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It’s Time to Pay Up

September 30th, 2013 by flanews

Earlier this year Florida state Representatives blocked a measure that would provide health coverage to a million of Florida’s poorest working citizens. Now those same lawmakers will have to pay more for their health insurance.

For years – Florida state lawmakers have been paying just 17 cents on the dollar for health insurance. It has been far less than what other state employees pay for the same coverage. A recent announcement shows the prices are about to spike.

“We have been getting too much of a benefit as state representatives for too long,” said Representative Lori Berman.

Both Democrats and Republicans say they favor the change. House Speaker Will Weatherford acknowledged the discrepancy saying: “We are aware of the differences in what House members pay compared to other state employees for health insurance…”

“We as legislators ought to live under the same rules, regulations laws and obligations everyone else should live under,” said Representative Matt Gaetz.

This past January Senators started paying the same amount as state employees. 50-dollars a month for individual coverage and 180-dollars a month for family coverage, saving taxpayers an estimated 47-thousand dollars.

“There’s no reason we should get special benefits, I totally agree and like I said I’m happy to be paying what other state employees are paying,” said Berman.

They state representatives will pay the same as state senators and other state employees starting in January.

“So if other folks have to pay more, we should have to pay more. That’s what leadership is about,” said Gaetz.

Even with the higher prices – state lawmakers will still be getting a good deal. The change was announced just days before enrollment begins for the Affordable Care Act…Ironic since the same lawmakers blocked billions in federal dollars for a million of Florida’s working poor.

Enrollment for the Affordable Care Act begins October 1st.

Posted in State News | 5 Comments »

Texting? Pay Up.

September 27th, 2013 by flanews

After years of pushing a new texting and driving ban will go into effect early next week. On October 1, Florida becomes the 41st state to ban texting while driving, but the state’s version is one of the weakest in the nation.

“I hope we can do better and as time goes on, we will,” said Ron Richardson, Drivers Education Instructor.

Texting while driving is a secondary offense. Which means you must commit another violation before an officer can pull you over.

A first offense will cost you thirty dollars. Unless there is a fatal accident or injury, police can’t search your phone records. Still after five years of trying, sponsor Doug Holder is happy to finally have something on the books.

“It’s been a lot of hard work. But, it’s been a good effort on everyone’s part for everyone on the team,” said Holder.

Lawmakers also refused to fund an anti texting campaign, but the Florida Highway patrol is using existing resources to get the word out.

“We’re going to be out there, it’s just another statute we’re going to be looking for, so if we see somebody texting and driving we will pull them over and stop that behavior,” said Nancy Rasmussen, Florida Highway Patrol Captain.

Richardson says regardless of the laws weaknesses, it will be a great teaching lesson for students.

“It gives me extra information, be able to let them know distracted driving, which this is really about, they need to understand they need to be completely focused 100-percent of the time when they’re behind the wheel,” he said.

A second offense will cost motorists sixty dollars. Getting in a crash will add six points to your license.

Posted in State News | 1 Comment »

Go Ahead, Sleep In

September 26th, 2013 by flanews

By the time students are getting off of the school bus, they’re usually wide awake. But keeping high schoolers alert first thing in the morning can be a struggle.

“It’s a better learning environment if we can start just a little bit later in the day,” said Representative Matt Gaetz.

Gaetz filed House Bill 67 earlier this week. it would prohibit any Florida high school from starting earlier than 8 in the morning.

“We have to value the quality of the educational experience,” said Gaetz.

But, the bill already has already stirred concern among educators and other lawmakers.

“You may have to force elementary students to stand on the side of the road in the dark, in early morning hours waiting for the bus,” said Senator Bill Montford.

Another concern is local control. School boards want to be decide what time to start the school day, and not have mandatory requirements from lawmakers in Tallahassee.

“Florida Legislature should do as little as we can in dictating to local governments what rules and laws should be,” said Montford.

The bill also says Florida schools wouldn’t be able to start earlier than two weeks before Labor Day – something that has been in effect since the 07-08 school year. One thing lawmakers and educators agreed on – is that a later start time is good for the learning environment for high school students.

“They reach their peak performance a little bit later in the morning,” said David Worrell, educator.

But concerns may outweigh the things where everyone sees eye to eye.

If the bill makes it out of both chambers next spring and signed by the governor, it would go into effect next summer.

