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Fireworks Loophole

December 31st, 2013 by flanews

Fireworks that explode are illegal in Florida, but as Matt Horn tells us, they can still be purchased with the stroke of a pen.

Florida bans fireworks that explode or go airborne. But loopholes in the law let people buy them at shops or roadside stands, if they sign a waiver saying the pyrotechnics are for agricultural purposes. State Representative Matt Gaetz wants to legalize firecrackers, bottle rockets, and everything in between.

“This is a regulation that first of all has very little value to the state. It is not helping us economically and third it’s just silly to be over regulating fireworks,” said Rep. Gaetz.

Not only is the current law making liars out of normally law abiding people, Gaetz says its sending commerce out of state.

“I’ve seen too often people just take to the internet or drive across state line to buy what they want and I’m not looking to push that consumer activity out of Florida,” said Rep. Gaetz.

Nationally an estimated five thousand people are sent to the emergency room each year for fireworks injuries. Vendors say they encourage safe behavior.

“I like selling them, like seeing people get excited about them,” said Arthur Grubbs, firework seller. “We tell them please be careful, please have a bucket of water handy so you can put things out as they burnout, try to encourage safety, too.”

The US Consumer Product Safety Commission says a fourth of all fireworks injuries are from firecrackers. Another twelve percent are from sparklers, which are legal under current law.

The State Fire Marshall wasn’t available for an on-camera interview but says the state is working to protect public safety – and is confident any proposed legislation will take those concerns into consideration.

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Lack Of Tax

December 30th, 2013 by flanews

Every year the A State of Florida fails to collect more than 500-million dollars due from online sales. As Matt Horn reports – a boom in shopping at your finger tips may equal big problems for Florida’s future.

Florida retailers are relying on trusted customers to battle online retail giants who are not collecting sales tax.

“A lot of times people will come in and say, well they would rather buy it in person and see and touch and feel it rather than get it online,” said Katelin Haggerty, local retailer.

A loophole in Florida law allows retailers like Amazon to not collect sales tax – costing Florida at least a half a billion dollars a year. Instead, Floridians are required to fill out a form to pay sales taxes not collected. John Fleming with the Florida Retail Federation says with more people shopping online, there is less revenue to support schools and other services.

“I think where we have the issue are the pure e-commerce retailers. The ones who are not operating stores, the ones who are not investing in the state of Florida, the ones right now who are not hiring people in the state of Florida,” said Fleming.

In 2013 brick and mortar sales have increased by 4-percent over 2012. But, some areas of online are exploding.

Not collecting the tax shifts the burden for services to other forms of taxation.

“We can see now that those little problems of not collecting the sales tax are becoming big problems as e-commerce explodes in Florida,” said Fleming.

Between November and December its estimated Floridians spent upwards of 60-billion dollars. Nearly ten percent of that shopping was done online.

“I think some retailers were caught by surprise by just how much e-commerce has grown this year,” said Fleming.

It’s estimated only 4-thousand people fill out the sales tax forms annually.

Retailers are waiting for final numbers this holiday season, but say they are confident numbers will be higher compared to last year’s holiday shopping season.

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Raising The Age For Dropping Out

December 27th, 2013 by flanews

21 states require students to be 18 to drop out of school. And as Matt Horn reports, Florida is looking at joining those states with a higher drop out rate.

9-thousand Florida high school students dropped out before finishing high school last year. Parents must agree for a student to quit before they are 18. Now Florida is one of the states looking to join 20 other states and Washington, DC in raising the drop out age. State Senator Darren Soto says 16 is too young to leave school.

“I believe that we need to make them stay in school until 18 when they at least have enough maturity to make the decision if they want to continue,” said Sen. Soto.

More than 74 percent of Florida high school students graduated in 2012. Fewer than two percent dropped out. Nearly 40- thousand either took an extra year, or got a certificate.

“I want to make sure our youth stay in school and that we tell them it’s not okay to leave at 16,” said Sen. Soto.

