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Voter initiatives could become more difficult

February 28th, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

Should it be harder to amend our state constitution? Many lawmakers have never been happy with the process that allows citizens to go around them and approve measures such as class size or medical marijuana.

Governor Rubin Askew was the first to use the initiative process after the constitution was modernized in 1968.> Askew was frustrated with legislative inaction on financial disclosure requirement.

“They wouldn’t do it, so I went out on the stump” Askew told us in 2001.

Following medical marijuana’s passage, Sen. Dennis Baxley wants to make it harder for voters to approve constitutional changes…He wants to go from 60 percent to a two thirds vote.

“It’s not meant for all these things we see getting injected in there in terms of appropriations and policies. there are legislative issues that should be passed by representative government” Baxley says of the amendment process.

After the class size, high speed rail, and anti smoking amendments passed

in 2002 lawmakers asked voters to raise the approval threshold to 60 percent. Damien Filer ran the class size campaign.

Q“And indeed, they made it harder to amendment the constitution afterwards?”

“They did, In fact they made it harder than anywhere else in the United States to amend the constitution. we’re the only state in the country that has a sixty percent plus one threshold.”

Filer says there is nothing easy about amending the constitution. Indeed, most proposals never make it to a vote.

And amending the Constitution is about to get harder, even without legislative action.

Because nearly a million more people voted in November then four years ago, the number of required petitions will increase by just over 75,000…making getting on the ballot all the more difficult and costly.

If the effort fails during the legislative session, the Constitution Revision Commission begins meeting later this year. If either approves higher approval percentages, voters will still have the final say.

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Marijuana Choices must be made in Session 2017

February 27th, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

Seven growers are currently licensed to grow, distribute and sell medical marijuana in Florida. But after six million people approved amendment 2 in November, lawmakers must decide if those the current system will meet the needs of thousands of new patients and plenty of people are saying they won’t.

Afflicted with ALS, Cathy Jordan has advocated for medical marijuana for almost 30 years.

“Im 67. I was supposed to be dead at 41” says Cathy with a twinkle in her eye.

Now the group she founded, the Cannabis Action Network is poised to be a player in enacting voters wishes when they approved medical marijuana last November.  Jodi James says law makers have tough choices.

“And I think the decisions that are going to be made over the next 60 days are gonna decide if patients can live and stay in Florida,  or whether they are going o have to move or die” says James.

Currently, 7 growers are licenses to cultivate, distribute and sell medical marijuana at retail. They’ve hired lobbyists to beat back free market  legislation thats  filed by state Senator Jeff Brandes

“The cartel system that we have today is not sustainable. And ultimately it will produce an increase in the black market if you simply have a cartel  with high prices and a monopoly” says Brandes.

Michael Visher was a pot pioneer in Colorado. He and partners are pitching jobs and more jobs by opening the market.

“So you give mom and pop an opportunity to open a store that employs five to ten people and you open up a hundred or two hundred of these businesses throughout the state; now you’ve created significant financial impact” says the pot entrepreneur.

And the fight isn;t just over who can see medical marijuana, but what they can sell.

Most of Florida’s law enforcement is opposing smokeable marijuana. They also want prohibitions on candies and other edibles. But many patients feel the promise of amendment two will go up in smoke if come up with too many regulations.

Under the amendment approved by voters, the state has until September, 9 months after the amendment took effect, to have rules in place. If it fails, individual citizens can go to court to force their access to medical marijuana.”

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Dueling videos highlight tense debate over incentives

February 24th, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

As the Florida legislature gets ready to start its annual session a week from Tuesday, there is a bitter divide between the House Speaker and the Governor over funding the state’s  tourism and business marketing arms. The latest chapter is dueling videos.

Rick Scott is making the incentives fight personal.

“and one of them is your state rep, right here” he told an audience in Panama City.

After 9 GOP House members voted to strip Visit and Enterprise Florida of funding, Scott went to their districts to pressure their constituents.

“How could anybody saw we are going to turn our backs on jobs” he asked.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran responded with a video criticizing the incentives.

“Executive salaries went from eight hundred thousand five hundred dollars to to one point four million over the past six years” says a news report,

Now the Governor is responding in kind.

“If we quit marketing this state, we’re in big trouble” said business owner Rick Case in the video.

Asked about the personal attack, the House Speaker says he won’t punch back.

“If Governor Scott poked me in the Chest, I would take it, um, ten out of ten times. He’s been avery good man to me and my family” the Speaker told reporters.

The first sign of compromise came this past week when the House voted to keep Visit Florida, but they still want to scrap a job incentives program.

