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FHP Cracks Down on Move Over Law

May 31st, 2013 by flanews

If you are planning a driving trip this summer, the Highway Patrol is giving you fair warning that when you come to an emergency vehicle you need to be prepared to move over a lane. If you don’t, you will face a greater chance of getting a ticket.

Every day, state troopers put themselves in harms way when they encounter law breakers. “I’m Trooper Baker with Florida Highway Patrol. The reason I’m stopping you today is for failure to move over,” said FHP Trooper, Mark Baker as he pulled over a vehicle for the Move Over Law.

Trooper Baker has been with the Florida Highway Patrol since 2009. Since then, he was hit by a car that didn’t move over a lane, as the law requires. “It actually hit me in my shoulder. I was out of my car, on the shoulder of the roadway on the white line itself; and he clipped me on the left shoulder,” he said.

The requirement to move over a lane when approaching flashing lights has been on the books since 2002; Lieutenant James Shaw says the state will be stepping up enforcement as highways get busy with summer vacations. “We tell our troopers to always be alert and aware of your surroundings. You never know where the danger is going to come from,” said Lt. Shaw.

Earlier this month a trooper was hit in Orange County and made it out with no serious injuries. Last December another trooper was seriously injured on I-95 near Fort Lauderdale when her cruiser was slammed into by a truck.

If you see flashing lights on the side of the road, it’s state law to move over to the opposite lane. If you’re unable to move over, you must reduce your speed by 20 miles per hour.

Drivers are not only required to move over for emergency vehicles, but tow trucks, too. Tow truck driver Danny Bartholf has been hit three times since 1980 moving disabled cars from the side of the road. “I try to cut my time in the danger zone to a very minimum,” said Bartholf.

If you fail to move over and get caught, the fine is 166-dollars.

Every state in the country has a move over law besides Hawai’i and Washington, D.C.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Small Claims and Scammers Cause Insurance Rate Hikes

May 30th, 2013 by flanews

Hurricane Season officially starts this weekend, and even though it’s been almost eight years since a storm has hit the state; the cost of homeowner insurance has been increasing steadily  because every day losses.

Since the last hurricane hit Florida, homeowner’s rates have gone up by just under 10 percent. For condo owners it is 21 percent. Ratings expert John Rollins says hurricanes aren’t the only driver of higher costs. “Fire, water damage, vandalism, theft, smoke, explosions, these things we think of as common perils,” he said.

Thursday morning, just days before the start of hurricane season, Fidelity Property and Casualty was asking for a 28-percent rate. General Counsel of OIR, Belinda Miller, says setting rates is a delicate balancing act. “We need capacity in a way that treats consumers fairly and that results in them having insurance on their property when they have a claim and need it,” she said.

Fidelity wouldn’t talk with us on camera, but they said the reason they are looking for a pay increase to be profitable so they can pay out claims after the next storm hits. But Florida’s Consumer Advocate says what you pay is often driven by people scamming the system. “Many consumers get caught in the middle of people making repairs and for the bill being more than what the insurance company thought it should have been,” said Robin Westcott, Florida Insurance Consumer Advocate.

The economy is also a factor. “There’s an age old adage that says: ‘once the economy goes sour, insurance claims go up. It’s almost a direct correlation,” said Lisa Miller, insurance consultant.

Legislation signed by Governor Rick Scott this week creates a clearing house to help consumers find cheaper rates, but hurricane season will likely be over before the clearinghouse is up and running.

Posted in State News | 5 Comments »

Court Blocks Drug Testing for all State Employees

May 30th, 2013 by flanews

A Federal Court of Appeals sided with the lower courts saying Governor Rick Scott’s attempt to make all state employees subject to a drug test, violated the 4th amendment. The state’s largest public employees union and the ACLU worked to make it where the only state employees subject to drug testing are those in safety sensitive lines of work. The U.S. Court of Appeals 11th Circuit is now making the governor go through all 85-thousand positions, proving why they need to take a drug test.

“We hope that the governor stops over-reading and starts to understand that the constitution protects the citizens of the state, including public employees,” said Special Counsel at AFSCME, Alma Gonzalez.

