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The Future of Greyhound Racing

February 28th, 2014 by flanews

The future of greyhound racing may be decided by Florida lawmakers when they begin meeting next week. . Some are pushing to end the sport and thousands of jobs and millions of dollars are at stake.


Lee Devon is a spirited champion Greyhound who loved hamming it up for our camera. She lives at a Madison county breeding farm with a hundred other dogs who are being trained for racing.

“She runs every Monday and Thursday morning,” said Greyhound breeder Ron Gurley. “About 30 seconds…That’s it.”

Using reports to the state would show 70 dogs died last year. Animal activists are pushing lawmakers to end dog racing.

“And they’re dying for an activity, that no one’s betting on.” said Grey2K USA Executive Director Carey Theil.

Breeder Gene Gurley counters that it doesn’t make sense for him to mistreat his dogs. “For us, to get a dog to the race track, we’ve got $2200 in that dog and we want him to do the very best he can,” said Gurley, who has been breeding dogs since 1961.

And Florida Greyhound Association’s Jack Cory, who represents the breeders in front of lawmakers says the 70 dogs who died make up less than one percent of all the dogs that raced in Florida. He blames tracks for the majority of deaths and injuries.

“One Greyhound dying prematurely is too many.” said Cory. “However, of that 70, 50 percent of those were track injuries. And we have put forth the safety plan that could have stopped the majority of those 50 percent. Fix the track surface, maintain it to a standard…”

State lawmakers are being asked by dog tracks to be able to stop racing dogs and simply offer card games. That would mean there’d be no place for these dogs to go.

The Madison County greyhound farm is also rehabbing 15 dogs who were injured at tracks. Most will spend two months walking in a fenced area at their own pace, then begin walking a 20 minute mile under supervision until they heal.


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In-State tuition for Illegals?

February 28th, 2014 by flanews

Florida State Sophomore Daniela Donoso was born in Ecuador but moved here when she was 6 months old. With her family being undocumented, Daniela had to apply to Florida schools as an international student, which would drive up her costs.

“I don’t know how we would have made it if I had to pay out of state tuition,” said Donoso.

Daniela was lucky. She got an exemption from FSU, and is now part of a student organization rallying to get in-state tuition for all students who are children of undocumented people in Florida.

“My parents, that’s why they’re here. To give us those opportunities, to help us pay for college, to help us get a better education,” she said.

At Florida State, the tuition difference is around $6500 for in state students, for out of staters is can be almost $22,000. The difference could mean the difference in attending college at all, but lawmakers are proposing measures that would grant in state rates to children of illegal immigrants.

House Speaker Will Weatherford is supporting the in-state tuition rates, Senate President Don Gaetz isn’t so sure.

Senator Dwight Bullard has been pushing for the legislation for 3 years.

“Speaker Weatherford has already taken a position in favor of it, so it’d be my hope that it would be a rallying point that both of them can agree upon,” said Bullard.

A new bill filed earlier this week grouped together two in-state tuition measures: one that would allow state rates for children of undocumented parents, and one that allows in-state rates for veterans. Governor Rick Scott told members of Florida’s Hispanic Legislative Caucus  earlier this month that he would “consider” supporting an in-state tuition bill.

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Medical Marijuana x 2

February 27th, 2014 by flanews

Florida voters will decide if the state legalizes marijuana for medical purposes this coming November, but the political leadership at the State Capitol is embracing one form of marijuana, but not another.

Senate President Don Gaetz has admitted giving a business colleague marijuana to ease his pain. “Well it was 30 years ago…,” said Gaetz.

But the state’s top leaders tried to block a vote on medical marijuana. At the same time, they have taken testimony from suffering families about another strain of marijuana. “We are just asking for a leniency to treat these children,” said mother Paige Figgy.

The Senate President, who is second in power only to the Governor supports the legalization of non-high-producing Charlotte’s Web or CBD. “We need to look for how we can maybe get something good out of something we might be suspicious of,” said Gaetz.

