word. Secretary of State Ken Detzner says the timing of the campaign is strategic.

“I think we are now entering a period of time when people are really focusing on the candidates. The conventions are over. We wanted to really hit the peak period of time,” said Detzner.

The state’s efforts are being supported by the League of Women Voters. Earlier this year the voter advocacy group joined a court challenge against a new 48 hour deadline for turning in registration applications. They won and now the deadline is 10 days.

“Over the next two weeks we are going to try to get as many people registered in person as we can,” said Jessica Lowe Minor with the League of Women Voters.

While the league awaited the court’s ruling it suspended registration drives for almost a year. Now efforts are underway to make up for lost time and lost voters.

The state campaign to get out the vote includes three PSAs which are slated to air in most Florida TV markets. The entire campaign is costing taxpayers about 30-thousand dollars.

Posted in State News | 1 Comment »

FAMU Hazing Prevention Week

September 25th, 2012 by flanews

Efforts continue at FAMU to inform students about the dangers of hazing.

The school has dedicated this week to hazing prevention. Students are learning about the campus penalties for hazing, the legal penalties and the health consequences. Senior Gary McLemore says the awareness efforts are working.

“It was really on the hush, hush but now since it has been brought up, people are actually more aware about it and more intrigued and want to know more about the hazing process and what we can do to stop it,” said McLemore.

And of course the secret practice of hazing at FAMU burst onto the national scene last November. That’s when Drum Major Robert Champion died after a ritual beating called Crossing Bus C. Champion’s parents are suing the school.

Posted in State News | 2 Comments »

Voter Purge, Not Before November

September 25th, 2012 by flanews

This week supervisors of elections will once again receive names of people who may be registered to vote illegally.

The names are part of the state’s renewed efforts to remove non-citizens from the voting rolls. Supporters of the voter purge efforts had hoped to see the illegally registered voters removed before the General Election but it looks unlikely that won’t happen. Secretary of State Ken Detzner says the efforts are about more than just this election.

“This process does not have a start, a beginning or an end. It’s very similar to the felon process or removing people who are mentally incompetent. It’s ongoing. It occurs during an election process,” said Detzner.

The state’s efforts to remove illegally registered voters were put on hold earlier this year because it couldn’t gain access to a federal immigration database. Now the state has access and already has confirmed more than 200 illegally registered voters.

Posted in State News | 1 Comment »

Bondi Declares Zero Tolerance for Human Trafficking

September 24th, 2012 by flanews

By some estimates, Florida has the third highest numbers of sex slaves in the country. Some of the victims are teens. Others are even younger. As Whitney Ray tells us, Attorney General Pam Bondi is on a campaign to end the racket.

Beaten and found unconscious on the side of the road, Shaquanna, 15 years old, shares her story about life as a sex slave.

“You got to come up with at least 500 and over. You got to. And then one night he sent me outside in the area that we live to make 500 dollars which is impossible,” said Shaquanna.

Shaquanna’s interview is featured in the movie Very Young Girls, which exposes the rampant problem of sex trafficking in New York. The problem is even worse in Florida, according to National Human Trafficking Resource Center.

In 2011 there were 20-thousand calls to the national human trafficking hotline. Most of those calls were from California, Texas and Florida.

Attorney General Pam Bondi is making it her mission to stop Florida’s sex trade.

“Florida will be, and is, a zero tolerance state for human trafficking,” said Bondi.

Bondi spoke at a summit on human trafficking in Tallahassee Monday. In Florida, an estimated 50-thousand people are forced to prostitute, pick produce or work at tourism related businesses.

“We know, that South Florida is ground zero in Florida for human trafficking and so we are going to do everything in our power to prevent this,” said Bondi.

Last week in Tampa, 81 massage therapists lost their licenses in a sting operation, 120 others are under investigation. A change is state law is giving police more authority to go after massage parlors, acting as a cover for sex trafficking. New laws also stiffen penalties for human trafficking and forcing people caught running prostitution rings to register as sex offenders.

The new law also sets up a system of safe houses, where sex slaves can escape their captors. Many of those safe houses are beginning to open throughout the state.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

RPOF Joins Merit Retention Fight

September 24th, 2012 by flanews

The Republic Party of Florida is supporting efforts to remove three state Supreme Court justices.

The justices are up for merit retention votes this November. Former State Supreme Court Justice Major Harding says merit retention is meant to remove unethical judges, not to oust judges for the way they rule on certain cases. RPOF is basing its support, partially on a 1980’s death penalty case, where the court ruled in favor of the defendant, saying he didn’t have proper representation.

“If they are going to use one case, then you know they’re ought to be some balance. You know, are all the cases wrong or is this just one?” said Harding.

The justices have been under fire by Republicans since 2010, when they kicked a proposed constitutional amendment off the ballot. The ballot question was aimed at sending a message to Washington that Florida doesn’t support the American Health Care Act. The justice shot down the amendment saying the way the question was written would have mislead voters.