Posted in State News | 4 Comments »

Protest During Business Hours Only

September 25th, 2013 by flanews

Earlier this summer the Dream Defenders camped out in the state capitol 24/7 for 31 days. Overtime cost Florida taxpayers more than 172-thousand dollars. Now the state is changing the rules to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

“When the Capitol is closed we will not allow people in to sleep, to protest, things of that nature,” said Gerald Bailey, Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner.

FDLE is recommending rules aimed at keeping people out of the Capitol after business hours.

If this does become the new rule, the Capitol doors will be locked after hours. Meaning that you will be escorted out of the building of possibly arrested.

The Dream Defenders are back in Tallahassee this week. Even though they aren’t staying in the Capitol this time around they say the recommended changes will silence people’s voices.

“The right to peacefully assemble, engage your lawmakers in a public building, public figure, public figures is not being infringed on,” said Phillip Agnew, Dream Defenders Executive Director. “It’s a core tenant of our constitution of Florida and our country. Seems more political than safety.”

The state says it’s all about safety. FDLE is currently waiting on Governor Rick Scott, Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford. The three must approve the rule in writing for the changes to take place.

“They are in the process now of going over the FDLE recommendation and I hope we hear from them soon,” said Bailey.

The new rules would also prohibit groups from preparing food without a permit.

Those authorized in the capitol will still be allowed access to the building after hours, but a maximum of four guests will only be permitted with the authorized person.

Posted in State News | 5 Comments »

Confinement for Life?

September 23rd, 2013 by flanews

As a way to keep the public safe, the Department of Children and Families are working with state lawmakers to strengthen the state’s Sexually Violent Predator Program. The recommendations are gathering support from both Republicans and Democrats.

State lawmakers are scrambling to make sure the most dangerous sexual predators are not victimizing the states most vulnerable.

“First of all, we want to make sure that the public is protected,” said Senator Eleanor Sobel, Democrat District 33.

The Department of Children and Families is recommending changes to the state’s Sexually Violent Predator Program. The department released a 40-plus page copy of the recommendations early Monday afternoon.

“I want to be as tight as we can to protect our youngsters, that’s all there is to it,” said Senator Alan Hays, Republican District 11.

In Jacksonville, sexual predator Donald James Smith allegedly killed 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle. Smith was released from jail three week prior to the murder. He had been in and out of special prisons for sex offenders.

An investigation released earlier this year shows that nearly 1,400 people screened under the current law were re-arrested on sex charges.

Lawmakers say it’s now their place to make sure sexual predators remain behind bars.

“All of us believe something should be done. I believe the penalties will be longer,” said Senator Sobel.

Senators say it’s a bi-partisan plan, and they will take D-C-F’s suggestions very seriously.

“I can’t imagine anybody not being in favor. Forget any party affiliations, this is a human issue,” said Senator Hays.

Nearly 700 sex offenders are being kept past their sentences because they are considered a danger to society.

A Senate committee is set to meet Tuesday morning to further discuss possible changes.

Posted in State News | 1 Comment »

Drug Testing Chaos

September 20th, 2013 by flanews

Governor Rick Scott says he will take his push for random drug testing of state employees all the way to the US Supreme Court. Opponents and a federal judge say the fight is pointless because it violates the constitution.

Florida has been the brunt of jokes since it decided to drug test state workers and welfare recipients. Scott was even asked to take a test by a Comedy Central reporter, ”So would you be willing to, uh, pee into this cup to prove to Florida taxpayers you’re not on drugs?”

It’s no laughing matter for the 85-thousand state employees who are in the middle of a battle between the Governor, the ACLU, and the state employees’ union.

“The government is not allowed to just randomly tell us to urinate in a cup,” said Doug Martin, a member of The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

AFSCME said they have been battling the Governor on drug testing since he took office. It’s a battle AFSCME says the state won’t win, because the U.S. Supreme Court would have to toss out the 4th amendment.

“Citizens should be free from unreasonable search and seizure of their persons,” said Martin.

In 2011, a judge declared Scott’s drug testing order to be an unconstitutional violation of workers’ privacy rights. State workers can already be drug tested if there is reasonable suspicion to do so.

A statement released by Rick Scott’s office reads: “Many Floridians are required to take drug tests in their workplace and it is only right for state workers paid with taxpayer funds to be required to do the same”

We talked to a number of state workers, all we talked to say they support the current drug testing policies, but not random testing

”I think that would infringe on individuals constitutional liberties,” said a state employee who chose to remain nameless because of the sensitive nature of the issue.

The Drug testing issue is back in court next month.

A judge re-iterated on Thursday that she believes Scott will not win this case.

