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Prescription Drug Deaths Down

May 30th, 2014 by flanews

Prescription drug deaths have steadily decreased in Florida the past three years. As Matt Galka tells us, the crackdown on pill mills has helped, but new data shows synthetic drugs as the next challenge.

Florid used to dispense more oxycodone pills than any other state in the country. A new medical examiners report says a pill mill crackdown has helped lead to a decrease in prescription drug deaths according to a new medical examiners report from the first half of 2013.  975 people died in the first half of 2013 – 75 fewer than the year before. FDLE also started tracking a new drug type for the first time.

The report says that 30 people died from synthetic drugs and more than 70 others had synthetics in their system.

Synthetic narcotics are composed of chemicals capable of producing a dangerous high.  Law enforcement says that after the attorney general bans one product, chemists produce a slightly different version.

“They change a few molecules in that formula, and then the Attorney General is back to doing the same thing, to me that is the challenge,” said FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey.

The legislature also passed a bill that would place store owners selling banned substances in the same class as a drug trafficker.

“it’s no different than a street level drug dealer and they’re going to get locked up if they’re selling this stuff,” said Attorney General Pam Bondi.

It’s difficult to police the synthetic drug companies. Most are manufactured overseas. The FDLE says that monitoring synthetic drug deaths will help the state monitor the impact of the narcotics, and ultimately help shape recommendations for lawmakers.

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Riding the Redistricting Trial Roller-Coaster

May 30th, 2014 by Mike Vasilinda

The League of Women Voters is in court attacking political maps drawn by lawmakers after voters said maps should be drawn fairly.  The trials second week was marked with conspiracy and political intrigue on center stage.

“Mr. Posada, thank you for being here. You are a college student at FSU” is how Alex Posada was greeting by House Speaker designate Will Weatherford in June 2011.

Nearly three year old testimony before a legislative redistricting committee by FSU Student Alex Posada has been the subject of conspiracy theories all week long.

“You’all done a great job here today” said Posada. It was that positive comment that led many to believe the college student help the state GOP  submit party drawn maps eventually adopted by lawmakers.

On the stand Tuesday, Republican map maker Frank Terrafirma was asked how a map submitted by Posada was identical to one Terraferma drew and circulated to GOP consultants. “Certainly it was a possibility that someone would file a map. I did not put a copyright on anything I did” responded the GOP’s House map maker.

The working theory at the beginning of the was that The GOP drew the maps, passed them on to a consultant who passed them on to the college student who submitted them at the absolute moment.

The theory changed radically when Posada was deposed. Under oath, he denied submitting the map later adopted…and says the email address used to submit it wasn’t his, even though it contained his name.

Then on Thursday, the judge took the unusual step of clearing the public from the courtroom as a GOP consultant discussed “trade secrets”

By Friday, Lawmakers began their defense of the maps…calling a USF researcher who has written extensively on black voter disenfranchisement. “Simply creating compact and contiguous districts is going to have a negative ramification on the election of minorities, both blacks and hispanics. His testimony sought to bolster GOP claims that drawing long, meandering districts for Blacks was a good thing.

The trial ends next week, with a decision due by the end of June. No matter which side wins, an appeal in this first of a kind trial is likely. If the League of Women voters can prove political influence was involved in the map drafting, they would likely have to be redrawn.

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School Choice

May 29th, 2014 by flanews

Public school supporters are speaking out against school choice. As Matt Galka tells us, groups are calling on the governor to veto a voucher expansion bill while another is condemning charter schools.

Florida’s legislature approved a voucher expansion bill – which gives corporate tax breaks to businesses funding scholarships – by combining it with another bill supporting special needs students. The Florida School Board Association says the last minute move is taking billions from other programs. They’re calling for a veto.

“Much of that money would, yes, come to Florida’s public schools, but a lot of those dollars, that 2 billion dollars that does not come in, could also be used to fund children’s services, transportation, department of corrections and other entities,” said FSBA Executive Director Wayne Blanton.

Step Up for Students runs the voucher program and gives out nearly 60,000 tax credit scholarships a year. We talked to Public affairs director Ron Matus by phone.

“All this program does, like other school choice options, is give parents more options to find something that works for their kids,” said Matus.

The League of Women Voters also stepped out against school choice, releasing a scathing report on charter schools.

The year long study blasted charter schools for having ties to for profit companies and mismanaging funds. The league says there are no outstanding differences in achievement between charter and traditional public schools.

“Why are we really spending so much money on charter schools when we’re not really seeing any significant improvements,” said Jessica Lowe Minor with the league.

