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Every Vote Counts?

August 29th, 2014 by flanews

If you mailed your vote in for Florida’s primary, are you sure it counted? As Matt Galka tells us, some areas of the state aren’t letting voters know if they signed their absentee ballots or not.

It was a record breaking primary election in Florida. Certainly not for turnout, with a dismal 18 percent of Floridians voting. But mail in voting went up by more than a quarter of a million ballots from four years ago.

“It’s a good thing that voters have choices in Florida, and we give them options, and they obviously like early voting and they like absentee voting,” said Secretary of State Ken Detzner after polls closed Tuesday.

More options can bring more problems. The potential for voters forgetting to sign their mail in ballots as more people choose to vote that way. Without a signature, the ballot isn’t counted. Voting rights group State Voices has been pouring over the data.

“The problem we’ve discovered is that 5 of the counties aren’t notifying voters that they’ve received unsigned ballots.  There’s a process where they can come in and cure the ballot, but they aren’t being notified or told, so it’s very possible about 871 votes just didn’t count,” said Brad Ashwell with the group.

The five counties: Orange, Duval, Alachua, Broward and Polk don’t legally have to notify voters.  It’s up to the voter themselves to find out if they forgot to sign their ballots.

Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho says many counties notify people anyway.

“We use telephone methods, we used email, any way we could try to get these voters to realize if you don’t come in to cure this, your ballot won’t count,” said Sancho.\

The solution is a simple one, voters need to remember to sign the ballot.

“Every vote counts, so if there’s one vote compromised, we need to look at the issue,” said Ashwell.

Because the amount of unsigned votes is a fraction of the total, the impact on turnout for the primary was minimal. Being able to correct your unsigned ballot was taken away in 2005, but put back in place by the legislature last year.

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More Vouchers, More Lawsuits

August 28th, 2014 by flanews

Public school supporters are taking their case against state private school funding to court.  As Matt Galka explains, Florida’s tax credit scholarship fight ramped up today in the state’s Capital.

The Florida Education Association is trying to drop the hammer on the state’s tax credit scholarship program. The teacher’s union, joined by other public school advocates, says the program is unconstitutional.

“It is the Florida legislature’s paramount duty to fund public schools adequately so they make sure all students can achieve the American dream,” said F.E.A. Vice President Joanne McCall.

A similar state voucher program was struck down in 2006.  The state gives dollar-for-dollar tax breaks to corporations for providing the private school scholarships.

Shortly after the lawsuit was announced, school choice supporters made sure their voices were heard right outside of the F.E.A.’s building

Abigail Rodriguez is one of the nearly 70,000 children in the state receiving a private school voucher.

“The education in private school is so much more advanced, and not only that, we have the opportunity in private schools that we can learn more about God,” said Rodriguez, who attends Potter’s House Academy in Orlando.

Faith based learning as well as a lack of accountability are main issues that opponents have with the program.

“We support faith based schools entirely, but they should do like everyone else, pay their own way,” said Rabbi Merrill Shapiro, a member of the United Americans for Separation of Church and State.

But Pinellas County Pastor Robert Ward says the bottom line is that the scholarships help kids.

“There’s some parts of our community that we need an alternative for,” said Ward.

$447 million dollars from the state will be available for the program next year.

Governor Rick Scott has come out against the lawsuit.  Scott, a school choice supporter, released a statement saying that the lawsuit was “unconscionable,” and the coalition was using children as a political ploy.

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Citizens Insurance Seeks Rate Reduction

August 27th, 2014 by Mike Vasilinda

More than 6 hundred thousand homeowners will see their premiums with Citizens Insurance go down next year  under a plan the company presented to state regulators today. Ten percent is the maximum reduction the company is suggesting, but as Mike Vasilinda tells us, the state could order even bigger drops in some areas.

After six continuous years of Citizens Insurance rate increases, lower rates  for many customers are on the way. Statewide the decrease will be 5 point eight percent, but some will see ten percent reductions. CEO Barry Gilway called the decrease “historic”.

“At least in seventy percent of our customers will get a decrease. 95 percent of the territories, you know, are represented in that decrease” says Gilway.