Posted in State News | 203 Comments »

Back on the Beat

September 19th, 2013 by flanews

Six months ago – this traffic stop and an unwritten rule caused Florida Highway Patrol trooper Charles Swindle to lose his job.

Swindle was fired for giving a state lawmaker a ten dollar ticket instead of a 250 dollar speeding ticket. The lawmaker complained. Swindle was fired. The trooper fought back…and an appeals panel said the firing was too harsh. He’s going back on the road. His attorney says even though his client is going back to work – the fight continues.

”If he does any little minuet thing wrong they can fire him as a second offense,” said Sid Matthew, Trooper Swindle’s attorney.

Trooper Swindle will return to work at Troop H in Tallahassee on Friday. F-H-P wouldn’t go on camera about the case, but released a statement.

In part, it says: “…The Department reiterates its commitment to holding our employees accountable when their actions violate the public trust, that we, as law enforcement officers, have been given.” With one strike against Swindle – a minor infraction may make it easier for him to be fired again.

”If we have to appeal to the District Court of Appeal to get his record cleared and named cleared we’re going to do that,” said Matthew.

But in the meantime, he says he is ready to be back on the roads.

”I’m happy to be going back to work. I’m ready to get back out there and do my job,” said Trooper Swindle.

The case will likely be tied up in an appeals court for up to a year also undecided is whether he’ll get back lost overtime pay amounting to 25 thousand dollars.

Posted in State News | 7 Comments »

State vs. Feds on Healthcare

September 18th, 2013 by flanews

The debate over the Affordable Care Act continues to raise questions and tempers in
Congress. Florida was the first state to vocally oppose Obamacare, and now state lawmakers continue to throw up roadblocks on the path to healthcare reform.

Two Florida lawmakers are in Washington, DC making an argument on the hotly contested Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

“I’m here to tell you the State of Florida is punishing people to get access to health care,” said Senator Eleanor Sobel.

Some lawmakers, such as Republican state representative Matt Hudson, welcome the debate. “I’m positive the citizens of Florida want representatives to make decisions instead of a ‘trust me,” said Hudson.

This past legislative session, Senate Republicans and Democrats worked to allow Federal dollars to fund healthcare expansion in the state. More than one million Floridians could be eligible, but state house leaders fought the plan.

“Florida made the right decision in blocking state exchange,” Said Hudson

Starting October 1st, federal law will allow Floridians without health insurance to shop for coverage. More than two dozen navigators have been deployed across the state to educate the uninsured about the facts surrounding the Affordable Care Act and help them register for coverage.

“It’s not rocket science. You want to have assistance available at the places where people who are uninsured go to get their healthcare,” said Karen Woodall, an advocate for the Affordable Care Act.

Although Florida continues to fight, lawmakers say they will continue pushing for more coverage.

“We must find a way to put aside Florida’s differences and move forward with the ACA,” said Sobel.

Despite the state ban on using state facilities, several counties are helping navigators because they are obligated to help due to the federal grants they received.

For more information on the Affordable Care Act you can call 1-800-318-2596 or go online to healthcare.gov

Posted in State News | 4 Comments »

Same-Sex Benefits in Limbo

September 17th, 2013 by flanews

Because Florida defines marriage as a one man, one woman union; same-sex National Guard couples may have to go to federal military bases if they want to take advantage of a court ruling allowing them to receive benefits like other married couples. Florida is continuing to stall when asked if the state would honor the courts ruling.

Married same-sex couples may be denied benefits at Florida National Guard posts. That’s because the state is unsure on how to process benefit requests on state property after the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down earlier this year.

“It’s like anything else, if its civil rights the only way you get it is to keep banging on the wall and it eventually comes down,” said Ron Bunting.

Earlier this month federal military bases were required to allow married same-sex couples to register for benefits. At the beginning of September – the Florida National Guard sent a letter requesting the guidance of Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office on the subject. Her office’s response: a letter saying the state cannot provide a legal opinion because of insufficient information. The letter goes on to say the National Guard fails to indicate the course of action the department will take if a same-sex married couple applies for benefits.

Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi have similar same-sex marriage laws. Those three states have already refused to allow married same-sex couple to apply for benefits at National Guard posts.

LGBT advocates say they are hopeful the state will allow same-sex couple to get benefits at the National Guard posts.

“There’s court battles popping up all over the country, obviously,” said Jim VanRiper. “Fortunately 47 stats have said you know they’ll honor DOD’s decision to respect those couples in the military.”

For time being the Florida National Guard is advising same-sex couples to submit their benefit applications at federal facility’s managed by federal employees.

