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Georgia Vetoes, Florida Signs Pastor Protection Act

March 31st, 2016 by flanews

States around the country are coming under fire for Pastor Protection legislation that critics say discriminates against the LGBT community. As Matt Galka tells us, Florida signed into law similar legislation, but equal rights groups were ok with it.

Religious freedom legislation has been prominent in state legislatures around the country in 2016.  Florida lawmakers passed the pastor protection act this year – it protects pastors from lawsuits if they refuse to marry same sex couples.

Religious leaders from around the state supporting the bill could be seen around the capitol for most of 2016’s legislative session

“It’s time for us to stand up and fight against things like same sex marriage,” said Central Florida Pastor Dexter Sanders.

Governor Rick Scott signed the bill earlier in March.  But Florida’s northern neighbor, Georgia, vetoed their version.


But LGBT rights advocates equality Florida say that the Georgia and Florida versions of the bill were very different.

Georgia received national pressure from major companies to veto their legislation. Equality Florida said Georgia’s bill went too far.

“These two bills are totally different, the state of Georgia did what we had feared might happen in Florida when they amended their Pastor Protection bill to also include businesses that serve the public, adoption agencies that would be able to discriminate against gay and transgender people. In Florida, we put a cap on that,” said Carlos Smith with the group.

Equality Florida was originally opposed to the Pastor Protection act in Florida, but were able to reach a compromise with bill sponsors that the legislation would only apply to clergy – who are already allowed to refuse to marry couples.

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Scott Wants Yale in Florida

March 30th, 2016 by flanews

Could Florida be getting an Ivy League institution? As Matt Galka tells us, the Governor is trying to poach a university from the North.

Florida’s Governor isn’t shy about trying to poach jobs from other states. Now he’s got his sights set on academia. Governor Rick Scott wants Yale University based in Connecticut to come south.

“That would be fun, now wouldn’t it?” said Governor Scott (R-Florida).

The pie in the sky thought stems from a proposal in the Connecticut legislature to tax Yale’s nearly 26 billion dollar endowment to make up for budget shortfalls.

“They’re going to tax their endowment income, look at what’s happened to their state, we have so many people moving down here, they’re taxing, if you’re in business in Connecticut you’re going to have to move,” said Scott.

Unfortunately for the Governor, Yale said thanks but no thanks. University officials said they’re looking forward to another three centuries in Connecticut.

Over on Florida State’s campus – New Jersey residents David and Melissa Beale were touring the campus. Dad Dave understands the tax issue.

“We have representation but the taxes keep going up,” he laughed.

Melissa says there’s a big reason Yale should consider Scott’s proposal.

“The weather, I like it here. No more shoveling snow,” she said.

Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy didn’t respond to requests for an interview – but his office slammed Scott in a statement – saying he was playing partisan politics.

Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy indicated through a spokesman that new taxes on Yale aren’t on his agenda, even though lawmakers are proposing it. Rick Scott made numerous trips to states in 2015 with Democratic Governors trying to recruit businesses – including Connecticut.

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Dozier Burial Expense Payments Signed into Law

March 30th, 2016 by Mike Vasilinda

Money to pay for the reinternment of remains found in graves at the former Dozier School for Boys was signed into law by Governor Rick Scott today. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, each family could receive up to 75 hundred dollars.

USF Researchers have recovered 51 remains. 7 have been positively identified. They believe they know the identity of 14 others, which leaves 30 question marks.

“This one is a boy” said one researcher as remains were uncovered in December 2013.

The Legislation signed into law provides up to 75 hundred dollars to re-bury each of the bodies.

Dale Landry of the NAACP helped lead the effort for the money.

“The thing is the we make sure that we have the money to go on and beyond as it related to not just this year, but until the last set of remains are reinterred” says Landry.

More than 200 former inmates at the school, known as the White House Boys, named after the block house where many were beaten believe more graves exist on the property. Charles Fudge was at Dozier in 1961.

“That cemetery needs to be found” say Fudge, who’s there brothers were also sent to the reform school.

But USF Researchers say thy have followed every lead to no avail.

The Legislation also creates the Dozier Task Force. It job is to make a recommendation about a memorial and the disposition of the unclaimed bodies.

Dale Landry and others are calling for a memorial on the site, and creating a mausoleum for those who remain unidentified.
“Closure means we’ve closed the books and this is behind us. This can never be behind us. This should be something that is always there that reminds of of our inhumanity to children” says Landry.

USF has created these two composite drawings in hopes of reuniting more remains with their families.

