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Voting Rights Advocates Prepare for Session

February 28th, 2013 by flanews

When the 2013 legislative session begins next week state lawmakers will be greeted by civil rights groups demanding changes to voting laws. As Whitney Ray tells us, the activists say long lines and outdated laws are keeping people from voting.

Long lines and problems with absentee ballots plagued the 2012 presidential election in Florida. Four months later, a fix is in the works. State lawmakers are vowing to change voting laws to shorten the wait time.

Crowded around a lectern in front of a voting office Thursday more than a dozen civil rights leaders laid out their election reform plan.

“We have a situation where whole segments of the population are disenfranchised from the voting process,” said Phelicia Steill with National Congress of Black.

The group wants 14 days of early voting, the right to vote on the Sunday before an election and automatic restoration of voting rights for former felons.

“The Dream Defenders believe that the voting system has been carefully constructed to disenfranchise young black and brown people,” said Ciara Taylor.

Most of what the group is asking for is laid out in a bill sponsored by Senator Oscar Braynon. Braynon drafted the bill in honor of a 102 year old Miami woman who waited six hours to vote.

Desiline Victor was honored during the President’s State of Union Address.

“She was told the wait to vote might be six hours. As time ticked by, her concern was not with her tired body or aching feet, but whether folks like her would get to have their say,” said the President earlier this month.

The Desiline Free and Fair Democracy Act would create a system of automatic voter registration. It would also allow people to change their voting information at the polls on Election Day.

An elections reform bill has already passed a House committee. The Senate is preparing to pass a bill giving supervisors of elections the authority to make their own early voting schedules. The civil rights leaders fear the flexibility would lead to voter suppression in some counties.

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Democracy on the Go

February 28th, 2013 by flanews

Want to keep up with the Florida House in this upcoming legislative session? Well there’s an app for that.

House Speaker Will Weatherford announced a new app to allow people to track bills, contact lawmakers and watch committee meetings from their phones.

“It’s going to increase people’s access to their government. So if they want to talk to their speaker, if they want to talk to a legislator they are going to have the opportunity to do that in better formats than they’ve ever had,” said Weatherford.

The app cost about 113-thousand dollars to create but it’s free to download. It will be available to the public next Tuesday, the first day of the 2013 legislative session.

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Polytech Funding a Disaster?

February 28th, 2013 by flanews

One year after state law created Florida Polytechnic University the school’s board is considering a request for more tax money.

House Speaker Will Weatherford came out strong against the potential 25 million dollar request earlier this week. Today he clarified his statements saying he called the request a disaster not the school.

“My understanding of Polytech is that they made a request for money. What I said was a disaster was the fact that they were asking for more money. We are not in a situation where we can build out that campus with any more funds,” said Weatherford.

Polytechnic used to be part of USF’s Lakeland Campus but became the state’s 12th university last year.

Posted in State News | 1 Comment »

Weatherford For Governor, or not?

February 28th, 2013 by flanews

Ever since Governor Rick Scott announced his support of the Medicaid expansion made optional under Obamacare his GOP credentials have been questioned.

The announcement spawned rumors in Tallahassee about a potential primary challenger in 2014. House Speaker Will Weatherford is one person whose name is being whispered in the capitol hallways.

Reporter: Will you rule it out?
Weatherford: I just said I don’t have any plans of doing anything like that. I think it’s funny that I’m being asked it. The governor is a friend. I think he is doing a good job.”

Weatherford says he respects the governor’s decision to support the Medicaid expansion, although he’s not yet sure it’s a good idea for Florida.

Posted in State News | 46 Comments »

Oops! No Free Plates After all

February 28th, 2013 by Mike Vasilinda

On Friday we told you about newly released license plates for Vietnam and Korean veterans. Information provided by the Department of Highway Safety was that the plates were free to veterans who could prove they served in one of the two conflicts.

That turns out not to be the case. What Department Spokesperson Kristen Olsen-Doolan meant to say is that there was no additional charge for the plates beyond the normal vehicle tag fee that is due on all tags.