Posted in State News | 1 Comment »

Sinkhole Coverage Rate Increase

September 21st, 2012 by flanews

If you want sinkhole coverage in Florida, you’re going to have to pay more and if you’re one of Citizens 1.4 million customers you’re sinkhole coverage could double. As Whitney Ray tells us, Citizens is trying to raise sinkhole rates by more than 100 percent in some areas of the state.

Taylor Yarkosky has made a career out of fixing cracks in driveways, walls and foundations. Most of his customers live in homes damaged by sinkholes.

“We underpin homes were we actually put your home basically on underground pilings so that it essentially will never move again,” said Taylor.

Normally insurance pays the bill, but a 2011 law removed sinkhole coverage from basic homeowner policies. Now customers have to pay extra for sinkhole protection.

Basic coverage will still pay for homes that are swallowed up by a sinkhole, but what it no longer covers are cracks in driveways and walls and foundations that are compromised by sinking ground.

Since sinkhole coverage was removed, Citizens Property Insurance has tried to raise rates for the extra coverage. Thursday Citizens requested an increase of more than 100 percent in some areas. In Tampa Bay the coverage could increase 50 percent.

“It’s not their fault that they live in an area that has this issue, that’s like telling people in Miami that they are no longer going to have hurricane coverage,” said Taylor.

Citizens says sinkhole claims are just too high. In 2011, it collected 50 million dollars for the coverage, but paid out 135-million. Governor Rick Scott has long advocated reducing Citizens risk by enticing customers into the private insurance market, but isn’t saying if he supports the higher rate.

“We have a significant amount of risk for a very small surplus,” said Scott.

Scott’s fears that if Citizens continues to insure 1.4 million homes, when disaster strikes, the public insurer will go bankrupt and taxpayers will have to pay the claims.

Although the Citizens rate hike hearing was held yesterday, the Office of Insurance Regulation will continue to take email comments at ratehearings@floir.com. It could be weeks before OIR decides if or how much Citizens can raise rate.

Posted in State News | 2 Comments »

Religious Groups Split on Abortion

September 19th, 2012 by flanews

There’s nothing new about Christians opposing abortion, but now there’s a coalition of religious leaders in Florida actually trying to save public funding to end pregnancies. As Whitney Ray tells us, a group of Catholics, Unitarians and Jews are uniting against a ballot question that would ban public funding for abortions.

Amendment 6 would put a ban on public funding of abortions in the Florida constitution. It’s already banned in statute. The ballot question would also allow lawmakers to give parents the final word when their teen tries to terminate her pregnancy.

For decades the pro-life, pro-choice debate has divided Christians from non-believers, but at least for this campaign season, the line is blurring.

Wednesday a group of religious leaders held a conference call opposing the ballot question saying it would change a woman’s right to privacy.

“We Catholics have no right to impose our theology on people of other faiths,” said BJ Star a Catholic, attorney.

On the call there was a Catholic Attorney, a Jewish leader, and a reverend of The First Unitarian Church.

“People of faith will have different opinions on many issues. Among those issues are parenting, pregnancy and abortion,” said Rev. Katy Schmitz of the First Unitarian Church of Orlando.

The group is accusing the Catholic Church of trying to impose its view point on women.

The Florida Catholic Conference has joined a group urging yes votes on Amendment 6. They say it wouldn’t ban abortions, just keep tax dollars from paying for them.

The Coalition’s Executive Director Mike McCarron says support for the amendment goes way beyond the Catholic Church.

“Many people of many faiths and non that also believe that unborn life should be protected,” said McCarron.

Public funding for abortion is already banned in Florida, but some Pro-life advocates fear state workers may use their state health benefits to pay for an abortion. Amendment 6 is just one of 11 ballot questions facing voters this November. Constitutional amendments need 60 percent support to pass.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Scott Tours Charter School

September 19th, 2012 by flanews

Governor Rick Scott is pushing school choice. He was in Tallahassee today celebrating the opening of one of Florida’s newest charters schools. There are now more than 5-hundred charter schools in Florida. Scott says giving parents different options is key to improving the state’s education system.

“We’ve got to make sure all of our schools do well. We have to measure the student achievement. We’ve got to hold all of our schools accountable, which we are doing here in the state,” said Scott.

This is the second time this month Scott has visited the Governor’s Charter Academy. The academy isn’t named after Scott, but rather for every Florida governor that’s fought for school choice.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Scott on American Airline Layoffs

September 19th, 2012 by flanews

More than a thousand American Airlines workers in Florida will be laid off by the end of the year. The news doesn’t bode well for Governor Rick Scott’s plan to create 700-thousand jobs in seven years. Scott is stepping in and asking the state’s workforce boards to help the people losing their jobs.