A powerful House committee is suggesting giving visit florida 25 million..a third of what was spent last year. The compromise was due in large part to pressure from people like  Carol Dover. She’s the CEO of the restaurant and Lodging association.

“I spent years on the Visit Florida board when we were at 25 million, and we could not the ceiling of 82, 84, 85 million tourists. We now have additional funding. Where are we. We’re at 112 million visitors” says Dover.

And any level of funding is guaranteed to come with a catch: increased oversight.

The House Speaker calls the debate over incentives spirited and while tense, useful and important.

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House and Senate not at odds over gambling legislation

February 24th, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

Headlines across the state this morning screamed House and Senate at odds over gambling plans. Both Chambers are advancing differing measures. The Senate would like to allow slots in the 8 counties that have approve them, add some blackjack in South Florida and get a new deal with the Seminole Tribe. The House is more interested in a new seal with the Tribe. But House Speaker Richard Corcoran does’t think the two chambers are “at odds”.

“I don’t think you have ever seen a House and a Senate both moving bills, abbot different, this early. I think that prognosticates the potential we could see resolution there” says Corcoran.

The biggest driver of a gambling deal this year is the need for increased state revenues without raising taxes.

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Facebook live teen’s suicide still under wraps

February 23rd, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

A Florida House committee asked questions but got few answers today in the suicide of a 14 year old foster child who committed suicide and streamed it live on Facebook. Few answers were available because the case is still being investigated.

The 14 year old’s Facebook live video is filled with anger profanity.

The Chair House Subcommittee on Children, family, and Seniors called her death

“Devastating. Just an unreal situation for a young child to take her life” said Rep. Gayle Harrell.

DCF Secretary Mike Carrol told committee members the case is still being investigated and most records are still sealed.

“And to have hundreds of folks watch and to have nobody but one friend try and contact anybody to intercede, and that’s sad” opined Carroll.

Published reports suggest the 14 year old had spent at least 7 years in foster care, was raped at a young age, and may have been shuffled between as many as ten foster homes,

”Can you confirm either of those’ we asked.

“I can’t talk about stuff specific to the case, but that will all come out when the records are made available” responded Carroll.

What the agency would tell us is that it has had significant contact with the family over multiple years.

“Numerous assessments over time.”

:”More than normal, more than usual’?

“Much more so”, he told us.

Mike Vasilinda

Once all of the reports are complete, lawmakers say there will be more conversations with the Department of Children and Families.”

“I’ve had many conversations with the Secretary over this and I am confident that we get, ah, get the whole story” says Harrell.

The first draft of the Critical incident report should be complete next week.reports from behavioral experts will take a little longer.

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No sweets or soda for food stamp recipients?

February 23rd, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda


People using food stamps may soon no longer be able to purchase candy or soft drinks with their Electronic benefits card. nationally, the purchases account for just under six percent of food stamp purchases. A house committee approved banning the purchases with food stamps this morning. Sponsor Ralph Massullo is a medical doctor.

“There’s nothing nutritional at all with it. as a matter of fact it anti nutritional because it makes you unhealthy. right” asks Massullo.  “Nutrition is to make you healthier. You grow better if you are a child. you mature better,, and you develop healthy habits. Something that’s anti nutritional leads you in the wrong direction.”

Without a waiver from the federal government, the prohibition can’t take place. Florida retailers say they would prefer a national fix, not just a Florida specific ban.

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Moms pushing recess legisltion

February 23rd, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

Flanked by moms who want their elementary kids to have recess each day, the sponsors of legislation that would require twenty minutes a day of free play talked to reporters today. The legislation faces an uncertain future because it is considered a mandate to local school districts, but sponsor Anitere Flores says research can’t be disputed.

“Our research, not our research, but research from across the state and across the country shows that giving our students a fifteen to twenty minute break every day helped them not just mentally, but helped them academically. And helps the teachers as well” says Flores.

The legislation was filed after a swell of grass roots support from moms and teachers across the state. the PTA also supports a mandated recess break for grades K-5.

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Senate pushes gaming deal

February 23rd, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

A Powerful Senate committee at the State Capitol today approved sweeping new gambling legislation that continues a compact with the Seminole Indians. The deal with the tribe expired more than a year ago and has been the subject of lawsuits. Sponsor Bill Galvano says reaching agreement would mean the seminoles would continue paying the state hundreds of millions each year.

“Inaction is not a choice” galvano says. “if you just say no, you ar basically saying, courts take care of it. or just leave it operand we’ll go with the tide will have impact, because the revenue share is important. That’s why inaction is not an option.