Citizens presented the plan to regulators who must approve it.  By law, the company must charge sound rates.

“Individual consumers will see a rate increase in some areas” explained Citizens CFO John Rollins.  Which in this case, is bad news for condo owners.

“The rate indications for those wind only lines were generally in the teens” says Rollins.

Sinkhole policies will remain the same, except in Hernando county, where rates will go up ten percent.

And renters may not see as big a decrease as warranted by loss information.

Rate and loss data suggests renters should be getting a 16 percent decrease in their premiums. Citizens is only offering ten.

Regulators say they are looking at the renters rates and could order even bigger reductions. Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty says it all depends on how you look at the loss model. “If they had used a different model, if they had picked mid point of the model, etc., then potentially it would have been more of a decrease that was actually reflected in the filing.”

A decision on the whole package is due Thursday September 4th. New rates take effect on policies that renew after February first.

The Office of Insurance Regulation has the authority to change any reductions or increases based on their analysis of loss and premium data. By law, Citizens can’t raise any of its rates by more than ten percent a year.

 

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Duke Makes It Official: Will Credit Customers

August 27th, 2014 by flanews

It’s official – Duke Energy customers hit with charges during an extended billing cycle will be getting some money back. As Matt Galka tells us, the utility backtracked even though they were allowed to keep charging.

Duke Energy gave in to public and political pressure. In a statement released late Wednesday afternoon, the utility said they’ll credit all customers effected by extra billing days. More than 260,000 people were impacted.

“We understand we’ve also called some issues with customers moving into a higher tier rate, and we want to make that right,” said spokesman Sterling Ivey.

The state’s second largest utility added up to 12 days to some customer’s billing cycles. That caused charges to skyrocket in some cases. Rate payers get slapped with higher charges after they reached a certain point. The extra days that were billed moved some customers over the edge.

“It’s hot  people are using more energy, they’re running their air conditions, so we’re seeing an influx of higher bills anyway, and we added days onto their billing cycle,” said Ivey.

Duke Energy is taking all the flak for the meter move but other utilities can use the trick as well.

“It’s available to other utilities based on the same tariff provisions, and the same rule applies ot all utilities in the commissions jurisdiction, yes,” said Deputy Public Counsel Charles Rehwinkel who represents consumers in front of the Public Service Commission.

Consumer advocate Brad Ashwell says the credit was the only way to make things right.

“We’re glad to see Duke is compensating these customers who wrongly billed, it’s good news but it shouldn’t be news at all. It wouldn’t be news at all but for the fact that Duke energy charged people more than they should be charged,” said Ashwell, who works with the Florida Alliance for Consumer Protection.

Duke’s president will still go before the Public Service Commission next week to address the PSC’s concerns about the billing problems.

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Primary Races Decided

August 27th, 2014 by flanews

Florida’s primary elections are in the books, and as Matt Galka tells us, even though voter turnout was lacking, there’s still a shot at history.

An uneventful Primary Election Day allowed the Secretary of State to crack a joke.

“I had a little dinner and I opened my fortune cookie, it said remember three months from this date, good things are in store for you, so I’m feeling good about the November election,” said Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner.

Voting problems were minor. Even thought it was quiet, the election could still be historic.

“We may have seen a record number of absentee ballots cast and combined with early voting, and absentee ballots cast, may have surpassed election day voting,” said Detzner.

Rick Scott and Charlie Crist will officially square off to decide Florida’s Governor. The only other high profile race to be decided was between two Democrats who were gunning for a chance to unseat Pam Bondi and become the next attorney general. George Sheldon got the nod over State Representative Perry Thurston. Sheldon says the party is still united.

“I think the first job is pull the party back together, but to be honest with you, the party is together,” said Sheldon at his victory party.

The results kick off a brand new campaign season starting tomorrow leading up to November’s election. Democrats will start a unity tour later this week.  And you can expect to see even more attack ads from both sides over the next two months.

State officials were hoping for a 21% voter turnout rate…but didn’t sound optimistic about hitting that number.