Without a safety-related reason or suspicion of drug use, people cannot be forced to give a drug test.

Posted in State News | 5 Comments »

Consumers Paying For Non-Existent Nuclear Plant

May 29th, 2013 by flanews

A bill waiting to be signed by the governor will drastically change how two of Florida’s largest power companies bill customers for a nuclear power plant that doesn’t even exist.

Until the bill is signed into law, power companies and the customer advocates will have to continue to fix the kinks with a former law on the books.

When Duke Energy or Florida Power and Light customers get a bill, they are being charged for a nuclear power plants that doesn’t even exist. A 7-year-old law has allowed major utility companies to collect more than a billion for the non-existent facilities. “We have to implement the law. We’re not the lawmakers; we’re just the implementers of the law,” said Florida Public Service Commission staff, Mark Futrell.

Wednesday morning the Florida Public Service Commission staff met with Duke and F-P & L to talk about how much customers should be forced to pay.

“New nuclear units in Turkey Point, we anticipate over the life of those units, would save 78-billion dollars in fuel costs,” said Peter Robbins, FPL.

After public outrage, state lawmakers tweaked the Nuclear Cost Recovery law this spring, limiting how long utilities can collect the monthly fee. Duke and F-P-L opposed the bill.

“If the bill lawmakers passed is signed by the governor, it’s likely to change how both sides proceed with the case…however, neither side is sure of the changes,” Matt Horn reported.

The Office of the Public Counsel, which represents customers, says it will present consumer testimony as the meetings and hearing proceed. “I think customers generally really don’t like paying for projects that don’t come into fruition,” said Office of Public Counsel’s Charles Rehwinkel.

The legislation on its way to the Governor requires more review by the Public Service Commission, but still does not require the fees to be refunded if new nuclear plants are never built.

It’s expected the customer testimony will be filed in the second part of June.

Posted in State News | 6 Comments »

Gov. Scott Outlaws Texting and Driving in Miami

May 28th, 2013 by flanews

Florida Governor Rick Scott today signed legislation banning texting while driving. Even though the bill restricts makes texting and driving illegal, the new legislation is being called one of the weakest laws in the country.

After five years of trying, Florida is now the 41st state with a texting ban. “I’m excited we’ve finally gotten to the point to where the final signature is going on the texting ban,” said (R) District 74 Representative, Doug Holder.

Lawmakers anticipate the new texting ban will prevent accidents. As a secondary offense, police must see another violation to stop a driver. Drivers Ed Instructor Michael Blain says the law won’t have the same effect as a primary violation. “I think it would have been much better if it was a primary offense, allowing police officers to actually actively look for texting while driving,” said Blain.

Even though it’s new here, four states have similar laws. One of them, Virginia, is changing its texting and driving from a secondary to a primary offense in July.
Lawmakers here in Florida say this new law will still keep people safer than before. “There are eleven teenagers that die every day in United States from texting while driving,” said Representative Holder. “Twenty-five percent of all accidents are now attributed to texting while driving.”

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study shows in the months following a texting and driving ban, the number of accidents go down. But, after a few months, the study shows drivers go back to old habits.

“It’s a good step in the right direction, it’s the first step,” said Blain. “I don’t think its Panacea; I don’t think its going to correct all of the problems.”

Opponents argued the law isn’t needed because it’s already illegal to drive carelessly. Distracted drivers caused more than 4 thousand accidents last year.

The texting law will go into effect starting October 1st.

Posted in State News | 2 Comments »

FCAT Scores Improving

May 24th, 2013 by flanews

After a year of low achievement scores in Florida classrooms, the Department of Education announced an upward climb for students.

According to the released results in Writing and third-grade reading and math, student performance increased. Even with stricter expectations.

In the last two years the state has moved from 11th to 6th for overall quality with the education system and Florida 4th graders boasting some of the highest reading scores globally.

Department of Education spokesman Joe Follick says the state will look at the results and see where they need to improve.