USF has until July to turn over contact information for the remains they have identified. The state then has fifteen days to tell the families they are eligible for the 75 hundred in burial expenses. If new identities are matched, USF much notify the state at least five days before turning the remains over to the family.


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Teacher vs. Education Lawyers

March 28th, 2016 by Mike Vasilinda

A fiery kindergarten teacher squared off against lawyers for the state today as a law suite challenging the adequacy of the states school funding entered its third week. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, the main issue is whether the state is living up to the requirements of the constitution.

In 1998, voters tired of under performing schools added language to the state Constitution, saying it is a paramount duty of the state to provide a high quality system of free public schools.

“please Be seated” commanded the Judge.

Now a lawsuit, first begun in 2010, is entering it’s third week. Gainesville kindergarten teacher Susan Bowles was on center state.

Q:”Don’t you have lots of books in your classroom?” asked a lawyer for the state.

A:”Yes…and guess who paid for those.”

Bowles is the teacher who in 2014, refused to give her 5 year olds a state standardized test.

Within weeks of Bowles refusal to give the test, the state suspended them for all kindergarteners.

She told the court the tests were eating up valuable classroom time.

“You have to wonder if all this testing wasn’t taking place, how much of that money  could be used, in appropriate ways in the classroom?” said Bowles.

Lawyers also questioned the regional director of school improvement who  oversees five underperforming Pinellas County Schools.

“Maximo has been an “F” school for four years in a row. It’s a priority and they are in the implementation stage of a turnaround plan?” questioned Circuit Judge Gorge Reynolds.


“That’s pretty bleak” responded the Judge.

Attempts to use fewer, and nationally standardized tests failed during the recent legislative session. But during the debate lawmakers acknowledged the state is spending more than a hundred million dollars a year on testa alone.

Under questioning today, Kindergarten Teacher Bowles told an attorney for the state that her students used to spend more time preparing for the test that the attorney spent getting ready to take his Law School admission test.

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Congresswoman Corrine Brown Asks Court to Throw Out New Maps

March 25th, 2016 by flanews

2015 was filled with redistricting headaches in Florida until Congressional lines were finally redrawn. But as Matt Galka tells us, Florida Congresswoman wants them all thrown out because she says the new maps violate the federal Voting Rights Act– and got her day in court Friday.

Florida’s Congressional districts could be in jeopardy again. Attorneys for Congresswoman Corrine Brown (D-Jacksonville) asked a federal court in Tallahassee for an injunction Friday morning.

Brown bussed in supporters from her redrawn 5th Congressional district. It used to run from Jacksonville south to Orlando, but now it’s set to run west to Tallahassee.
“This was an opportunity, the perfect storm to get rid of Corrine Brown,” she told her supporters.

Brown held a press conference at a country food restaurant after the hearing where her supporters ate. She was joined by Martin Luther King III.

“It may be that we have to come back again, because we must come back until we see victory,” said King.

Brown says the new map violates the Voting Rights Act, but it will be hard to prove that African-Americans can’t elect a candidate of their choosing in the newly drawn district.

“We have these black and poor pockets all over this state and all over this country, and they need a voice. We don’t need to go back to what it was before,” said U.S. Rep. Brown.

The Congresswoman said she’s prepared to take her case to the U.S. Supreme Court if needed.

“Do not disenfranchise the people that I represent, and the League of Women voters don’t speak for nobody in this room,” she said.

Brown’s old district is considered one of the most gerrymandered congressional districts in the country.

If the court sides with Brown and grants an injunction it would effect all 27 Congressional districts throughout the state. Brown’s lawsuit also comes at a time when she’s being investigated because of ties to a questionable charity being looked at by the Department of Justice.

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Big Week for Marijuana

March 24th, 2016 by flanews

This week could prove to be big for marijuana policy throughout the state.  As Matt Galka tells us, a major city (Tampa) decriminalized small amounts of possession in the same week the state is set to expand medical marijuana laws.

Tampa became the latest in a handful of Florida cities to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana this week.

Governor Rick Scott said he wasn’t familiar with everything Tampa was doing, but he still has concerns about drug use

“We want to be careful, I have a brother who has had significant issues with drug use so I’m very cautious and it really concerns me when we see increased drug use, whether its marijuana or other drugs,” said Gov. Scott.

But Scott has his own marijuana decision to make this week. The Governor has until Friday to sign a bill that allows terminally ill patients in Florida to try medical marijuana at the end of their lives.

The legislature passed the bill with bipartisan support.