“I’ve asked our workforce boards. I’ve asked down in Miami the Beacon Council. All the groups around the state to talk to these individuals to see how we can help them. Hopefully other airlines other air transport organizations will hire those same workers,” said Scott.

Florida’s unemployment rate has fallen more than two percent since Scott took office in January of last year. Recent reports claim the drop may be the result of people giving up their job search, not Scott creating new jobs.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Is Romney Recording Legal?

September 18th, 2012 by flanews

A secret recording of Republican Presidential Nominee Mitt Romney is being used against him by his political advisories. In the video Romney writes off voters who depend on the government for food, housing and health care. But is the recording legal? As Whitney Ray tells us, Florida has strict laws against secret audio recordings.

Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney is catching heat for a video captured by a hidden camera.

“There are 47 percent of people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them,” said Romney in the video.

The recording was made at a private fundraiser in Boca Raton in May. It was posted online by Mother Jones this week. The person who made the recording isn’t being named.

“These are people who pay no income tax, 47 percent of Americans pay no income tax,” said Romney.

The video recording is fine, but Florida has strict laws about recording audio. It’s illegal to record someone’s voice, but the statute says there has to be an expectation of privacy. I asked Florida politicians if they expect privacy at closed door events.

“I assume everything I say is public record,” said Governor Rick Scott.

Governor Rick Scott and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater are both Romney supporters. Both say they’re rarely off the record.

“If anyone of us believes that there is not a camera on or a recording device or a cell phone, you know you’re living in yesterday. I think everyone needs to be on game and on the same message all the time,” said Atwater.

Even though Florida’s law is stricter than most, it’s rarely enforced. From 2001 through 2011, just 10 people were charged with making an illegal recording.

We called the state attorney in Palm Beach where the recoding was made, to ask if he will pursue charges. He says as of right now, he hasn’t received any complaints. It’s a third degree felony to make an illegal recording.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Federal Court Clears Controversial Elections Law

September 13th, 2012 by flanews

The last of 80 changes to Florida’s controversial election law has just been approved by a federal court. As Whitney Ray tells us, the new law will impact everything from when you vote, to how you register and how quickly results are reported on election night.

The last time Florida voted the results were reported in almost record time.

“It’s going to be an early night,” said Secretary of State Ken Detzner, after the August Primary.

A new, controversial election law is to credit for the quick results. The law requires elections supervisors to report results every 45 minutes after polls close. But that’s just one change.

The law also created a committee to select the state’s presidential primary date. In total there are 80 changes in the law. Most were approved by a federal court with no fight, but several drew critics.

Chris Cate a spokesman for the Florida Division of Elections says the changes are aimed at preventing voter fraud.

“All 80 provisions are going to benefit Florida. Many will go unnoticed, but it’s going to improve our processes,” said Cate.

But critics argue there’s very little fraud to begin with and some of the provisions in the new law will keep college students and minorities from casting a ballot.

The NAACP fought the provision that cut early voting from two weeks to eight days.

“The people who are being impacted are people of color and African Americans,” said Dale Landry with the NAACP.

But the change was approved Thursday after the state reached a deal to allow 96 hours of voting in counties with past voting rights violations.

“You are going to have up to 12 hours a day now of early voting, which means you will have the opportunity to vote before work or after work, but there is also going to be many more hours than every before on the weekend,” said Cate.

In the past people who change their address at the polls, mainly college students who moved across county lines, were still able to cast a regular ballot. Now, if they wait until Election Day to update their voter registration information they’ll have to cast a provisional ballot.

The new law also requires third party voter registration groups to sign up with the state, but the League of Women Voters won a court battle that would have required them to turn in registration forms with in 48 hours.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Voter Purge Nabs 207 Illegal Voters, ACLU Still Skeptical

September 13th, 2012 by flanews

Possible criminal charges tonight for 207 non-citizens found registered to vote in Florida.

It’s a felony to illegally register to vote. The names were discovered this week after the Florida Division of Elections relaunched its voter purge efforts. Spokesman Chris Cate says once the names are removed from the state’s voting rolls they’ll be handed over to investigators.

“We know that some of these voters that we found to be non-citizens have been voting in the past. We are going to be turning those names over to the supervisors of elections and once they’ve been contacted the information will be provided to state attorneys were they can do the investigation because it is a felony,” said Cate.

But the ACLU is saying not so fast. When the state tried to remove voters in April the data was flawed and the purge put on hold. Baylor Johnson, a spokesman for the ACLU says he’s not confident the state will hold legitimate voters harmless.

“Given the state’s less than competent record when it comes to voter purges, I think Floridians would be right to be skeptical of anything coming from this current purge,” said Johnson.

The ACLU wants to hear from any US citizen being told they can’t vote. Cate says there won’t be any because now the state is using a federal immigration database that should prevent any mixups.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

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