Neither Pam Bondi’s office or the Florida National Guard made itself available for an interview.

Posted in State News | 7 Comments »

Athlete Killed, Officer Arrested

September 16th, 2013 by flanews

A former Florida A&M University football player was shot multiple times and killed by a North Carolina Police Officer while trying to get help after a car accident.

Crime scene tape outlined a deadly shooting in Charlotte, North Carolina – A former Florida A&M football player is dead.

“He was very loving. Jonathan gave me hugs,” said Georgia Ferrell, Jonathan’s mother. “I got texts now, Jon would just text me and say mama, I love you.”

24-year-old Jonathan Ferrell was shot multiple times by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Officer Randall Kerrick after trying to get help after an early morning car accident Saturday. Ferrell was unarmed when he was shot.

“Especially in a situation like this even though this did happen,” said Willie Ferrell, Jonathan’s brother. “Jonathan would always, no matter if someone did something to him, he would always want to forgive them.”

Ferrell was pronounced dead at the scene of the shooting. Officer Kerrick was booked in jail on Voluntary Manslaughter charges – he was later released on a 50-thousand dollar bond.

“He was gunned down,” said Chris Chestnut, family attorney. “Shot in cold blood by this officer, this is just senseless.”

Jonathan played football at Florida A&M University along side his brother, Willie.

“Jonathan told me that no matter what, he was always going to be there and protect me,” said Willie Ferrell.

The family and their attorney Chris Chestnut said they will do what it takes to seek justice.

“These sill other answers, questions that we’re seeking answers to that perhaps law enforcement cannot answer,” said Chestnut.

Ferrell moved to Charlotte from Tallahassee earlier this year.

Posted in State News | 104 Comments »

Drivers May Pay A Price

September 12th, 2013 by flanews

Every year tens of thousands of hit and run accidents happen in Florida.

“Oh yeah, I’ve been hit twice by cars here in town,” said cyclist Jack Tomassetti.

Tomassetti has been riding for 12 years. He said it’s essential for all cyclists to be aware of their surroundings. “For the cars, just know we’re out there,” he said.

New legislation is being considered to protect cyclists. It would strengthen laws protecting vulnerable road users, including bike riders. The bill is being introduced after the 2012 death of 36-year-old Aaron Cohen in South Florida. The driver involved in the accident fled the scene. Some believe the driver was drinking and turned himself in after sobering up.

If the legislation were to ever become law and you’re caught in a hit and run accident with a cyclist, you would lose your license for three years.

“Anytime there is a change for behavior that’s good for people who are on the road,” said Ethan Way, Attorney. “Especially bikes or pedestrians its gonna be good.”

Way said he supports stronger laws protecting cyclists – but worries the law would prosecute the wrong people.

“You could end up in a situation where people who have a potential legitimate reaction, an unlawful reaction, like of fear might be caught in the net,” he said.

The legislature would make hit and runs with serious injury a 2nd degree felony, punishable by up to ten years in prison.

Posted in State News | 2 Comments »

Love is in The Air…And on the Hood of Your Car

September 11th, 2013 by flanews

Tiny insects are leaving their marks in what may be record numbers on cars across Florida.

Bob Goldman, a Floridian who has years of experience dealing with these pest, believes the love-bug population has significantly increased from previous years.

“Whenever I drive on the roads in Florida this time of year,” said Bob Goldman. “I expect Love Bugs, but this has been an unusually thick situation.”

Anywhere from a quarter of an inch to a third of an inch, these tiny pests are hard to miss. After becoming an adult, a male and female will couple up and start the mating process. The insects are attracted to hot surfaces and car emissions, making their time together short lived.

Bob Goldman took his Love bug infested car to the carwash for a much needed scrubbing Wednesday morning after driving through a swarm of the pesky insects Tuesday evening.

“My car has never been covered so much with Love Bugs,” said Goldman.

Although a lack of conclusive evidence makes it difficult to prove, those familiar with the insect say it appears that there are more Love bugs out this fall than in recent memory.

“A lot more cars and a lot more bugs,” said A.J Chandler, Manager of Super Suds.

”Cars are lined up at car washes to clean these pesky bugs off of them and experts warn drivers to clean them off fast, or risk damage to your car,” Matt Horn reports.

“If you get enough of them, they can actually block the radiator, but that’s an exception,” said Jan Peters, an Entomologist at FAMU.

Although the bugs are a nuisance for most, Love Bugs are harmless for humans and will be gone soon enough.

“When it gets cold they’ll go away,” said Peters.