“We’re reviwing it, we’ll make a decision,” said Scott.

Medical Marijuana advocate Jeff Sharkey says everything is trending in the right direction for supporters of the drug.

“Giving people who are in the last stages of their life the opportunity to alleviate pain, alleviate suffering, rest comfortably was really important, I think that addition to the bill was a very compassionate activity,” said Sharkey.

Sharkey and other supporters speculate it all adds up to good things in November when  Floridians vote on a full blown medical marijuana amendment.

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State Supreme Court Could Decide Future of Open Carry

March 24th, 2016 by flanews

Controversial gun bills dominated the early part of legislative session but ultimately fizzled out for 2016. As Matt Galka tells us, the courts could end up deciding if Florida reinstates open carry.


Dale Norman was arrested and charged in Fort Pierce, Florida in 2012. He was openly carrying his gun in a holster.  He had a concealed carry permit but was violating it under state law…he was hit with a misdemeanor and a 300 dollar fine.

Norman and gun rights group Florida Carry have been appealing the decision ever since. Now it will be in the hands of the state’s high court.

The Florida Supreme Court will hear the case in June.

“Our contention is you can’t have a fundamental right if it is something that is denied to you and then you have to go get a license to exercise it,” said Florida Carry Executive Director Sean Caranna.

Open carry was a hotly contested issue during 2016’s legislative session.  A bill allowing it cleared the Florida House but had adamant opponents.

House sponsor Matt Gaetz says the legislation will come up again if the court doesn’t rule in Norman’s favor

“Had we passed the open carry legislation that I offered, I think we would have really taken a giant leap towards the restoration of people’s second amendment rights. But there’s also the question of whether or not a permit should even be required at all under a right guaranteed by the constitution,” said Rep. Gaetz.

A crucial Florida Senate committee blocked the bill from being heard in that chamber – shooting down its chances of becoming law.

Only five states, including Florida, ban some form of open carry.

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State Workers Allege Building is Making Them Sick

March 22nd, 2016 by flanews

State workers for agencies like the Department of Business and Professional Regulation and the Department of Children and Families say one of the Tallahassee buildings they work in is in disrepair and is making people ill. As Matt Galka tells us, some of the workers are now coming forward and joining a lawsuit against the property manager.

Imagine going to work every day, but your workplace is making you physically ill. That’s what some state workers are alleging in a lawsuit they filed against the owners of Northwood Centre.

“Pictures of mold have come into my office, pictures of raw sewage, bat feces,” said attorney Ryan Andrews.

Andrews says he’s hearing from new workers every day that said the building has been causing them a variety of illnesses. Northwood Centre houses seven different state agencies and employs about 1500 state workers.

“People are going there every single day and are still very, very sick. They’ve exhausted their sick leave and have no other choice but to go to work,” said Andrews.

In the latest budget signed by the Governor there’s a provision that says the state will no longer make lease payments after July 1st.

DBPR secretary Ken Lawson was ordered to stay away from his own office earlier this month. The reason? 10 pounds of bat guano was discovered above his desk.


All of the 1500 employees in the building will be moving out in the coming months.

A spokesman for the owners and managers of Northwood Centre released the following statement in response to the allegations:

“The owners and managers of Northwood Centre place an overarching priority on the health, safety and wellbeing of  anyone who works or visits the property.  In the past year, we have conducted a wide range of environmental tests of Northwood Centre and have found no evidence of widespread issues that would affect public health.  We are in the process of conducting additional environmental tests and based on the scientific evidence resulting from those tests, we will be developing a plan to move forward with any needed corrections.

“We are committed to this property and to Tallahassee, where we have been a significant property tax payer and member of the business community for the past eight years.”

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Best and Brightest Continues Despite Opposition

March 21st, 2016 by Mike Vasilinda

A teacher bonus program know as Best and Brightest and almost universally condemned by the states education establishment, is, as Mike Vasilinda tells us, being continued again next year with even more money.

Thousands of graduating High School Students will have taken one of two tests..The ACT or the SAT, to demonstrate their readiness for college. But both tests can now earn classroom teachers a bonus of up to ten thousand dollars, even though the tests may have been taken ten or twenty years ago.

Sen. Bill Montford, who represents Florida’s School Superintendents says they endorse accountability…but not bonuses based on one of the two tests back in high school.

“Is there a significant correlation between one’s score on the ACT or the SAT and the performance in the classroom? And that’s questionable” says Montford.