Former School Superintendent and now state Senator Bill Montford supports the higher dropout age, with reservations.

“Raising the age to 18 is good but that’s only one step and it won’t work unless we have real special programs in place that these children need,” said Sen. Montford.

Program ideas include helping students during the day and after school.

Senator Montford says forcing students to stay in school two additional years won’t necessarily save taxpayers any money.

“If we do it, there’s a cost to it and we need to fund it,” said Sen. Montford.

High school dropouts earn, on average, 15-thousand dollars less than those with a diploma. Those with a college degree earn three times more than a high school graduate.

Florida’s graduation rates have increased nearly 20 percent over the last ten years.

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History in the Making

December 26th, 2013 by flanews

The months of April, May, June and July set rainfall records across the state. Now, all that rain has firefighters anticipating a dangerous wildfire season. As Matt Horn reports – officials are hoping history doesn’t repeat itself.

Heavy rains across Florida this summer may have opened the gates for dangerous wildfires next spring.

“It would be consistent with the past for us to see a very rainy season end dramatically and go into a period of prolonged drought,” said Adam Putnam, Agriculture Commissioner.

Rain, then drought is exactly what happened in 1998, turning the year into one of the worst fire seasons on record. Interstates were closed, more than 100-thousand were evacuated as half a million acres burned. Putnam worries this wildfire season may be just as hazardous.

“When it does stop raining you got that much more flammable material in the woods to cause a hotter, bigger, faster moving fire,” said Putnam.

The latest drought monitor shows more than a quarter of the state as being abnormally dry – 20 percent increase from the middle of October.

The wildfires of 1998 taught emergency managers they needed to worry about more than hurricanes. Emergency Management Director Bryan Koon says families need to be prepared for every type of severe weather.

“Take a look at what you can do to make sure yourself, your loved ones, your families, your businesses are prepared for any eventuality,” said Koon.

Fighting The wildfires in 1998 cost the state more than 133-million dollars.

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Holiday Display Chaos

December 24th, 2013 by flanews

Inside the Florida Capitol – a number of holiday themed displays are out for the public to see. But, as Matt Horn reports, not all of the displays made the cut.

Members of the Garner family traveled from Montana and Tennessee to take their photo in front of the Festivus display inside the Florida State Capitol. They’ll use it for next year’s Holiday card.

“It’s awesome. This one will go down on the family fridge for a while,” said Britt Garner.

“Its just honestly interesting politically and just good family fun,” said Lisa Garner.

Just five feet away is another first… a unique display representing the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Not from the Flying Spaghetti Monster are displays from The Freedom From Religion and Atheists groups.

“I think its great Florida has this diversity represented at Christmas time,” said Mary Edwards.

“Though I may not agree with everything, I think it’s good,” said Houston Ham.

All together eight holiday displays were allowed. One was not. This is a picture of the exhibit presented by the Satanic Temple to the state. The Department of Management Services said the display is “grossly offensive”.

It started off with the Christmas Nativity, a religious display. Going from the Nativity Scene to other displays of non-religion, groups are making sure there’s something here for everyone.

“I think it’s a great opportunity to bring all walks of life to do some fun things, it’s a really good example of pop culture,” said Karen Garner.

Although most were in support of the unique displays, not everyone was. Some believe the only acceptable display is the Nativity Scene.

“That I can accept, but this I cannot even though they’re mocking,” said Maynard Hellbusch.
So regardless what you’re celebrating this holiday season – the capitol has a little bit of everything for everyone.

The Nativity Scene that sparked the unique displays will be replaced later this week for Three Kings Day.

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Spend Now, Save Later

December 23rd, 2013 by flanews

There’s an old adage that says you need to spend money to make money. As Matt Horn reports a new report says the state needs to spend money to save money.

More than 100-thousand inmates are behind bars in Florida. Costing two billon a year. An independent study released Monday says for taxpayers to cut that cost — the state will have to spend money.