“This is good news,” said Dept. of Education spokesman Joe Follick. “We’re going to use these test results the same way parents should. Which is celebrate over gains, see where we need to improve; and work with districts and schools to keep improving.”

More test results will be sent out in the next few weeks.

Posted in State News | 27 Comments »

Florida Pays Off Federal Unemployment Loan

May 24th, 2013 by flanews

For the first time in state history, the Great Recession forced Florida to borrow several billion dollars for unemployment payout from the Federal Government.

During the height of the recession Floridians were losing jobs at a staggering rate. The state was forced to pay out billions in unemployment. “No state system was set up to handle or accommodate the depth and breadth of the great recession as it went on,” said Florida Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President, David Hart.

Unemployment hit its peak of 12.1-percent in August 2010. By then, the state had already used all its cash money set aside for people without a job. “Florida had to borrow money during the Great Recession,” said Hart.

In August 2009 Florida started borrowing money from the federal government, more than 3.5-billion, to keep benefits flowing to the growing unemployed.

This is the only time in state history Florida has had to borrow money from the Federal Government for unemployment. More than three years later, the debt has finally been paid off.

When joblessness numbers began increasing, the state hit businesses with a 20-percent hike in their unemployment taxes. The hike kept the state from borrowing even more. “Best way to keep trust fund strong is if people are employed,” said Hart.

Back in 2009, it was anyone’s guess on how long the downturn would last. “We don’t know the length of the recession, we don’t know how many employees will remain in the state after the recession,” said FICPA’s Vicki Meyers in August 2009.

36 states had to borrow money to pay claims. Florida is the 14th to pay its loan off.

Posted in State News | 11 Comments »

Questions Surround State-Run Insurance Deal with Private Company

May 23rd, 2013 by flanews

A deal between Florida’s largest state property insurance company and a new private insurance company is raising questions.

In a 3-2 vote, the board of state-run Citizens Property Insurance agreed to let newly-formed Heritage Property and Casualty Corporation take over 60-thousand policies; and pay the company 52-million dollars to do it. “The deal has been in the works for several months,” said Citizen’s Insurance Spokesperson, Michael Peltier.

The award comes after the president of Heritage donated more than 100-thousand dollars to Governor Rick Scott’s campaign. Scott is on a trade mission, but, Chief of Staff Adam Holingsworth responded to critics with a statement, saying: “Any assertion that our office influenced the Heritage risk transfer decision by the Citizens Board is [today] is outrageous.”

Citizens echoed the same message. “There’s been no pressure from anyone outside of Citizens,” said Peltier. “Whether that be the legislators or the governors office.”

The Office of Insurance Regulation, signed off on the deal but refused comment.

Matt Horn tried to reach out to Heritage President Richard Widdicombe’s office. He was transferred to several people, but no one was made available to answer any questions.

More than one of Widdicombe’s previous companies have been cited for dozens of violations; more than a quarter million in fines were assessed. But, state-run Citizens Insurance stands behind the boards decision on transferring the policies.

“They may be new to the business, but they’re not new to the industry,” said Peltier. The deal cuts Citizens overall risk by more than 400 million dollars.

The goal was to have the changes made before the beginning of hurricane season June 1.

Posted in State News | 1 Comment »

Millions in Unclaimed Property up for Auction

May 22nd, 2013 by flanews

Hundreds of Millions of dollars in property are sitting in a high security vault in Tallahassee, waiting for owners to claim.

Tangible items like diamond necklaces, historic dollars, silver bars and various valuables were once forgotten. They are now snugged away in a state vault in the state capital. “If it fits in a safe deposit box, we get it,” said Florida Bureau of Unclaimed Property Chief, Walter Graham.

Every year the Bureau of Unclaimed Property receives the contents of forgotten safe deposit boxes, utility deposits along with many items. “We have to identify every single item we get, we have to describe it,” said Graham.

After the items are identified, the office tries to find the proper owners. If they succeed, they tell them how to claim their lost treasures.  “Eventually we’ll sell these items because, as you see, we can’t continue to keep these things forever,” said Graham.

But, the auction doesn’t happen for years after an item is discovered. First, banks where the property is found have three years to find the owners. If they can’t be located, the items are sent to the vault.