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A New Day at FAMU

August 25th, 2014 by Mike Vasilinda

 

A New President begins a new year at Florida A & M University in Tallahassee. James Ammons resigned following the hazing death of a drum major and accreditation problems, as well as incomplete and false audit reports, so the  new President has a mission to right financial woes and a falling enrollment.

The mood on Florida A & M’s campus is hopeful following a string of problems that were uncovered following the death of Drum Major Robert Champion. Music major Jamal Wallace of Jacksonville is glad to have the band back. “It was a dreary moment for the students, for the campus as a whole. You know, spirits have been lifted, and we’re glad to see the band back.”.

Now Elmira Magnum, who took over in April, begins her first full academic year.

“This living and learning environment that we have at FAMU is going to be pre-eminent and best in class.”

Magnum spent the summer assembling new leadership team. She says there is a” little more shaking to come.” Negotiations are underway with a candidate for Chief Financial Officer. She is yet to hire a Provost.

Under Magnum’s leadership, there will be a greater emphasis on students. “And we want to make sure we provide the support the students need to be successful in four years.” She emphasized “four years”.

And many students, including Ebony Newkirk of Panama City,  are hopeful the worst is behind the university. “And she has a lot of really good ideas and discipline that I think we need” says the student.

In the last three years, enrollment here has dropped twenty five percent.

Magnum says filling class rooms is not her top concern.  “A smaller class size does not bother me. I focused more is making sure we have that qualIty and that interest” says the new President

But not all students believe change will be real. Tysha Nccig of Tampa wants to wait and see before proclaiming things are on the right track. Q:” Will this be good for the University?” “Maybe. Possibly. I’m not really sure about that yet.”

The new president has already tangled with a least one member of her trustees and come out swinging…an indication that she understands kid gloves won’t fix the universities problems.

And the new President says her biggest challenge will be convincing alumni to reinvest in their alma matter.

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Why Buy When You Can Build?

August 25th, 2014 by flanews

Go new or buy used? It’s a trickier question when talking billion dollar power plants.  As Matt Galka tells us, critics are slamming Duke Energy because they say their choice to build new power stations is a money grab.

Duke Energy is asking customers to foot a $1.9 billion dollar bill to build new natural gas power plants. But there are perfectly good –and already built – plants sitting idle.

Duke can buy up three plants in Florida for about $1 billion dollars, but they say the power stations don’t meet their needs. The utility also stands to make about double their profit from building new plants.  Environmental lawyer David Guest says the policy of spending more to build new is backwards.

“There’s only one thing going on here, Duke is trying to make more money from consumers. It’s just that simple,” said Guest.

The new power plants will produce about the same amount of power as the two nuclear power plants the energy company botched and that customers are still paying for. Some customers pay nearly $25 more a month for buildings that haven’t been constructed and are not producing power.

Representative Michelle Rehwinkle Vasilinda is an alternative energy advocate who says it’s just another move from power companies to squeeze the consumer.

“They’re really trying to hold on to the status quo and what they’ve got and this is how they end up making money. They can charge more for the new plant than they can for buying an old one,” said Rep. Rehwinkel Vasilinda (D-Tallahassee).

Another argument against the Duke proposal: none of this needs to be done right now . Critics say Duke has enough power to delay closing older plants for two years.

Florida’s Public Service Commission will discuss the Duke plans this week.

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The Biggest Gay Marriage Decision Yet

August 22nd, 2014 by flanews

A fifth judge in Florida has struck down the state’s ban on gay marriage, but his decision impacts the whole state. Matt Galka sat down with the two couples that brought the case to federal court.

It was a celebration at Jim Brenner’s house.  Brenner and his partner Charles Jones were the original plaintiffs in a federal court case against the state’s ban on gay marriage.

Couple Stephen Schlairet and Ozzie Russ joined the suit soon after. Both couples have been together for more than 20 years.

“We’re not asking for anything that other people don’t already have. We’re not asking for anything special. We’re not asking for anything out of the ordinary. We just want the same things that everyone else has,” said Brenner.

A federal judge sided with the four men and struck down the state’s ban on gay marriage – the fifth Florida judge to do so. Every other ruling only had local impact – the federal ruling means the ban has been declared unconstitutional statewide.