But the general dislike of the plan didn’t stop lawmakers from renewing it for at least one more year. Senator Don gaetz told colleagues they are  giving it a five million dollar increase, from 44 to 49 million.

“About a third of the award funds from this past year went to attract new teachers. Teachers who had not been in the teaching profession before” says Gaetz.

More than 52 hundred teachers qualified for the bonus this year. So instead of getting ten thousand dollars, they’ll have to share a little bit less. About 82 hundred apiece.

April first is the deadline for all districts to cut checks.

Florida’s teachers union President JoAnn McCall calls the plan discriminatory.

“We have a lot of veteran teachers who can’t retrieve their ACT or SAT scores because they were taken so long ago” says McCall.

While educators don’t like the plan, top lawmakers do. And they are already discussing increasing the money next year.

Teachers also say the plan discriminates against foreign born educators or those who attended a historically black college that didn’t require SAT or ACT tests for admission.

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Prison Gerrymandering Case Goes Against Jefferson County

March 21st, 2016 by Mike Vasilinda

A Federal Judge is ordering that county commission districts in rural Jefferson County, directly east of the State Capitol, be redraw because one district relied heavily on including 1200 prisoners at a state prison to make the five districts equal. The prisoners made up about 43 percent of the districts population. African American residents challenged the district makeup because it places black voters at a disadvantage. The case is also important because state lawmakers relied on about 10 thousand black voting aged prisoners to keep newly draw Congressional District 5 as a minority seat under the voting rights act. A hearing on the congressional case is set for Friday.

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Senate Undergoing Revamp

March 18th, 2016 by flanews

2016’s legislative session is over, and while it’s still a long way away, things are expected to look different for 2017. Matt Galka tells us about the major face lift the state Senate is getting.

A different kind of work started in the Senate chambers this week.  Lawmakers finished legislative session on the 11th.  Now the Senate chamber is getting an overhaul.

“Given the early finish to our legislative session, we wanted to remodel the chamber, upgrade some of the fixtures, the electrical, the Ac unit, the carpet, and make sure we’re up to the current building codes,” said Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta.

It’s the first major renovation since the chamber opened in the late 70’s. The nearly six million dollar project was actually supposed to happen more than a decade ago.

“Back in 2003 under president Jim King, there was an initial plan to upgrade the chamber at that time as well as the Senate office building, but ultimately those plans were put on hold,” said Betta.

If a special session is needed, lawmakers will take a step back in time and hold meetings in the old Capitol.

“We’d go to the Old Capitol, and I talked to members and they think it would be pretty cool. And it would be great for you guys because you’d get to be with us on the floor,” said Senate President Andy Gardiner to reporters during the last week of session.

The money for the revamp has been set aside from past budgets.  While it might not look like it now…the final product is expected to resemble this artists rendering.  A far cry from the retro look currently being demolished.

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“Smarter” Mental Health Policy Coming

March 17th, 2016 by Mike Vasilinda

Funding for mental health treatment has been going down in Florida even though the economy has been improving, and as Mike Vasilinda tells us, it took the case of Phoebe Jonchuck being thrown to her death off the Skyway bridge to get Florida lawmakers to reverse course.

As lawmakers delved into the death of Phoebe Jonchuck at the hands of her father.

“I’m worried he’s out of his mind” a caller told the DCF Child Abuse Hotline.

And the failure of the Department of Children and Families to act on that foreboding call,  lawmakers discovered a dysfunctional system that didn’t always communicate. State Rep. Gayle Harrell lead the charge for reform.

“We realized that mental health and substance abuse were such key drivers in child abuse.”

At the forefront is a new, no wrong door policy. Mike Hansen, the President of the FL Council for Community Mental Health says the policy says everyone should be treated, no matter where they show up.

“Something happened to someone on the street.  Police office pickup up someone, maybe drunk, or having a problem. It was n’t really clear who was supposed to take care of them” says Hansen.

Now it will be, as lawmakers  they pump 65 million new dollars into making the parts work together.

“To work with our court system, to work with our jails,  juvenile justice system. Coordinating everything is the key to seeing the improvement we want” says Harrell.

There is a seven percent increase in funding for mental health. That’s a big increase, but still just a drop in the bucket when it comes to need.

Bottom line. A minimum of at least 200 million is still needed, just to make a dent in the problem.

“This is just the first step. and we need to continue fine tuning and more importantly, we need to identify sources of revenue to fund these services” says Hansen.

While only a small step forward, its a step lawmakers weren’t willing to take before the Jonchuck and other tragedies.