“We could spend thousands to save millions when it comes to reentry,” said Dan McCarthy, Florida TaxWatch Director for Smart Justice.

8 of every 10 inmates are released within five years of their conviction. Just over one in four who are released will be back behind bars within five years.

“The cost of failed reentry is overwhelming to the taxpayer,” said McCarthy.

Florida TaxWatch says its simple math. If there are more programs to teach inmates skills taxpayers will reap the benefits.

“If we could reduce the number of prisoners that return to the state prison, we can save significant money,” said McCarthy.

The independent study says that if fewer people reoffend and go back to prison it could save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year.

A new reentry prison in the Florida Panhandle will open its gates next week…the first prison of its kind in the Florida.

“Their time here is going to be dedicated to getting what they need to make sure when they get out we’ve done everything we can to maximize their opportunity for successful integration back into society,” said Michael Crews, Department of Corrections.

Taxpayers spend 20-thousand dollars a year to keep inmates in state prison.

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DEO’s employment rates this fall

December 20th, 2013 by flanews

“We’ve had six thousand jobs added over the month. That’s over 73 thousand jobs over the fall so far, we sill have the December numbers to come in but that’s a phenomenal economic growth this fall,” says Jesse Panuccio, DEO Executive Director.

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Call Center Still Plagued by Problems

December 20th, 2013 by flanews

Florida’s unemployment dropped three tenths of  a percent in the last month, but large numbers of people continue to have problems accessing benefits through a new computer system, so now the state is withholding payments to its contractor.

Problems with the state’s web site where people sign up for jobless benefits persist nine weeks after launch. After defending the issues as minor glitches, The state has now had enough. “Today, DEO announced that it is withholding payment, the contractual installment payment of three million dollars that was due because the system is not in a place where we feel it’s fully functional and that the payment is due. We’ve also instituted liquidated damages of 15 thousand dollars per business day,” says Jesse Panuccio, DEO Executive Director.

Three weeks after Florida launched the 63 million dollar Connect system the contractor and state were called before legislative committees to explain problems, including doing a poor job of answering calls. “So, when it was bad we were at 32 percent and when it was vastly improved we were at 52… We’re catching half of the calls.” Says Rep. Ed Hooper, Tourism and Economic Development Committee Chairman, Clearwater.

Fast forward six and a half weeks and the call problem has gotten worse. Instead of half the calls being answered, statistics from this week show only 29 percent of the unique calls get someone on the line. “You may be seeing in terms of reaching fewer unique calls would be that as we get more things fixed and the easy problems get fixed the calls can take longer because the issues are more complex,” says Panuccio.     

With delays on the phone and a website that’s hard to get onto, DEO says its hiring a hundred and 92 temporary staffers to try and make things better.

The Department of Economic Opportunity is also threatening to bring in outside IT consultants if the problems are fixed quickly.

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Changes in Speed Limit in Florida

December 19th, 2013 by flanews

The National Safety Council and the Consumer Federation of the Southeast are coming out against any changes in the speed limit in Florida. Legislation has been filed to allow the speed limit to go up by five miles an hour on rural interstates and divided highways. John Ulczycki (Yule-Chess-Key)  of the National Safety Council says there’s no doubt accidents and deaths would increase at a higher limit. “Florida is having about 2 thousand deaths a year in traffic crashes. A five percent increase from a five mile an hour speed limit would not surprise me,” says John Ulczycki, National Safety Council.

Legislative supports say they aren’t trying to raise the speed limit, only allow DOT to do an engineering study to see if higher limits would be safe.

The National Safety Council came out today against legislation that would allow the speed limit to go up on Florida’s rural interstates. Traffic experts say your chances of surviving are better in an urban area because of quick access to health care. John Ulczycki (Yule-Chess-Key) of the National Safety Council says if we want safer roads, the speed limit should be going down, not up. “If you want to saves as many lives as you can, then look at a 60 or 65 mile an hour speed limit… but it’s really… what has happened is we’ve created speed limits based on political negotiation for the most part, but don’t confuse that with safety,” says John Ulczycki, National Safety Council.