Love Bugs are most common in the spring and again in the fall.

Posted in State News | 47 Comments »

Enrollment Slipping Away

September 10th, 2013 by flanews

Across Florida, universities are boasting an increase in enrollment – but one state university is seeing a drastic decrease in students. As Matt Horn reports, more than two years of problem after problem is taking its toll.

The sun shines bright over the campus at Florida A&M University… but the literal expression doesn’t translate to a bright future for this school year.

“We peaked at about 13,000 a couple years ago. We’re down to 10,700,” said Interim-President Larry Robinson.

Robinson retired then returned to this historically black university during one of the most tumultuous periods in FAMU history.

“We certainly know in the last year and a half, we’ve been dealing with some difficult challenges,” he said.

The loss of students is estimated to cost the university nearly 12-million dollars over a two year span.

D’Andre Johnson is an out-of-state student at A&M. He says multiple factors have contributed to the decrease in students following the hazing death of 26-year-old Robert Champion two years ago…but he believes the university will rebound.

“The band was primarily the hazing incident and we still have freshman that come here, I think that’s something we can get past,” said Johnson.

Other students feel there are other reasons for the decline in enrollment.

“I guess the increase in tuition,” said student Brooklyn Kinnaird.

University officials say its not an isolated issue – and points to strict credit ratings needed to get a college loan.

“With the combination of things going on particularly the financial difficulties our students and their parents are facing, we knew it’d lead to an additional decrease,” said Robinson.

The school says it will work to overcome this obstacle, like the others they’ve faced in recent years.

Although enrollment has decreased among undergrads, there has been an increase among grad students.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Private Insurers Want You

September 9th, 2013 by flanews

By early next month you may see major changes to your property insurance – especially if you use Citizens Property Insurance. Hundreds of thousands are being transferred out of Citizens’.

Keep a close eye on the mail over the next month — the largest property insurer in Florida is looking to drop nearly 400-thousand policies as soon as November.

“Citizens needs to go back to becoming the insurance company of last resort. I want to make sure that everybody understands the risk of Citizens the fact your subject to a hurricane tax assessment,” said Governor Rick Scott.

Scott has been a major supporter of downsizing Citizens’ Property Insurance. Supporters and challengers want homeowners to check with insurance agents to make sure people are getting the best bang for their buck.

“Citizens has no business being the largest insurance company in the state of Florida. We want these policies in other companies, the issue is people don’t know where to look,” said Sean Shaw.

“I tell consumers all day. Read the letter. Read every line in it. It may look like junk mail,” said Lisa Miller. “But open and read it and discuss it with an insurance agent.”

Policyholders seeking renewal with Citizens will be forced to use a private insurer if they receive a private-market offer at the same price or less.

“Take the offer, come out of Citizens’ which is government insurance company,” said Miller.

“Everyone wants to look at sticker price and says I’m going with cheapest. But, your coverage could be vastly different,” said Shaw.

Policyholders do have a choice. If they elect to leave Citizens’ their new policies may not offer the same level of coverage.

Currently there are 1-point-2 million policyholders with Citizens’.

Posted in State News | 1 Comment »

Can You Hear Me Now? Good.

September 5th, 2013 by flanews

Imagine looking for a job and not having access to a phone to find out if you’re wanted for a second interview. Millions across America face that obstacle yearly. As Matt Horn reports – Florida is working towards making sure everyone has a phone no matter how much money you make.

From days gone by, when there were four families to one phone to one family with four phones. The need to stay connected is as important now as ever before. That’s why Mamie Barber attended a kick off event for the National Lifeline Awareness Week.

“I know for myself being a low income family, this program will help me,” said Barber.

The purpose of the meeting is to get these applications into the hands of low-income families so they can stay connected with others.

Over the next week a number of events will be held across the state — making sure everyone can stay in touch..

“There are a lot of benefits for having this cell phone for those who need it,” said wireless representative Tammy Johnston.

Statewide – more than 1-million Floridians need assistance to get phone services. An increase of 9-point-7 percent from last year.

“It’s a program that is growing, that recognizes the financial situation many families are in today,” said PSC Chariman Ronald Brise.

Senator Bill Montford says everyone who is eligible for the program should get a phone. “This is an effort today to provide that service to the people who need it. The one’s under financial stress at this point,” said Senator Montford.

For Barber – she says it doesn’t matter how much money you have – but having access to a phone is needed for all.

“Don’t judge us because where we live at or anything else because we’re all still human,” she said.

The discount service costs 111 dollars a year.

Posted in State News | 1 Comment »

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