Florida’s political leadership continues to make it clear they oppose the ballot amendment. “Those proponents have used children with seizures and dying patients as bait to get folks to vote for far more permissive and I think ill-advised amendments,” said Gaetz.

Supporters of the amendment to legalize the smoking kind of pot worry that politicians might use the legalization of Charlotte’s Web as a wedge against the ballot initiative. “Yea, just perhaps that we have medical marijuana in our state, so we need not vote in November. Which is really not the case,” said marijuana supporter Michael Krehl.

One poll shows 80 percent of the state’s voters in favor of medical marijuana. The initiative needs 60 percent to pass. So far, no organized opposition to the marijuana amendment has materialized. Many political experts say it is unlikely a negative ad campaign could shave enough support to prevent the amendments passage.

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Dirty Dozen Laws

February 27th, 2014 by flanews

The Institute for Justice has released a report they’re calling the “Dirty Dozen.” 12 laws they think Florida shouldn’t have on the books.



The D.C. based think tank partnered with the James Madison Institute to release their report of repeals they say could help boost the economy.

“We think the requirements now are excessive and they have the impact of limiting entry into a profession,” said Robert Sanchez from J.M.I.

Florida laws require trade employees like barbers to spend thousands of dollars on twelve hundred hours of schooling. Shop owners aren’t entirely sold cutting that one out.

“From an owners perspective an increase in available candidates to hire for jobs would be nice, however I do feel that it would create a lower price, you might see more barber shops opening up,” said Livin’ in the Cut Shop Owner Greg Picinic.

The I.J. report also recommends lifting restriction on cosmetologist, interior designers and beer brewers.

The ban of 64 ounce refillable beer containers called growlers is already on tap to be repealed this session. Brewers say the container is the most common one used for craft brewers around the country, just not in Florida.

We have packages of 32 oz that’s legal. We have packages of 128 oz that’s legal. The industry standard is a half gallon or 64 oz.,” said Justin Clark, the Vice President of Cigar City Brewing based in Tampa.

The House was a buzz kill for the growler bill last year. The same committee that denied the bill last year has moved it through already in 2014.

Along with barber laws and growlers, the report recommends the state ease up on overregulation on travel agents, funeral directors, and midwives.

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Testing Raises Questions

February 26th, 2014 by flanews

An 11-year-old quadriplegic student is being held out as an example of why standardized testing is rigid and insensitive. Louis Medina was in Tallahassee today, where the Florida Education Association called for a suspension of the FCAT and its replacement.

Louis Medina was a normal child until he suffered a heart attack in 2009. Now the Polk County eleven-year-old is a quadriplegic who can’t hear or verbalize. His teacher is frustrated because she is required to test Louis’s achievements using an alternative to the FCAT.

“If I know that you’re deaf, but I’m going to continue to talk to you, and explain things to you, read to you and ask you questions. You would feel so disrespected,” said teacher Kathy Nall.

Louis’s school, the Karen M. Siegel Academy, allowed Louis’s test, called the Florida Alternative Assessment to be videotaped. The video was played for reporters on Wednesday as Luis’s mother watched.

“How they are testing my child is not the right way,” said Louise’s mother Maria Rivera. “He couldn’t tell you what he thinks.”

The Florida Education Association, which arranged the videotaping, calls the testing insensitive and an example of why all standardized tests don’t measure what they seek to measure.

“I think the whole system should be stopped,” said Florida Education Association Vice President Joanne McCall. “We should take a pause, rather than being first, we should be right, and we should do what’s best for the students in the state of Florida. And this is not it.”

While Louise’s school did ask the Department of Education to exempt Louise and others from the test, DOE said no. The Department of Education says Louise’s parents chose to put him in a public school and the federal government requires the state to test.

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Farewell, FCAT

February 26th, 2014 by flanews

Florida students started taking their Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, this week. The 17 year education benchmark will end after this school year.

There is no test to replace it yet, and the Department of Education just approved more changes to Common Core standards last week.

“Every single year, they’re doing some type of change. We have no consistency, so people never know what to expect,” said Joanne McCall, Vice President for the Florida Education Association.