So if you are a Vietnam or Korean veteran, there is finally a license plate for you. It just isn’t free.


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Criminal Conspiracy, Stolen Artifacts

February 27th, 2013 by flanews

Nearly two million dollars worth of ancient Florida artifacts are now evidence in a case of criminal conspiracy. Florida Fish and Wildlife Officers nabbed 14 people after a two year investigation into missing artifacts from state lands. Officers say the suspects were sneaking on to state property at night to dig and dive for the pieces of history. FWC Major Curtis Brown says the suspects were selling the items on the internet.

“Some of these items and they are displayed on these posters, they were for sale for 100,000 dollars. They were sold online, websites, Ebay, Craigslist, tradeshows and of course the black-market,” said Brown.

Some of the suspects are experienced divers and experts in Florida history. They had been operating for years. No one knows how many artifacts were shipped out of state.

Posted in State News | 1 Comment »

Florida Getting the Worst of Sequester

February 26th, 2013 by flanews

A second recession, that’s what’s at stake according to a Florida research group. Florida TaxWatch says if Congress can’t reach a deal to avoid the sequester then the economic recovery would halt. As Whitney Ray tells us, Florida has more on the line than almost any other state.

Our military in the crosshairs. Automatic spending cuts slated for March first heavily target military spending in Florida. More than a 100-thousand Floridians are active or reserve soldiers.

Teachers are also in danger of the sequester. An estimated 750 Florida teachers could lose their jobs if Congress doesn’t act fast.

Reporter Does Florida have more on the line than other states?
Parrish: Yeah, I think we do.

Jerry Parrish, the chief economist at Florida TaxWatch says Florida stands to lose more than most because of our tourisms hot spots and military bases.

“We have a big defense industry. They are going to see cuts. All federal employees will see a cut in their pay and possibly have to take furloughs. It will also affect (U.S.) Customs and Boarder,” said Parrish.

TaxWatch released this report just days before the looming deadline. It claims the sequester could set off a chain reaction hurling Florida into a second recession.

“Continuing contractions because of the lack of investment and continued consumer spending certainly could head us toward a recession again,” said Parrish.

Governor Rick Scott came out strong against the automatic spending cuts Monday comparing Congress to school children in a game of chicken.

“It’s disappointing that the federal government can’t do what we’ve done in our state,” said Scott.

While many agree the federal government needs to break its spending addiction, Congress remains divided on when and where to cut. If the stalemate holds the decision will be made without them.

And here are the areas where Florida would be affected the most. Schools could lose 80 million dollars, environmental projects could lose six million federal dollars and about four million dollars used to provide meals to low income seniors would be cut.

Posted in State News | 4 Comments »

Scott’s Three Million Dollar Oyster Plan

February 25th, 2013 by flanews

Ninety percent of Florida’s oysters are harvested from the Apalachicola Bay, but there’s trouble in the water. As Whitney Ray tells us, droughts, storms and damns are killing the oysters.

Times are tough on Florida’s Forgotten Coast. A water war with Georgia, the BP Oil Spill, Tropical Storm Debbie and recent droughts are killing its world famous oysters.

Scenes like this where oystermen rake in a boatload of rocks are few and far between. Today the oysters are smaller and harder to find.

Monday Governor Rick Scott announced plans to help save Apalachicola Bay, the area where 90 percent of Florida’s oysters are harvested.

“We will work to clean this ecosystem so it provides clean water for our oysters,” said Scott.

Currently Scott has launched state efforts to move oysters from dangerous areas to safer waters. His new three million dollar plan calls for half a million dollars to be spent studying the problem and finding a solution.

“I’m putting money in my budget to make sure that we deal with trying to improve the number of oysters that can be harvested here and making sure that we get people back to work,” said Scot.

Here in Franklin County the main concern is jobs connected to the oyster industry but people around the state and across the nation are more concerned about the price and availability of the slimy seafood.

“Quiet frankly it won’t be a question of the price of the oysters. It will be a question of can we even get them,” State Senator Bill Montford said.