Under the bills “no wrong door policy” someone with mental or substance issues must be stabilized and then sent for appropriate treatment, rather than being refused services because they were taken to a wrong facility.


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Planned Parenthood Urges Vetoes

March 17th, 2016 by flanews

Florida lawmakers sent a restrictive abortion bill to the Governor’s desk last week. As Matt Galka, Planned Parenthood supporters are trying to sway him before he signs it.

22 year old Regina Sheridan says she’s worried about the future of women’s health in the state.

“I’ve heard many stories from women who lived before Roe v. Wade where abortion was not legal and they had friends and family members who died in back alley abortions,” she said.

Sheridan led a group of Planned Parenthood volunteers into the Governor’s office Thursday. They dropped off petitions urging Rick Scott to not sign an abortion bill passed by the legislature last week.

“While this doesn’t outlaw abortion, it makes access incredibly difficult, and that’s not ok,” she said.

The bill puts new rules on abortion clinics – including a requirement that abortion doctors have hospital admitting privleges. It also defines the length of women’s trimesters.

The Governor has until March 26th to decide whether or not to sign the bill.

“We are a pro choice state, let’s not make a mistake about that, and if the Governor wants to represent everybody, he should veto this bill,” said Barbara DeVane with the National Organization for Women.

The bill’s sponsor said last week the legislation was about making sure women’s health centers meet high standards.

“What this bill does is put it on the same level as other health clinics,” said Sen. Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland).

The group said along with the petitions, supporters from all around the state have been flooding the office with calls and emails.

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Environmentalists Say Fracking Fight Isn’t Over

March 16th, 2016 by flanews

Environmentalists fought tooth and nail this year against the controversial procedure known as Fracking, and as Matt Galka tells us, they won, for now.

Anti-fracking groups became a familiar site at Florida’s Capitol for the past two months.  Armed with what they said was contaminated water from other states – the advocates against the controversial practice railed against proposals to regulate it statewide.

A proposal studying fracking and allowing the state to regulate it ultimately failed.  Sponsor Garrett Richter says Florida is no better off today because of it.

“Oil companies can come into Florida as they could last year and the year before and the year before when the Hughes company came to Collier county and they can frack. Alls my bill would have done is put a regulatory framework in place,” said Sen. Richter (R-Naples).

But environmental lawyer David Guest says the bill would have ignored around 60 local resolutions passed around the state banning Fracking.

“What that bill did is trump the power of local governments to protect the health of their residents by making it so that fracking could be authorized by the state and nobody could say anything about it,” he said.

Environmentalists declared victory for 2016, but they say the fight isn’t over.

“I think they’ll try and bring it back next year and I think the DEP will look at rules,” said Guest.

Conventional fracking last happened in the state in 2003…but acid fracking happened in Collier County in 2013.  the state’s Department of Environmental Protection ordered a cease and desist out of groundwater contamination fears.

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Closed Primary Caused Confusion

March 16th, 2016 by Mike Vasilinda

More than 3 million registered Florida voters were unable to vote in yesterday’s election because they were n’t registered  as a democrat or Republican As Mike Vasilinda tells us, their inability to vote led to confusion for many Florida voters.

Florida is one of about 20 states that has what is called a closed primary. It prevents minor and no party voters from casting a ballot in Primary elections and it led to some confusion in Tuesday’s Primary.

“you all have a good afternoon” said the poll worker to voters as they left yesterday.

Donald Trump tweeted mid day that he was being told his name wasn’t on some Florida ballots. The Secretary of Stae Ken Detzner state investigated.

“We looked into it and that was incorrect” says Detzner.

Then the Secretary of State took the unusual step of issuing a news release to explain the law.

“They may have been NPA’s, or No party affiliations and they may have expected they could vote. But the fact is, Florida law does not permit them to vote” says Detzner.

Ironically the law kept Leon County elections supervisor Ion Sancho from voting in the very primary election he ran on Tuesday. That’s because voters here require his post to be non partisan.

Sancho says the ban on open primaries basically amounts to taxation without representation.

“Our elections are paid for by local property taxes. Three point two million of the more than twelve million registered voters were not able to cast a ballot, ,even though they pay property taxes” Sancho told us.

Florida law does allow for an open primary when the only candidates running are from the same party, but a write in provision has made that virtually meaningless.

Two bills that would have opened primary elections to all voters died in the legislature this year. Neither got so much as a hearing.

Most political scientists believe that open primaries lead to more middle of the road candidates because candidates to not have to appeal solely to the liberal or conservative extremes in their party.

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