The state’s biggest teacher’s union is criticizing the decision to tweak standards before fixing school evaluation criteria.. The outgoing FCAT was heavily tied to the school A through F grading system which can determine funding and teacher pay.

“Whether we like it or not, kids are labeled A through F,” said McCall.

Florida’s Democratic House Leader Perry Thurston has called for scrapping the A through F system entirely.

“Instead of pushing so much on the school system, we should gradually do that. Maybe take 3 years to come up with some type of proposal that works,” said House Democratic Leader Rep. Perry Thurston.

Superintendents from around the state have also asked Governor Rick Scott and Education Commissioner Pam Stewart to slow down the transition to new standards and testing.

Leon County’s Jackie Pons was one of the vocal school leaders imploring the governor to pump the breaks and fix the A through F evaluations while schools absorb all the changes.

“Until we have the test established, until we have the opportunity to do professional development with teachers, why not slow everything down, lets get all that into place before we move ahead and create something we’re not going to be able to sustain,” said Pons

Education commissioner Pam Stewart is proposing a plan to fix the system. She says her goal is to simplify grading and restore credibility. She believes the state is still on track to find a new standardized test by March.

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Booze at the Grocery Store

February 25th, 2014 by flanews

A proposed legislation would allow you to grab a bottle of liquor on a routine trip to Walmart, but opponents are worried about how the change might give kids easy access to booze.

Florida’s liquor laws allow for beer and wine to be sold at supermarkets, but not the hard stuff. If new legislation is approved, places like Walmart and supermarkets will be able to put a booze aisle next to the produce.

“The biggest concern is access by minors, especially now as we’re moving into spring break,” said A.J. Smith.

Smith is a retired alcoholic beverage and tobacco enforcement officer. He says  even though booze is sold in big box stores in other states – it’s more dangerous here because of Florida’s spring break culture.

“Next month’s gonna start spring break and we’re going to see thousands of kids from all over the country here and we have them here all year round, too, because of the climate. I think our environment is a little bit different,” said Smith.

Big box stores can sell liquor, customers just have to go through a separate entrance to buy it.

The bills sponsors say the law is outdated.

“I think it’s antiquated, I think it’s common sense that a dividing wall in a store that’s under the same roof, is obviously not needed,” said Rep. Jimmie Smith, (R-Inverness).

Smith believes minors aren’t as inclined to go for hard liquor.

“You see anything in reference to alcohol and drinking for minors, it’s usually beer. If that was true, the wine wouldn’t be sold next to the beer as well,” he said.

Florida’s independent spirit association shrugged off the idea that this is about competition worries. The group says they already compete with supermarkets that have a separate liquor store entrance. Walmart is supporting the legislation for the change. The Florida Independent Spirits Association is worried that even though Walmart does card for alcohol sales, their younger cashiers won’t be as ready to spot a minor or fake ID.

Walmart responded with a statement from Lorenzo Lopez:

“Consumers want a more convenient shopping experience and are the driving force behind efforts modernize Florida’s adult beverage law. FISA’s claims are unfounded and an attempt to restrict competition and maintain the status quo. Based on our experience selling beer, wine and liquor within the store in 19 states, we can give customers added convenience while we continue to sell these products in a responsible manner. Our existing measures, systems and training which in many cases exceed those being offered by independent liquor retailers help ensure these products stay off-limits to minors.

“We look forward to continue working with other retailers and state lawmakers to reach a solution that expands consumer choice and convenience and levels the playing field for all grocery retailers across the state of Florida.”

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Housing Not So Affordable

February 25th, 2014 by flanews

In 1992 state lawmakers raised the doc stamp tax on real estate transactions from 60 to 70 cents on every 100 dollars. The cash was to be used for affordable housing. But when the great recession hit, lawmakers started using the money for everything but housing. Advocates say it’s now time for the state to fulfill its promise.

Ten cents of the tax on every 100 dollars of real estate sold is supposed to be used for affordable housing. This year there is almost three hundred million in the trust fund. Yet, on the eve of the legislative session, there are recommendations that none of it be spent on housing.