“I think there’s the question and people are saying that the courts are deciding “do I like gay people or do I not like gay people.” That’s not the issue, the issue is about whether or not the constitution – what it means when it says all people are created equal,” said Schlairet.

No same-sex couples will be getting marriage licenses in the state yet. The judge’s ruling allowed for an appeals process.

In 2008, voters put into the constitution that marriage is defined as being between a man and a woman. That’s why the Attorney General says she has appealed the four other rulings in the state.  Now she says states need an ultimate decision.

“Instead of having all these different rulings from different judges, not only from Florida but throughout every state in the country, lets let the US Supreme Court decide it, sooner than later we hope, and have finality on all sides,” said Attorney General Pam Bondi earlier this week.

The hope from the victors in the latest ruling is that the US Supreme court acts by the end of their upcoming session in June of 2015.

Marriage licenses in Florida will be put on hold until the US Court of Appeals rules on the decision. The timetable for that is unknown.

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Governor Promises Historic Student Funding

August 21st, 2014 by flanews

The Governor is making education spending promises early, but as Matt Galka tells us, some are calling the re-election tactic too little, too late.

Florida’s Governor hammered home the state’s historic education funding all year.

“Record funding for K-12, record funding for colleges, record funding for universities,” said Gov. Rick Scott in May.

While the spending was up 575 million from last year – the knock was that it didn’t exceed per-pupil funding highs from the previous administration.

Sen. Dwight Bullard/(D) Miami-Dade

“We have not gotten back to our historical highs of over 7,000 per student,” said Sen. Dwight Bullard (D-Miami-Dade) after a Democrats press conference in March.

Rick Scott promised to change that Thursday. He vowed to increase per-pupil spending to a historic level…if he’s re-elected, The Governor’s plan surpasses the all time high per student funding of 07-08 by about $50.

The Florida Education Association isn’t buying the election year move.

“If education was a priority for the Governor, our first order of business when we came into office wouldn’t have been cutting education by $1.3 billion dollars,” said FEA Vice President Joanne McCall.

The proposal is $232 more per student compared to this school year.  School boards will take the money.

“Better late than never, we applaud the Governor for putting it on the front burner, I believe the Governor has listened to his constituents as he’s traveled this state, and they consistently say that education funding has been the number one issue,” said Florida School Board Association Executive Director Wayne Blanton.

The previous all time high was $7,126 per student. The Governor plans to put that number at $7,176. The Florida School Board Association said if Scott is not re-elected, they will encourage a new Governor to make the same proposal.

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Redistricting Take Two

August 20th, 2014 by Mike Vasilinda

Early voting is underway and mail ballots have been out for more than a month, but that didn’t stop a judge from holding a hearing today over whether special elections should be held with a newly redrawn congressional map. A decision on whether to hold special elections in newly drawn districts in on the fast burner.

After the state’s congressional map was found unconstitutional in July, lawmakers were ordered to quickly redraw the districts.

Back in Court, Dr. Stephen Ansolabehere, a Harvard redistricting expert said little has changed. “Widening the district in Putnam are the main changes in the district. Otherwise the district is essentially the same.”

For three hours, Judge Terry Lewis was told the maps were the good the bad and the ugly. Fair Districts Attorney David King said disputed Congressional District 5  “still remains bizarrely non compact”

Congressional District 5still snakes from Jacksonville to Orlando. House lAttorney George Meros says the map is necessary to cure past discrimination. “Minority populations, who by virtue of residential discrimination and job discrimination could never elect representatives of their choice.”

The judge gave no indication of where he was leaning. He could order new maps, accept the redrawn map and order a special election,

If the judge were to order a special election, the primary wouldn’t be until March with a General election in May.

Or the judge could to nothing until the next election, which is what Senate Leaders, including Senate Redistricting Chairman Bill Galvano or Bradenton were hoping. “I don’t think the court will try to do something before the 2014 election” galvano told a gaggle of reporters.

Fair Districts Attorney David King who won the original suit, wants new maps and a special election, saying  “They left all the rest of this bizarrely shaped district District 5 in place, and they didn’t want to do anything about that because it protects the Republican performance in District 10.”