The state’s biggest teacher’s union has also called on the governor to veto the voucher expansion bill.

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State Spending by Minutes and Seconds

May 29th, 2014 by Mike Vasilinda

Governor Rick Scott has until June fourth to sign the record 77 billion dollar state budget. An estimated twenty and a half million people now live in Florida, and that means your individual share of the spending plan is just over 38 hundred dollars.

The state of Florida will spend eight million seven hundred ninety-nine thousand dollars each and every hour of every day for the next year just  to keep the lights on and do everything state government does.

Tyrone Hamilton shines shoes a block from the capitol. It takes him about nine minutes per shine so I asked him “do you know that in the time it took to shine my shoes, the state spent over a million dollars. His response: “I should hope that million dollars is spent on something that’s going to be good for the consumer, good for children” says Hamilton.

Schools get just under a third of the total…spending almost 43 thousand dollars a minute….in the 31 seconds it took these students to exit their classroom, the state spent just over 22 thousand dollars.

The Department of Children and Families will spend three million a day protecting children. In th 24 seconds it takes this light to turn green and back to red, the State DOT will spend 77 hundred dollars.

Retired lawyer Judson Ball was flabbergasted when we told him his share was just under 4 thousand dollars.

“Hard to believe” he replied

But Jerry McDaniel, who developed budgets for three governors says Florida is more thrifty than most states. I asked if Floridians were getting a good deal.“I think they do. The state of Florida has the lowest number of state employees, per capita.”

And in the 90 seconds it took to share these statistics, the state treasury has spent just under 220 thousand dollars.

And when it comes to public safety, FDLE, the state law enforcement agency spends just under 30 thousand dollars an hour, while the courts cost 57 thousand an hour. Housing the prisoners both produce costs taxpayers 262 thousand dollars an hour each and every hour of every day.

 

 

 

 

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Senior Health Report Dispute

May 28th, 2014 by flanews

A national report puts Florida in the bottom half of states for Senior care. But as Matt Galka tells us, the state department in charge of programs for the elderly says the facts aren’t all there.

Florida has the highest population of seniors in the country. But a new national report on senior health care puts the sunshine state at 28th overall in taking care of those 65 and older.

“Admittedly we have some challenges particularly in rural areas, overall we don’t see the kind of problems accessing the sorts of services that this might lead you to believe exists,” said Department of Elder Affairs Secretary Charles Corley.

The report says Florida is dead last in the amount of in home health care workers available for seniors. But the state isn’t sure what metrics were used to make the judgement.

“It’s a workforce measure, so whether that translates into an accessibility measure or not, you can’t really garner from this report,” said Corley.

The report says Florida was one of the states with the highest amount of seniors chronically drinking, but fared well in other categories like hospice care and diabetes management.

Florida was 11th overall for nursing home quality. Executive director for Families for Better Care Brian Lee says that number isn’t bad, but is quick to point out the states nursing home watch list.

“One in five nursing homes are on that watch list for chronically dangerous nursing home conditions,” said Lee.

Florida’s overall rank fell from 27th last year. The Department of Elder affairs says they are researching the report and seeing if there is anything they can take away from the findings.

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Executing the Mentally Ill

May 27th, 2014 by flanews

A ruling handed down by the US Supreme Court today will make it more difficult for the state to execute criminals claiming mental disability. As Matt Galka tells us, anti-death penalty advocates are claiming victory.

Freddie Lee Hall was sentenced to death for killing a HernandoCounty woman and deputy sheriff in the late 70’s.

Hall claimed mental disability and scored a 71 on an IQ test.  Florida’s strict requirements deem anything over a 70 as eligible for execution.

The US Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hall, deeming that the IQ test isn’t sufficient enough to determine mental disability. Anti-death penalty advocates see it as a victory.

“This is definitely a win, what the supreme court said today is that intellectual disability is a condition, not a number,” said Sheila Meehan with the Tallahassee Citizens Against the Death Penalty.

The ruling could affect the fates of criminals currently on death row in Florida

The American Civil Liberties Union used the ruling to rail against the state’s death penalty requirements. A statement from the group’s executive director reads:

“The strict IQ rule struck down by the Supreme Court today is just one example of the many ways in which our state’s death penalty system falls short of constitutional and human rights standards.”

The narrow 5 to 4 ruling by the high court means that Florida must now re-examine Hall to see if he is mentally ill.