“We have over nine hundred thousand families who are very low income, who are spending more than half of that income on their housing,” said Jaimie Ross of Sadowski Housing Coalition.

A coalition of bankers, builders, the Chamber and others think that spending the money on housing would create more than 27 thousand jobs. “We buy lumber, concrete and other supplies from local businesses,” said Florida Home Builders Association’s President Rob Lieberman.

The problem began growing when the great recession hit and lawmakers spent about 80 percent of the money elsewhere.

“We’re asking that the money that has been statutorily dedicated for housing be used for housing in a year when we have plenty of money to do so,” said Ross.

In addition to helping the poor, the program is also designed to help teachers, fire fighters and police from being priced out of the housing market.

70 percent of the spending is decided locally by sustainable housing groups in every county. In rural Gadsden County, the waiting list grows longer every day.

“I just have to put people on a waiting list to even make application,” said Phyllis Moore of Gadsden County Sustainable Housing Initiative. In Gadsden County alone, more than 200 people have been put on a waiting list since 2011. Since its inception, the program has spent more than $3 billion dollars on housing.

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Moral Monday

February 24th, 2014 by flanews

Thousands of people are expected to March on the state capitol on the eve of the legislative session next week, unhappy, because they believe key issues are being ignored.

When you see 5 year old Jaden Vidal bouncing and laughing around the capitol, you wouldn’t even know he was born with half of a heart.

“His condition is called hypoplastic left heart syndrome, which is the underdevelopment of the left side of the heart. In order to correct this, Jaden needed 3 open heart surgeries,” said his mother, Belkis Velasquez.

Jaden’s first surgery was covered by Medicaid. Expansion of the program to include one million working poor is one of the key issues driving what the NAACP is calling Moral Monday.

Moral Monday started with protests in North Carolina.  Florida’s version will come next Monday, the day before the annual legislative session begins.

The rally will happen in the Capitol’s courtyard and will focus on Medicaid expansion, repealing Stand Your Ground, and ending voter suppression.

The state recently blocked an attempt to open an early voting location at the University of Florida. Jessica Lowe Minor of the league of Women voters says the denial is another example of voters having their rights tampered with.

“The league certainly disagrees with the state’s decision on that. We feel like the secretary of state should be encouraging early voting locations,” said Lowe-Minor.

Governor Rick Scott’s Secretary of State reject the UF early voting site, saying it doesn’t meet state law definition of a government owned building or community center. Groups such as the Southern Christian Leadership Council, Planned Parenthood, and the Florida Consumer Action Network are partnering with the NAACP for the event.

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Red Light Repeal on Front Burner

February 24th, 2014 by flanews

Efforts to repeal red light cameras will be on the front burner when state lawmakers begin their annual legislative session next week, and this year’s effort to end the cameras has powerful friends.

Florida’s two most powerful lawmakers, the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate both support ending red-light cameras. But their power has limits.

“I don’t think that the votes are there to do a complete repeal,” said Senate President Don Gaetz (R-Niceville), “but there are a couple of proposals that are being considered in the legislature that maybe would clean up the incentives and the motives. ”

One of the reasons repeal is likely doomed this year is inconclusive data. A recent legislative report found there were 1186 more crashes at red light intersections after the cameras went up, but 18 fewer people died.

Perhaps an even bigger obstacle to repeal: the cameras produced 118 million in revenue last year, split almost evenly between the state and local governments.

“I think that there are a couple proposals that would maintain red-light cameras to save lives but eliminate red-light cameras as a way to either enrich government or enrich some out-of-state vendors,” said Gaetz.

The Florida League of Cities is on the defensive, asking lawmakers to stand down. “Red light cameras save lives,” said Casey Cook of FL League of Cities. “We believe that they stop dangerous T-bone collisions and they make our streets safer.”

Last year lawmakers extended the time to pay the $158 fine and they created an appeal process. Cities and counties say the changes are only a few months old and need time to work.

“We haven’t had enough time yet to study those changes yet to see if they were effective or not,” said Cook.