Both sides are expected to appeal if they lose

While lawmakers say the map was drawn to protect minority voters, experts testified a second minority district could be created if the map were redrawn.

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The Governor’s Nemesis

August 20th, 2014 by flanews

Florida’s Governor acknowledged having a private email account, but denies he’s using it for anything business related. As Matt Galka tells us, the case is just one of many thorns in the side of the Governor from an attorney who has become his nemesis.

Florida’s Governor is being pressed about his emailing habits.  Rick Scott is being sued in a public records lawsuit over whether or not he and his staff are using private emails to conduct state business.

“I use the email account to email with family,” said Gov. Scott after the Cabinet meeting Tuesday.

An email from the account was forwared to project Sunburst – the state’s public emails website – concerning the search for a LT Governor in 2013.

“If anybody sends me an email to a private account I make sure I try to forward it to Sunburst because I try not to use my personal email for anything,” said Scott.

The reason this is all a problem: the public documents didn’t turn up in a public records request from attorney Steven Andrews.

“We just want to make sure that state agencies properly respond,” said Andrews.

The email case is just one of many fights between Scott and Andrews, and it stems from a case about a land dispute near the Governor’s mansion.

Scott’s administration wants to buy the land that Andrew’s office is on and build a museum. A judge threw the case out in a victory for the trial lawyer. But the feud started before the Governor was even elected. Andrews’ office served Scott a subpoena publicly before a press conference.

The attorney was donating to Rick Scott’s main opponents, both democrat and Republican, during the 2010 election.

A judge has sided with Andrews in the emails case, for now. Google and Yahoo have been ordered to release who created private accounts for the Governor and his executive office.

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Citizens on the Hot Seat

August 19th, 2014 by flanews

Florida’s Governor is miffed about why state run Citizens Insurance ignored his recommendation to stop international business trips. As Matt Galka tells us, the trips are continuing, which put the insurer on the hotseat in front of state officials.

Citizens Property Insurance President Barry Gilway was in front of a Cabinet firing squad Tuesday.  He attempted to defend the state-run insurer’s spending on international business trips.

About two years ago, Citizens was found to have grossly overspent on international travel to the tune of about $1.3 million dollars of taxpayer money over an eight month period.

The most recent travel bill showed a $48,000 tab for all employees. Including about $100 of overspending at a Bermuda resort.

“They’re going to watch you, and people are still concerned about their property insurance costs. So when there’s an example like this, it makes you look like you’re not watching the dollars,” said Governor Rick Scott (R-Florida).

Florida’s Attorney General still thought the bill was too high.

“That’s more than my lawyers, my starting lawyers make in an entire year,” said Pam Bondi.

Even after intense scrutiny, Gilway says it was worth it to go before cabinet. He says the trips equaled savings.

“The $233 million dollars in savings relative to prior year costs, that’s staggering, that’s a massive amount of money, and who saves that money? Floridians,” said Gilway.

Citizens says this was the only error found after hundreds of public records requests were made.

Governor Scott did say he believes the insurer is doing a good job, but this didn’t convince him to change his recommendation for a ban on international travel. Citizens also pays third-party broker agents to travel for business.

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Sam Sex Divorce Quandary

August 19th, 2014 by Mike Vasilinda

Attorney General Pam Bondi s defending her decision to delay appeals in four cases where Florida judges have ruled the states ban on gay marriages unconstitutional. Bondi wants the US Supreme Court to decide the issue, but constitutional experts say the decision is for state courts to make.

A gay couple married in New York has filed for divorce in Florida. The couple isn’t comfortable telling you their story..but attorney Rob McNeely says the case is no different than any other failed marriage. “It didn’t work out. They have both dealt with it from the emotional level and they are ready to move on. Florida won’t let them move on” says McNeely.

Four Florida judges have ruled the state’s ban on same sex marriages unconstitutional…Attorney General Pam Bondi wants to delay appeals in state courts until there is a decision from the US Supreme Court.

“What do we have happening now?” asks Bondi. “We have someone getting married in one state and they can’t get divorced in another. So, the US Supreme Court. They need to decide this case.”