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Redistricting Trial Enters Second Week

May 27th, 2014 by Mike Vasilinda

Week two of a trial into whether state lawmakers followed voters orders in drawing districts is underway in the state Capitol.

The League of Women voters is questioning how Florida’s Congressional map was drawn. In 2010 voters said map drawing could not favor a party or individual. Jonathan Katz, a redistricting expert from the California Institute of Technology, who analyzed the map and says it has a 16 percent bias toward the GOP, resulting in Republicans winning 58 percent of the seats.

“So this plan, obviously has a large partisan bias in favor of the Republicans” Katz testified.

For the second day, a top Republican Party party official testified he drew political maps that later were enacted by state lawmakers, but Frank Terraferma said he didn’t know how the maps he passed to another GOP consultant made it to an FSU student who gave them to lawmakers. “It was a possibility that someone would rile a map. I did not put a copyright on anything I did.”

The exchanges were often short and coy, including a response when Frank Terraferma was asked why state party officials traveled to Washington to meet with key GOP lawyers and redistricting officials on a particular date. He responded:  “I not sure of the exact date.”

Under cross examination, George Meros, the legislature’s lawyer said not all of the GOP drawn maps were adopted. “They’re different, right? Meros asked Terraferma, who responded: “They’re completely different.”

One missing link in this case if five hundred documents belonging to a GOP consultant. An appeals court has ruled they are trade secrets, but that ruling is being appealed to the state Supreme Court.

The trail is expected to conclude next week. Republicans contend that Democrats choose to live in large urban districts which means they are more in a smaller area, resulting in a natural bias in favor of the GOP. The judge has  promised a ruling by the end of June. Any decision is likely to be appealed.

 

 

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Turkey Talk

May 23rd, 2014 by flanews

Florida’s record 77 billion dollar state budget is awaiting the Governor’s signature, but as Matt Galka explains, there were more than 100 hometown projects added at the last minute without proper review. One group calls the projects the state’s “budget turkeys.”

Florida’s record spending plan is stuffed with last minute funding requests.

“We’re talking about a significant amount of money. Government reaching into people’s pockets and taking out that money,” said TaxWatch Chief Research Officer Robert Weissert.

With a stuffed bird in tow, Florida TaxWatch identified 107 turkeys for the 2014 budget. The group says being a turkey is not a mark against the projects worthiness. They take issue with the projects not being properly reviewed.

“Our point is, you don’t bring in brand new projects that haven’t been discussed at that point, we want to see them go through the process like everything else,” said Kurt Wenner, the group’s V.P. for Tax Research.

The last minute additions inflate taxpayer spending. They usually come up during lawmaker negotiations. The list totaled $120 million bucks.

“The state’s budget grew by $1.8 billion dollars over what the House had recommended. $2.2 billion over what the Senate had recommended,” said Wenner.

“TaxWatch says that the turkey money could pay for things like giving every state worker a thousand dollar raise. Or further increase per student funding. 120 million dollars could also buy a turkey sandwich for every person in the state.”

Everything from sports fields to homeless services to university building help made the turkey list. Florida’s Governor has vetoed 70 percent of the items TaxWatch has recommended in the past, but hundreds still make it into the budget every year.

“Turkeys keep popping up because it really is the sweetest thing in life to spend other people’s money,” said Weissert.

We asked the Governor’s office how much they’ll listen this time around. They responded in a statement saying  they will work within the June 4 deadline to produce the best state budget that invests in Florida’s future.

Last year, the Governor vetoed more than $70 million dollars worth of turkeys after TaxWatch identified 106 million dollars of last minute spending.

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Poaching Parking Revenue

May 22nd, 2014 by flanews

 

High prices and more efficient cars have left the state Department of Transportation with less money to build roads. Legislation awaiting the Governor’s signature could be the first step toward cities being forced to share parking meter revenue with the state.

 

Nearly every city in Florida has a major city running right through it. In most, parking meters line the main drag. Legislation passed but not yet signed, orders cities to report their parking meter revenue from meters on state roads by August 31st. We talked with Transportation Commission Chairman Ron Howse by phone.

We asked if it was about fairness, or making money.

“I think it’s more of a fairness issue,” said Howse. “When a local government demands we increase their parking and then they charge on it, there needs to be some fairness of equity brought back to the department.”

This spring marks the third year in a row the state has made a grab for the meter money. The Florida League of Cities says revenues and policies vary from city to city.

“It’s all across the map,” said Ryan Padgett of the Florida League of Cities, “but we do have some that they make very little apparently. They basically cover the cost of the parking meters and the enforcement, that’s about it.”