Montford was on hand for the governor’s announcement. Montford represents the Forgotten Coast and says the oyster problem is cause for concern statewide.

“We owe it to the people of Florida we owe it to the people of this country to be able to preserve what we have,” said Montford.

While most of the problems facing the oyster population are known, the study hopes to better define how storm water runoff and damns upstream have impacted the oysters’ natural environment.

Florida’s oyster prices have been on the rise since the BP Oil Spill and are up about 30 percent since the disaster.

Posted in State News | 1 Comment »

Scott on the Sequester

February 25th, 2013 by flanews

Governor Rick Scott has a message for President Barack Obama and Congress, grow up.

In a written statement on sequestration released by Scott this afternoon the governor said “It is the responsibility of our federal leaders to administer spending reductions thoughtfully and rationally, not in an elementary school game of chicken.” We caught up with Scott this morning before his office released the statement.

“It’s disappointing that the federal government can’t do what we’ve done in our state. We’ve made tough choices and it’s worked. Now we have a projected budget surplus for the first time since 2008 – 2009,” said Scott.

And that surplus could be needed. If congress can’t reach a deal by the March first deadline Florida could lose 276 million dollars in federal spending with the military taking the biggest hit.

Posted in State News | 1 Comment »

BP Trial Undeway, Scott ReAx

February 25th, 2013 by flanews

BP is on the defense as the company goes to trial over damage it caused to the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

The trial is expected to last months or even years and will likely result in the oil giant paying billions in damages. We asked Governor Rick Scott if Florida deserves some of that money.

“I’m optimistic that we will eventually get a settlement. When people get to trial they generally move a little faster. So hopefully we will get the right type of settlement and it will be good for our state,” said Scott.

Talks of a settlement are underway. Reports of a 16 billion dollar package that sends a majority of the money to Gulf Coast restoration projects are beginning to surface.

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E-Fairness Closer to Reality

February 22nd, 2013 by flanews

For 12 years Florida retailers have been pushing legislation they call eFairness. Their mission, require online stores to collect the same six cent state sales tax they’re required to charge customers. As Whitney Ray tells us, the movement is gaining momentum and could become law this summer.

There’s a war underway pitting Florida retailers against online stores outside of the state. Each side has its weapons; at the stores you can cash and carry. Online you can avoid the state’s sales tax.

“It’s been a lingering problem. It’s only gotten bigger and bigger,” said Lobbyist Randy Miller at a committee meeting earlier this month.

For 12 years Florida retailers have been asking state lawmakers to make online shops collect the tax. This year their eFairness legislation is gaining momentum.

“The Florida Chamber fully supports this eFairness bill,” said David Hart with the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Several bills have been filed. One has already passed a senate committee.

“It really does seem like the stars have aligned on this issue,” Florida Retail Federation Spokesman John Fleming said.

Fleming says what’s different this year from years past is the Senate President, House Speaker and Governor Rick Scott are all open to an eFairness bill.

“The governor has said he could ultimately sign a bill if it were presented to him as a revenue neutral bill and I think that’s ultimately what he’s going to get on his desk,” said Fleming.

Revenue neutral means for every dollar of online sales tax collected a dollar of another tax would have to be cut.

Lawmakers are considering several measures to make the bill revenue neutral. One way is to eliminate the sales tax on manufacturing equipment. Another plan in the works would offer a sales tax holiday to shoppers statewide to offset the money generated by the online tax.

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The Defense of Stand Your Ground

February 22nd, 2013 by flanews

The Governor’s Task Force on Citizens Safety is coming to the defense of Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law.

The task force was formed after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. The man who shot the unarmed teen is using the Stand Your Ground law as his defense. The task force issued its final report today. Former NRA President Marion Hammer says it confirms what she’s known all along, Floridians have the right to defend themselves.

“Overwhelmingly the conclusion is the law is working fine. It doesn’t need to be repealed or undone and it’s a good law,” said Hammer.

The report does suggest making changes to Florida’s 10-20-Life gun crime law. It also calls for rules for neighborhood watch groups should be reexamined.