But the Tallahassee couple argues the ban violates equal protection and privacy clauses in the state constitution. Their attorney says Bondi’s effort to avoid a state appeal is causing more pain for the already disgruntled spouses. “They are caught in this legal purgatory where the only way they can get a divorce, according to Florida, is to go back to New York” says lawyer McNeely.

Constitutional experts say the Attorney General is wrong. They say state courts,  not federal courts, should be deciding state constitutional law. FSU Constitutional Law Professor Mark Seidenfeld says i“If it’s under a state constitution equal protection clause, then that would be a matter of state law.”

Even if some state bans on same sex marriages are upheld, legal scholars say Florida’s unique constitution can only be interpreted by the state’s highest court.

Attorney General Pam Bondi hasn’t expressed a personal opinion on gay marriage, but says she is sworn to uphold the will of the people. Attorneys General in other states have taken the opposite tact, refusing to defend gay marriage bans.

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The Gubernatorial Also Rans

August 18th, 2014 by Mike Vasilinda

Before Rick Scott and Charlie Crist can face off against each other, both must first get by primary opponents. Both are expected to win handily when results are announced a week from tomorrow, but that isn’t keeping the unknowns from trying.

Rick Scott and Charlie have already spend millions attacking each other.  But bot have primary opponents.

“Hello, My name is Elizabeth Cuevas-Neunder” is what one of the two Republicans challenging Rick Scott said as she began her presentation at a retirement home.

The Sarasota mother of three told the audience in this retirement community she was fed up with the direction of the Republican Party. “And the selfishness and the greed and the misunderstanding of how and where to take this state and nation forward has been misleading for the past ten years,” says the candidate of Puerto Rican descent.

The unknown has raised just 16 hundred dollars and she loaned herself 19 thousand.

“You know we have two flip-floppers trying to be Governors” she said holding a rubber flip flop up for the audience, bringing a lauch from the elderly crowd.

Political Scientists say there are really no studies on why virtual unknowns seek a big office. They suggest they want to see their name on the ballot, or they believe in the American dream. Elizabeth Cuevas-Neunder told us she was running because “I think someone has to stop this nonsense about someone is in office not to have a challenger. If I don’t beat him, I make him stronger”.

Another Republican also paid the fee, filed but not campaigned.”

On the Democrat side. Former State Senator Nan Rich is on the stump campaigning and raising money every day.  “I believe this state is ready to elect a progressive Democrat and to have the first woman Governor of the State of Florida” says Rich.

While Rich is a long, long shot to have her picture in the Hall of Governors, observers and insiders are watching to see how many votes she gets as a sign of Charlie Crist’s strength with Democratic voters.

Nan Rich has been in the Governor’s race for more than two years and has raised 650 thousand dollars, spending most of it on travel, consultants and some television.

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EPA Water Regulations Get Push Back

August 18th, 2014 by flanews

Florida’s Agricultural Commissioner wants the Environmental Protection Agency to back off Florida’s bodies of water. As Matt Galka tells us, the state says a new rule from the Environmental Protection Agency could wind up costing Florida millions of dollars.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam joined North Florida Congressman Steve Southerland Monday. The two stood with other policy groups and were trying to send a message to the environmental protection agency: nobody knows Florida’s water better than Florida.

“An outrageous new rule that would expand its regulatory authority under the clean water act, to almost any body of water,” said Southerland.

A regulation from the EPA would expand federal Government authority on Florida’s water.

The group says that the EPA’s proposal would extend their reach from traditional rivers to even ponds and puddles. Putnam scoffed at the new definitions of what the feds would have control of.

“Land that is seasonably or occasionably wet. Folks, your front yard in North Florida is mushy right now. Should that be subject to Army Corps regulation?” asked Putnam.

He says the rule will put a burden on multiple industries in the state. Jim Handley says cattle farmers are one of them.

“We’re worried about more government intrusion in how we do business. We think we do a tremendous job taking care of the environment,” said Handley.

Ultimately, water projects like ditches and culverts would feel the biggest squeeze. A survey of 8 county water projects in the state showed it would cost taxpayers more than $180 million dollars to implement the regulation.

Southerland says he will introduce a bill blocking the EPA’s water authority expansion when Congress comes back from break.

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