Twenty four hundred people died on Florida roadways in 2011.

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Inmates Attempted Escaped Investigated

December 19th, 2013 by flanews

Two months to the day since being recaptured, there are new charges in the escape of two convicted murders who were able to walk free from a state prison using forged documents. The two escapees and four others, including the ringleader were charged today.

Joseph Jenkins walked out of prison on September 27th. Charles Walker escaped from the same prison on October 8th. Both used nearly identical forged documents.

The two convicted murders serving life were re-captured at a Panama City Beach motel October 19th. In the two months since, officials have been combing through cell phone records, printers, computers and more. “FDLE agents arrested 6 individuals charged with 37 separate crimes,” says Gerald Bailey, FDLE Commissioner.

FDLE created this poster to explain how the scheme worked.

The ringleader is a former Pinellas County inmate who used similar documents to escape in 2009. “While incarcerated at Franklin C I, Nashaddai talked an assisted both Jenkins and Forbes. And in 2011 all three attempted escape using this scheme,” says Bailey.

Investigators say the forged documents were created in the prison library then funneled as legal mail to a yet to be charged attorney. Correction officials say they are checking their options to see if they can limit future mail. “We’re looking right now at what constitutionally we have to provide,” says Michael Crews, Corrections Secretary.

Since the escapes the Department of Corrections isn’t letting anyone out without first checking with the judge whose name’s on the order.

Investigators say they are still pursuing leads, including the attorney who may have helped. “There are other people, satellites to this that have some involvement,” says Bailey.

A twenty thousand dollar reward is still available for anyone who helps in the investigation.

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Highest Homeowner Insurance Rates

December 18th, 2013 by flanews

We don’t want them seeing that Florida’s rates are out of line with the rest of the country. It might be more expensive because of our geography but it has to be fair and it has to be reasonable and we want to hold them accountable to that.

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Pushing For Change

December 18th, 2013 by flanews

Months after an 8-year-old North Florida girl was kidnapped and killed by a repeat sex offender, lawmakers are pushing for change. As Matt Horn reports – if approved, Florida will have one of the toughest sex offender laws in the country.

Violent Sex offender Donald Smith is awaiting trial for the death of Jacksonville 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle. Smith is just one of hundreds who has re-offended statewide after being released from prison.

“The Jacksonville case is a perfect example of how the system unfolded,” said Senate President Don Gaetz (R).

In recent years, more than 600 sexually violent offenders, including Smith, have slipped through the system.

“I think it’s fair to say something’s not working,” said Sen. Gaetz.

State lawmakers have introduced legislation to get tough on sex offenders. If passed, it would make Florida’s laws some of the toughest in the country.

“We need to make sure Florida is the most unfriendly environment in America for people who want to victimize our kids,” said Sen. Gaetz.

Because of sexual offenders who slipped through the cracks, 400 children have been assaulted in recent years. 12 died.

Lawmakers have been pushing the Florida Department of Children and Families to keep kids safer.

“We are pleased that more attention has been given to this really important tropic and we plan to continue working with them on the changes,” said Michelle Glady, Press Secretary DCF.

Ultimately, lawmakers would like to keep sex predators behind bars forever, but a court will have the final say over whether a predator can return to society.

Smith’s next pre-trial is set for the beginning of January.

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Gun Sales Set Record

December 18th, 2013 by flanews

Since the beginning of the year, more than eight hundred thousand background checks have been run on perspective gun buyers here in Florida, which is a new record for firearm purchases.

Jim Delprete was buying himself a Christmas present, his dream gun. “Colt .45, lever action, I’ve always wanted a Henry rifle,” says Jim Delprete, Gun Owner.

Once Jim’s personal information was typed into the terminal and the dealer entered his license, the sale was approved in less than five minutes. “This is the one I’ve been wanting for a long time and thank the good Lord above, today’s the day,” says Delprete.