Even if an item is sold, rightful owners are still entitled to the value of the item. “Our goal is to sale these items for as much as possible to give back to the owner should they come forward,” said vault supervisor, Liz Tatum.

Since the bureau opened in 1961 more than 2-billion dollars worth of property has been returned to the proper owner.

If you think you have unclaimed property you can go to FLTreasureHunt.org; the annual auction will be held in Tampa on June 8th.

Posted in State News | 2 Comments »

Powerball Winner Still Unknown

May 22nd, 2013 by flanews

It’s been four days since a winning Powerball Lottery ticket was sold in Zephyrhills. Now people are waiting for that lucky ticket holder to come forward.

Media crews have been holding out for the winner to come forward at the Florida Lottery Headquarters in Tallahassee. The winner of the 590-point-5 million dollar ticket was sold at a Publix Grocery Store.

It is the largest single ticket in U-S history.

Secretary of the Florida Lottery, Cindy O’Connell says they are excited to see who that winner is, “We all very excited to meet our winner, winners or the entity that will soon, I hope very soon come and claim their winning jackpot prize.”

This is the sixth time there has been a Powerball winner in the state since Floridians were able to play.

Posted in State News | 4 Comments »

Summer’s ‘100 Deadliest Days’ on Florida Roadways

May 21st, 2013 by flanews

Less than a month after state lawmakers passed a ban on texting and driving, the Florida Highway Patrol is gearing up for a deadly summer focusing on distracted drivers.

There are more fatal accidents during the 100 days between Memorial Day and Labor Day than any other time of the year.

Through commercials the National Transportation Safety Board and AT&T continue to step up “It Can Wait”; a campaign against texting and driving. The people in the commercials talk about how texting while driving dramatically changed their lives.

This past legislative session, lawmakers approved Florida’s first ever ban on texting and driving in the state. “We’re talking about an activity that is equivalent to drinking four beers very quickly,” said Representative Doug Holder.

The texting ban, if signed into law, will take affect October1st. went to the governors desk Tuesday, but even before he signs it, police have begun focusing more on distracted driving.

“It has deadly consequences; we have crashes everyday that are from distracted driving,” said FHP Captain Nancy Rasmussen.

In the most recent Florida statistics, more than 2,200 people died in car crashes; officers are doing everything they can to curve those numbers.

During the summer more officers will be patrolling the roadways to keep an eye out for distracted drivers. “Our numbers increase during this period of time just because we know the motorists are increasing, the more people we have patrolling the roads the better we’ll be,” said Capt. Rasmussen.

If the law passes, drivers caught texting face a thirty dollar fine.

The county with the highest number of fatal accidents was in Miami-Dade County, followed by Hillsborough County.

Posted in State News | 4 Comments »

Historic Powerball Excitement Spreads Across Florida

May 20th, 2013 by flanews

The winner of the largest Powerball Jackpot in U-S history is right here in the Sunshine State. While everyone anxiously awaits for that person or group to step forward, the Powerball host talks about what the experience was like leading up to the announcement this weekend.

Every Wednesday and Saturday night, millions of Americans around the country watch Powerball host Sam Arlen announce what will hopefully make someone a very happy person. After Saturday night, the excitement moved to a Tampa suburb. A still unknown person purchased a single ticket worth 590-million dollars at a Publix grocery store.

We talked to Sam via video chat. “It never escapes my mine that everyone watching is clinging on to hope,” said Powerball Host Sam Arlen. >

As the excitement looms in Zephyrhills, things have appeared to return to normal in Tallahassee at Florida Lottery Headquarters. That’s where the ticket must be turned in to claim the cash. The winner has up to 60 days to claim the jackpot if they want the lump sum. They have up to 6 months if they want the annual payment.

Eight of every ten possible number combinations were purchased for the drawing. “We had tickets selling at a rate of almost 45,000 per minute or 745 per second,” said Secretary of Florida Lottery, Cindy O’Connell.