Cities that don’t report their earnings by August could be ordered to take their meters out. But just calculating income by individual meters or roads has its problems.

The same person who collects money from these meters on a state road also collects from all the meters around the corner, which isn’t a state road.

Which means money from one street can’t be kept with money from the other. Once the cities report their cash from the meters, state lawmakers will have the final say on if they have to share.

The state right of way extends from sidewalk to sidewalk, so any meters, and parking spaces are technically on state controlled land.

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Hurricane Season Coming

May 22nd, 2014 by flanews

Florida hasn’t been hit by a hurricane since Wilma in 2005.  As Matt Galka tells us, the forecast for hurricane season is slightly below average, but the National Hurricane Center says that doesn’t mean the state isn’t at risk.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed off some of their storm tracking technology Thursday.

NOAA’s hurricane preparedness tour stopped in Florida on the same day they released their hurricane season forecast. They’re predicting 8 to 13 named storms including three to six hurricanes, possibly two major ones.  The prediction is slightly below normal for hurricane season, but experts say Floridians shouldn’t relax.

“Take 1992 for example, only had 7 named storms, 4 hurricanes, 1 major, but that major was Category 5 hurricane Andrew that devastated South Florida,” said Daniel Brown with the National Hurricane Center.

For the first time, storm surge graphics will be available to help the public. Storm surge is typically the most deadly and destructive force during a hurricane.

“The graphic will have two primary things we’re trying to communicate: how deep the water will be above land, and how far inland the water will go,” said the NHC’s storm surge specialist Jamie Rhome.

Commander Peter Siegel flies into the storms to collect information for NOAA. He flew into category five hurricane Katrina twice.

“Every hurricane is unique, every hurricane is different, sometimes they’re really, rough, and sometimes it’s like driving over a speed bump in your car,” said Siegel.

The state’s Emergency Response Team has been running mock hurricane exercises all week…just in case

Floridians can purchase items like flashlights, first aid kits, and other hurricane supplies tax free for 8 days starting May 31st. Hurricane season starts June 1st.

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Politicizing the FSU Presidency

May 21st, 2014 by flanews

Florida State University has been searching for a leader since February when former president Eric Barron announced he’d be taking the same job at Penn State. As Matt Galka tells us, a high profile lawmaker could be next in line.

John Thrasher is many things. He currently chairs Governor Rick Scott’s re-election campaign. He’s the former head of the Republican Party of Florida, and he’s one of the most powerful state Senator’s in the legislature.  He could be adding FSU President to that list soon.

“We can continue to try and build a pool of candidates that is deserving of this position. But my assessment is, you’re going to have a very hard time doing that,” said William Funk, the man hired to lead the president search.

The headhunters in charge of finding a new president for the university said that Thrasher’s high profile has caused a weak crop of candidates. They recommended the former House Speaker be considered for the job.

Thrasher won’t be moving into the President’s office just yet. And some faculty and students don’t think he should at all.

The state Senator received support from former politicians on the panel, but several faculty members on the committee objected to narrowing the search down to one. English professor Eric Walker said Thrasher hasn’t even submitted a resume yet.

“I don’t think he’s a very good candidate, but again, I’d like to see some documents. I think we can do better,” said Walker.

During public comments, some students took matters a step further.

“If y’all continue to go with this nomination, the students will march against John Thrasher,” said student and FSU Dream Defender Regina Joseph.

The committee voted to interview Thrasher going forward by a 15-9 vote. He’ll be the only person interviewed for now, and if he makes it through, he’ll have the job.

All students and Faculty on the search committee voted against interviewing only Thrasher first.  The school’s board of Trustees will have the final say.

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St. Augustine Changed the Nation

May 20th, 2014 by flanews

 

The eyes of the nation were on one Florida city fifty years ago this month. Racial demonstrations in St. Augustine captured the nation’s attention, and gave momentum to the Civil Rights Act.

A 1964 video was used as a training video for state troopers, but it’s also an account of mounting racial tensions in St. Augustine.

The man behind these demonstrations is one of the latest inductees into the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame.

Now 85, civil rights activist Dr. Robert Hayling says 50 years later, much still remains to be done.

“Some improvement,” Hayling said. “Some.” We asked if it was enough. “No,” he said.

Hayling credits beach demonstrations for opening the white sandy beaches to people of color.

“It gave us a portion of our civil rights for the usage of the beaches, which were public facilities,” said Hayling.

Because the nation was watching, television cameramen were often the targets of white demonstrators.