Behind the terminal are more than 60 analysts. They search criminal records seven days a week. Jayme Chamberlain says the on line approval has made all the difference in the world. “Prior to that, we could be backed up maybe half an hour, 45 minutes on the phone,” says Jayme Chamberlain, Kevin’s Guns and Sporting Goods.

Only once in the last ten years, at the height of the recession, have the number of background checks gone down.

So many people are buying guns the state is actually hiring more people to keep up with background checks.

Last week, The Florida Department of Law Enforcement got the okay to ask lawmakers for the authority to hire 18 more people. “We are only closed on Christmas day and New Year’s day,” says Robin Sparkman, FDLE.

The background checks are paid for by a five dollar fee on each record search. Second Amendment supporters applaud the expansion. “The push at the National level for more gun control has awaken a lot of people. If they want to keep these rights alive, they need to act on them,” says Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala.

The state has been averaging just over twenty seven hundred background checks a day in December.

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Unemployment Computer Still Causing Problems

December 17th, 2013 by flanews

Unemployment Benefit applicants are continuing to have problems accessing their benefits on the states new web page. Technicians are being called almost daily to fix problems that erupt on the system.

Kenyon Singletary has been looking for work for six months. Her experiences with the new state computer system is spotty. “I skipped a week, then I had one week on there instead of two weeks to claim so I mean a little bit of problems but [In the end you got your benefits.] Yea, I got my benefits. I do have a friend who had a problem where she didn’t get hers and she had to wait another week,” says Keyon Singletary, Job Seeker.

In November the Department of Economic Opportunity was called on the legislative hot seat for the problems. “And when they have problems they don’t call you, they call us,” says Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater.

The calls haven’t stopped. “We have way to many people coming up to our office and complaining…” says Rep. Irv. Slosberg, D-Boca Raton.

State Representative Irv Slosberg wants an investigation into the 63 million dollar system and its problems. “To find a solution to the problem. These people, you know, you don’t have any money to buy food,” says Rep. Slosberg.

As one problem was fixed another pops up. Executive Director Jesse Panuccio has assed a million and a half dollar fine against the contractor. “And so, the one point five million was a recognition that the system was not delivered the way we wanted it at the time we wanted, so we are committed to holding the vender accountable,” says Sot: Jesse Panuccio, Dept of Economic Opportunity.

The latest penalty is on top of a million dollars contractor Deloitte gave up before the system was launched.

In 2011 State Lawmakers required all jobless benefit seekers to apply online, that’s something the new computer system has made all the more difficult.

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Re-Entering Society

December 17th, 2013 by flanews

Every year tens of thousands of inmates are released back into mainstream society. As Matt Horn reports – a new facility in North Florida will help those inmates adjust to life in their community.

Behind the razor wire at the Gadsden Re-Entry Center – inmates will be taught crucial life lessons to help them assimilate from prison back to communities around Florida.

“The majority of those who are going to be here are going to be here to get the programming they need to help them when they get out,” said Michael Crews, Department of Corrections Secretary.

The 432 bed facility is the first in the state. The goal is to reduce repeat offenders. Over the last five years recidivism has dropped from 33 to 27 percent. Warden Walt Summers says the state has a unique opportunity.

“It is an outstanding opportunity to teach theses guys, to give these guys a skill when they come through so they’ll be productive citizens when they get out,” said Summers.

87 percent of prisoners will eventually be released from prison. Which means 30,000 per year will return to Florida’s communities.

The facility was ready to open last year, but money was tight. Two other re-entry prisons are ready and waiting for funding. Representative Dennis Baxley says the new facility is a part of change on helping inmates and society.

“Change comes at a tipping point and the opening of this center I think is an indication that we’re at a tipping point, that this will truly be a priority,” said Representative Baxley.

The re-entry program is intended to help inmates with 3 years or less on their sentence.

“When they get out we’ve done everything we can to maximize their opportunity for successful re-integration back to society,” said Crews.

The Gadsden Re-Entry facility will open January 1st.

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