Even though the ‘big-winner’ hasn’t stepped forward, there were hundreds of other winners across Florida. “We had over 643 players that actually won prizes, two $1-million tickets were sold in addition,” said O’Connell.

This marks the 6th time the winning Powerball ticket has been sold in the state.

If you do have the winning ticket, the lottery suggests you to do four things. Sign the back of the ticket, put it in a safe deposit box; and get a lawyer and a CPA.

Posted in State News | 9 Comments »

Powerball Jackpot hits record

May 17th, 2013 by flanews

Excitement around the Powerball Jackpot is soaring across Florida as the jackpot is at 600-million dollars, and is expected to rise before Saturday evening’s drawing.

Prior to the current record, the highest jackpot was $587.5 million, which was set in November 2012.

Deputy Secretary of the Florida Lottery, David Bishop says state schools are already winning as more and more people spend money on the Powerball.

“The Florida education is already a winner. The series of draws generated an additional forty-one million dollars for education,” said Deputy Secretary of the Florida Lottery, David Bishop. “That means that’s more money in the classroom, more money for k-12, more money for colleges and universities.”

Florida has traditionally been one of the top selling states for the jackpot.

Posted in State News | 14 Comments »

Historic Tourism Numbers Reviving Economy

May 16th, 2013 by flanews

An improving economic climate nationwide is good news for Florida. That’s because a record number of people are checking out Florida’s attractions. “We try to get here as much as we can,” said tourist Cleveland Wrighty.

Visitors are spending billions of dollars, helping revive the states economy. “There is no secret the Florida tourism industry is experiencing some incredible momentum,” said VISIT FLORIDA President & CEO, Will Seccombe.

Coming off of two record years, the first three months of 2013 have seen an almost 5-percent increase. Last year: 21-point-8 million tourists have already visited the state this year. “That momentum is pretty hard to stop,” said Seccombe.

Travelers we talked with say they have been coming to Florida more frequently. “Once a year, twice a year. Something like that,” said Seguin, Texas resident, Ronald Miller.

Last year just over 91-million people visited the Sunshine State, up 2-point-3 percent. With an increase in tourism, it equals more jobs, because every 85 visitors support one Florida job. “(It’s a) huge impact to jobs,” said Seccombe. “We had an additional 35,000 people employed in the hospitality industry.”

Those jobs all created in the first quarter of this year, marking the 36th month of job growth in the tourism industry. It’s a trend likely to continue as people continue to visit. I like Florida, its where I plan to retire,” said Miller.

The number of international visitors is increasing even faster than domestic tourists with an increase of 11.3-percent increase.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Gun Restriction for Mentally Ill a Hot Topic

May 15th, 2013 by flanews

Under a new bill sent to the Governor by state lawmakers, Floridians battling mental illness will be banned from purchasing a gun.

Supporters say it will save lives, while medical professionals say it will wrongfully take away second amendment rights for a large group of Floridians.

A loophole in Florida law has allowed people diagnosed with mental illnesses to continue purchasing firearms, until lawmakers closed the loophole with just one dissenting vote. “If it’s just one and they save one life, it’s a significant bill,” said Representative Barbara Watson (D) Miami.

The bill gained support by Democrats, Republicans and the NRA. “Keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people with mental illness saves lives,” said NRA past President Marion Hammer.

The legislation requires people who voluntarily commit themselves to give up their gun rights. “This only keeps mentally ill people who are determined to be dangerous from being able to buy guns,” she said.

But thousands have called or emailed the governor seeking a veto of the bill. “I hope the governor vetoes it,” said counselor Robert Carton. Health officials worry the legislation will keep people from seeking treatment. “It’s likely to create the opposite effect of what legislators are intending,” he said. “Not everybody with a mental illness is homicidal, not everybody with a mental illness is suicidal.”

90-thousand mentally ill Floridians are already prohibited from buying guns. If the governor signs the bill that number is expected to drastically increase. If signed into law, the mentally ill would be prohibited from buying a gun after July 1st.

Posted in Business, Civil Rights, Crime, Criminal Justice, Firearms, Guns, Mental Health, Politics, Rick Scott, State News | 10 Comments »

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