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Bill to Ban Beach Smoking Changes

February 21st, 2013 by flanews

State lawmakers want to bring the Clean Indoor Air Act outdoors. A bill to allow smoking bans at parks and beaches passed a senate committee today. As Whitney Ray tells us, if the bill becomes law cities and counties would have more authority over where people smoke.

Tykena Buckner is taking a break from her busy life. She brought a friend’s daughter to this park near the state capitol to feed the ducks, and enjoy some fresh air.

“I generally try to come out here just to relax,” said Tykena.

Tykena says smokers have never bothered her at this park, but she does worry about kids breathing secondhand smoke and litter.

“I know just like I wouldn’t want to go to a restaurant and be around secondhand smoke I wouldn’t want to necessarily want it at a park,” said Tykena.

And I didn’t have to look very long at this park to find the signs of smokers. Whoever this butt belongs too, they stopped just a few feet from the trashcan and threw it on the ground.

Litter is just one reasons state lawmakers are hearing a bill to allow local governments to ban smoking at parks and beaches. The legislation passed a senate committee Thursday with little opposition.

Before it passed it was amended by Senator John Thrasher. His amendment lessens the penalties for smokers and requires police to give them several warnings.

“We are not out there to have a cigarette police or a smoking police. You know that’s not what we are about. This is about the health and welfare of the people of the State of Florida,” said Thrasher.

While the bill is gaining momentum one concern remains, no one can say for sure how the changes would affect restaurants that allow outdoor smoking. If the bill passes and a smoking ban at parks and beaches is enacted, people caught violating it could face a 100 dollar fine.

Posted in State News | 1 Comment »

Nuclear Cost Recovery Bill to be Filed

February 21st, 2013 by flanews

State lawmakers will file a bill to change how power companies spend money they collect to build nuclear plants.

Today at the state capitol a team of four Tampa Bay senators told reporters they think power companies should refund customers if they collect money to build a nuclear plant but never do. Senator Wilton Simpson says things were different in 2006 when the law to allow companies to charge upfront cost for future nuclear passed.

“Things have changed and now as we see a nuclear plant being shut down and we see one maybe not being built, we are very concerned as to the cost to the consumer,” said Simpson.

A spokesperson for Florida Power and Light says FP&L spends 90 percent of it’s nuclear money on repairing current plants. The remaining money helps pay for nuclear licensing fees for new plants which can cost millions of dollars and take years to obtain.

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IDing Homicidal Patients

February 20th, 2013 by flanews

Mental health and public safety are two of the biggest issues state lawmakers will face this upcoming legislative session. As Whitney Ray tells us, today a house committee passed a bill to allow nurse practitioners to test potentially dangerous patients.

A bag bulging with binders, Stand Whittaker hauled it in front of lawmakers Wednesday to prove nurse practitioners are not the problem but they can be the solution.

The big binder is full of evidence claiming nurse practitioners can take on more responsibility. The smaller binder.

“That’s the number of studies that say we are unsafe,” said Whittaker.

Whittaker is a nurse practitioners. He’s supporting a bill by Representative Daphne Campbell to give nurses the authority to perform involuntary mental health checks on potentially dangerous patients.

“They are very well trained to act on patients who want to committee suicide or homicide,” said Campbell.

The way the law is written now, if a nurse practitioner thinks a patient is a threat they have to get a doctor or a cop to perform a mental health exam. That can take hours, and Whittaker has learned the hard way, there’s no time to waste.

“I actually had somebody come to me and tell me,’ look you know my wife’s leaving me, I’ve lost my business, my daughter is ill and sick and I’m broke and I don’t know what to do and the only thing I can’t think to do is kill myself,’” said Whittaker.

He called the cops.

“The police officer said well basically I don’t think he’s suicidal. Then that individual left. Later that evening he managed to committee suicide,” said Whittaker.

The bill made it all the way through the House last year but died after the senate refused to take it up. This year it’s already made it through two house votes and session has yet to begin. If a patient is deemed a threat after the involuntary mental health exam is given, then a judge can order the patient to be held in a hospital or put under surveillance for 72 hours.

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