While the ticket producing cameras may not be doomed this year, local governments could be forced to report data, not all do.

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Fraud Findings

February 21st, 2014 by flanews

The department that the public turns to when they feel they’ve been victims of fraud has been singled out by auditors. A report finds the Division of Public Assistance Fraud is coming up short in a few areas.

Thousands of claims relating to Medicaid and food stamp fraud come into Florida’s Department of Financial Services every year. An audit from July 2011 to January 2013 recommended some changes for the Division of Public Assistance Fraud.

The Division runs 7 regional offices throughout the state. The audit found regional investigators are overrun with cases – more than one thousand for every investigator in places like Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville. Auditors say high case loads increased the risk of claims taking too long.

“We could always use more. Over the last 5 or 6 years the division of Public Assistance Fraud was cut in half by budget reductions,” said Division Director Jack Heacock. Heacock agreed that more staff was necessary.

The audit also found the Divison of Public Fraud Assistance was spending nearly $8 million dollars and only recovering a little over $3 million.

Representatives from Florida TaxWatch say a higher return would be nice, but the program is preventing more fraud, and more money from being taken.

“You obviously want to recapture more than you’re spending, that’s just fundamental business decisions and that may not always be the case. But the deterrent effect has got to be phenomenal,” said TaxWatch CEO Dominic Calabro.

Heacock said the number doesn’t tell the whole story.

“Our division has more than simply restitution to hang its hat on,” he said.

Heacock says the amount of money recovered during the audit period doesn’t show the overall success of the program. From 2012 to 2013, numbers from the CFO’s office show more than 26 million dollars of potentially fraudulent benefits were withheld.

The Division’s director disagreed with claim times taking too long. He said a majority of claims on average take 120 days or less to complete. Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater agreed with all of the audits findings and the department is currently implementing changes.

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Helping the Homeless

February 20th, 2014 by flanews

Florida has the third highest homeless population in the country. That number has caused lawmakers to want to invest in getting people back on their feet.

There are more than 47,000 homeless in Florida on any given night. Now lawmakers in Florida are trying to pump money into grant programs to reduce homelessness.

“We really don’t appear to have a program that pulls in the shelter aspect as well as the assistance and training,” said Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Pinellas County).

Sen. Latvala and Rep. Kathleen Peters hope that their bills in the house and senate can fund challenge grants. The grants provide housing and other services for the homeless. Peters says that the problem extends to every age group.

“Children are the highest population among the homeless, so we have kids couch surfing and just surviving out on the streets and we need to take care of them,” said Rep. Peters.

Even though Governor Rick Scott has vetoed similar proposals in the past, the bills sponsors are confident that these programs are a hand up and not a hand out.

The bill would provide expanded grants based to communities that would locally match the money.  Latvala says this program is different than ones Scott has vetoed. It focuses on job placement and other programs to teach life skills.

“Just opening a center where people can come at 6 o’clock at night until 6 o’clock in the morning to hang out is a bandaid approach,” said Latvala.

The grant programs were eliminated from the state budget during the recession. The goal of the challenge grant money is to get people into their own housing.

“They will one day have a much better quality of life and will save our community dollars when they come in to their own housing,” said Susan Person of the Florida Homeless Coalition.

Latvala and Peters said they crafted the bill after programs already in place in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. The bill also directs funding to the Department of Children and Families to distribute and establish homeless programs.

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Threatened Use of Force

February 20th, 2014 by flanews

People who fire a warning shot instead of shooting someone would not be charged with aggravated assault and go to prison under legislation moving quickly though the state legislature. Supporters say the change is needed because some prosecutors don’t understand the stand your ground legislation.

Marissa Alexander fired a shot to allegedly scare off an abusive ex husband. She got 20 years but she’s being retried. Lee Wollard is in the same predicament… turning down probation because he didn’t think he’d done anything wrong.

“We owe a duty to people like that to protect those who don’t belong in prison until 2028 because they threatened use of force,” said Rep. Katie Edwards (D-Miami).