With the nation watching and the Senate unsure of what to do with Civil Rights, the nightly pictures of demonstrators and violence in St. Augustine tipped the balance.

When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 finally went to the president, demonstrations were suspended.

Despite numerous honors, Robert Hayling says demonstrators still haven’t gotten what they wanted when demonstrations began… which was a bi-racial commission to solve problems.

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Growing Marijuana

May 20th, 2014 by flanews

Florida set strict parameters in order to be able to grow low grade medical marijuana. As Matt Galka tells us, some eligible farms see it as a potential economic boost, and the department of agriculture says the number of eligible nurseries will grow.

May Nursery started as a tobacco farm in 1971. It now grows ornament flowers. Co-Owner Fred May says he never thought he’d be thinking about growing marijuana.

“It’s not going to be cheap, but it’s a doable thing,” said May.

May Nursery meets the 30 year continuous operation and inventory requirements set by the legislature. Possibly growing cannabis that could help seizure victims isn’t out of the question for the Mays.

“We’re going to need to partner up with some type of pharmaceutical company to really learn how to do this,” said Fred May.

The Department of Agriculture originally named 21 growers who met the criteria. That number increased because Ag digital records only went back 26 years. 39 now could be eligible to grow the low-THC plant. That list is getting bigger.

The department says the number will grow larger when nurseries in year 29 hit the 30 year mark.

“We’re not looking to create a new marijuana agricultural industry in the state of Florida. We’re looking to use existing Florida businesses,” said Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Orange Park) while the bill was being debated on the Senate floor earlier this month.

Some lawmakers said 30 years was too restrictive, but May thinks experience is necessary, especially for an unknown crop.

“A lot remains to be seen, it’s a gamble, for us and for everybody,” said May.

If the bill is signed, only five nurseries will be licensed.

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Redistricting Suit Goes to Court

May 19th, 2014 by flanews

Did state lawmakers follow the wishes of voters and draw fair districts? The answer to the question will be decided in a courtroom.

In 2010, 3.1 million voters approved the fair-district amendments. The margin for drawing districts without political consideration was two to one.

But whether the legislature lived up to voters’ expectations is now the subject of a trial. At issue are ten congressional seats: from Jacksonville to Central Florida to Miami. The League of Women Voters pushed fair districts and its pushing the lawsuit.

“And it’s about giving voters real choices and making sure elected officials are accountable,” said Deidre McNabb of League of Women Voters.

The first witness on the stand, GOP consultant Marc Reichelderfer acknowledged getting copies of proposed maps a month before the public.

“He gave you the opportunity to give Speaker Cannon advice about the maps, isn’t that correct?” asked League of Women Voters Attorney David King.

“I told him how to draw the maps,” said Reichelderfer, “I did not tell him where to draw the lines on the maps, and I didn’t tell them which map to pick.”

During a break we asked the consultant how he came to see the maps before anybody else with no response.

State lawmakers have already acknowledged some documents have been destroyed.

And another battle going on behind the scenes has the Republican party trying to keep secret hundreds of documents in the possession of a political consultant they say they are trade secrets.

Legislative leaders past and present are expected to testify during the two-week trial.

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Extra Class Time For 300 Schools

May 19th, 2014 by flanews

Does your kid need an extra hour of school? Florida lawmakers are saying yes if the school is turning in low level reading results.

The final bell could be ringing a little bit later for some schools and students next year.  Florida lawmakers are calling for an extra hour of class for under performing elementary schools.

“There’s 75 million dollars earmarked in the budget that can be used for after school reading programs,” said Florida School Board Association Executive Director Wayne Blanton.

The program started in 2012 when the legislature added an hour of reading instruction to the 100 lowest performing elementary schools in the state. The list is based on FCAT reading scores. The budget calls for expanding the number to 300 schools this year.

“Maybe we will be expanding all elementary schools at some point into additional time. We have always advocated longer school days,” said Blanton.

Critics say helping kids is great, except the program is too broad. Former executive director of “Just Read, Florida” Stuart Greenberg says the schools don’t have a set goal.

“There’s not a reading threshold, so there’s not a performance issue, it’s a ranking. So as long as you continue to rank schools, someone will always be in the lowest 100, 200, or 300,” said Greenberg.

The extra hour doesn’t come cheap.  It could cost up to $300,000 bucks per school. The list won’t be out until July, and that gives school districts about 15 days to prepare.

Students who score highest in an under performing school could opt out of the extra hour.  A majority of the schools who have already participated in the program reported back positive academic results.

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