Legislation moving quickly at the Capitol clarifies stand your ground. Many believe the law is already clear, but Marion Hammer of the NRA says a change is needed because some prosecutors, including the one who prosecuted Marissa Alexander, are misusing the law. “If you actually shoot an attacker the law protects you,” said Hammer. “But if you merely threaten to shoot an attacker, some prosecutors try to put you in prison.”

The legislation will do nothing for those people who are already serving prison time, only those going forward.

Prosecutors have reservations about the bill and sheriffs spent the week working against the change. “I don’t think you can safely shoot a warning shot in the City of Miami, or Jacksonville, or Tampa, or St. Pete,” said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.

But pawn shop owner and gun shop dealer Mark Folmar says no one wants to shoot to kill if there’s an alternative. “I think anything that you could do short of shooting somebody is better than shooting somebody,” said Folmar.

The legislation could be one of the first bills debated by the state House.

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Deaths at the Dog Track

February 20th, 2014 by flanews

One greyhound died every three days at Florida’s tracks last year. Lawmakers are pushing to end the sport.

Legislators are sounding off on greyhound racing on the heels of a Report showing 74 greyhounds died at Florida’s dog tracks last year.

“Let’s have a laser focus and constant focus to end the practice of greyhound racing,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Shalimar).

There are twelve active dog tracks in the state. That number is more than half of the active tracks nationwide.

“They’re dying for an activity that no one’s betting on, that the track owners don’t want to do, and the track owners are losing money on. That doesn’t make any sense and it’s time for a change,” said GREY2K USA Executive Director Cary Theil.

Florida law requires a business with a gambling license to operate a dog track. Lawmakers are trying to separate the gaming and racing.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel’s bill would require dog tracks to make injury reports public. She says reporting is step 1 to doing away with the sport.

“I hope it does lead to decoupling of the industry in Florida. I believe that racing dogs, as Representative Matt Gaetz said, is horrific, and we need to end it,” said Sen. Sobel (D-Hollywood).

Another bill would decouple tracks from gambling all together.

“We should really be pushing for decoupling of this issue so that we can stop the racing of greyhounds. Let me be clear: this issue is a silent holocaust,” said Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-Coral Springs).

The Florida Greyhound Association is opposed to expanding the injury reporting rule. The group says preventing injuries starts with updating track conditions.

In 1990, Flroida collected 76 million dollars on greyhound racing taxes and fees. That number has dropped to only $1.5 million in 2013.

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Hit and Run Incentives

February 19th, 2014 by flanews

A loophole in Florida law gives drunken drivers an incentive to run if they are in a fatal accident, but as Mike Vasilinda tells us, state lawmakers are closing in on hit and run drivers.

In 2012 there were more than 70 thousand hit and run accidents in Florida. Experts say a vast majority who flee have been drinking and go home to sober up.

“80% of all hit-and-runs are DUI.” said MADD victim advocate Helen Witty. “And that’s huge. We need to stop that.”

Killing someone while driving drunk carries a four year minimum sentence in state prison. But there are no minimum sentences for someone who isn’t drunk. Advocates say the discrepancy is a loophole being user far too often.

“People are able to leave the scene of a crash, go home and metabolize the alcohol, turn themselves in later, and the evidence is gone. There’s no DUI,” said MADD victim advocate Sally Matson.

On average just over three people are killed by a hit and run driver every week here in Florida.

Aaron Cohen was killed riding his bike on a Miami causeway. The driver fled, and later admitted he’d been drinking but prosecutors couldn’t prove he was drunk. The death inspired State Sen. Miquel Diaz-de-la-Portia to file legislation. “I couldn’t believe it. I mean I really couldn’t imagine that the law would create an incentive for people to hit and run,” said Sen. Miquel Diaz-de-la-Portia (R-Miami).

Bicyclist’s and motorcyclist are backing the bill. In addition to a minimum penalty, the legislation defines a vulnerable person as someone who’s not in a car, and ups the penalties by a notch if someone hits them and flees.

The legislation cleared a Senate Committee by a vote of 9-0. It has one more committee stop before it is ready for debate by the full Senate.

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