The legislation also increases the states take from parimutuel facilities by as much as 250 million a year, expanding slot machine to those counties where voters have approved increased gambling.

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National healthcare protests comes to state Capitol.

February 23rd, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

Three dozen protestors gathered outside the state Capitol today to tell GOP lawmakers to leave their healthcare alone. Dozens of similar protests around the state and country are designed to let legislators and the Congress know people value their healthcare. WithoutObamacare, Erin Hoover says her family would be lost,

“But, if that is repealed, without a replacement and a good replacement, people like me and my daughter we really may not have access to see a doctor” says Hooper.

Today’s rally was part of a national bus tour to convince decision makers not to repeal Obamacare.

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Solar gains jobs, benefits from campaign against it

February 22nd, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda


It was cloudy and rainy today for the fledgling solar industry as they held a “Solar Day” in the state Capitol, but the weather did not dampen the industries business outlook for the Sunshine state.

Florida’s Solar industry says voters sent a message heard nationwide when they approved tax exemptions for solar and defeated a utility friendly amendment in November. Scott Thomasson of Vote Solar is predicting a banner year for solar.

“It’s just a strong signal that the market is here for Florida. I mean, this is really the big year for Florida” says Thomason, who runs a national non profit educating voters on solar.

Florida has never lived up to it’s nickname. it is 14th in solar capacity nationwide.

In 2016, the industry added between 16 and 17 hundred new jobs. Patrick Altier is the President of the Florida Solar Industries Association. He’s also an Ocala Solar contractor. He says his business increased four fold last year.

“Had a great year last year. I addition to the projects that are in the pipeline, we anticipate at least a two hundred percent increase over last years production” says Allier.

 Lawmakers still have to implement Amendment Four. and part of their dilemma is figuring out how much the amendment will cost state and local governments.Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St.Petersburg) has filed the legislation to carry out voters will.

“I think if there is any pushback, its from the small counties who want to make sure the projects they implements are still  on their books. that’s the overriding concern we are hearing right now” says Brandes.

Last fall, Utilities spent more than 20 million dollars on a losing campaign to restrict solar, but the industry says all that cash had the opposite effect.

“It gave the solar industry a lot of free advertising at the end of the day.More frustration with the utilities” Altier told us.

While solar found cloudy skies at the Capitol, the industry says it is still shining, growing and creating jobs, thanks to the message that voters sent.

Amendment Four prohibits tax assessors from adding solar improvements to the value of a business. Since voter approval, Solar City, the largest solar company in America, has opened offices in Florida,

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Politics and football leadership intersect

February 22nd, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

Former Tampa Bay Bucs and Indianapolis Colts Coach tony Dungy spent an hour today at the state Capitol, comparing leadership in football to political leadership. He told of the disappointment after being fired in Tampa, to the difficulties managing highly talented wealthy professional football players, concluding it all comes down to preparation.

‘Let’s be people orientated. Let’s be relationship oriented.  Lets learn what to do and how to do it, and the winning will take care of it self, and that was a great lesson for me as a young player. Those relationships, working together is really what you ar looking to do” dungy told the audience.

The session was attended by about half of the members of the Florida House.

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Cancer survivors seek funding, tobacco surcharge

February 22nd, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

A hundred cancer survivors and advocates were at the state Capitol today, asking lawmakers to fund prevention, research, and anti smoking efforts. The group is seeking 15 million for research, 68 million for tobacco education, and a dollar a pack increase to discourage smoking. Survivor N. Diane Holmes says every dollar spent will save lives.

“I’m really proud to be a breast cancer survivor” says Holmes. “I support a lot of American Cancer Society activities, but it is incredibly important that our legislature understand the importance, in our community, of funding biomedical research, tobacco prevention, funding the Mary Brogan fund, and supporting the cigarette surcharge.”

The state’s anti tobacco education program has taken Florida from having one of the highest rates of smokers to a state with one of the lowest.

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Abortion bill advances, but faces challenges

February 22nd, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

Women who develop emotional scars or are injured could sue their doctors up to ten years later under a bill that has cleared it’s second committee. Sponsor Erin Grall says the legislature needs to speak for women who won’t speak for themselves.

“So there are plenty of times we will be asked to speak on behalf of people who have no voice. And that is who this bill addresses. Nothing changes from a clinical perspective, it the physician is performing the procedure with the competence and skill that’s required” is how Sponsor Grall explained the bill to members.

The legislation has had two close votes. today’s was 9-7 and was taken only after an additional member was added to the panel to vote in favor of the bill.

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Ban the box faces uphill battle

February 22nd, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

Sponsors face an uphill battle, but employers would be banned from asking prospective employees about any arrests on job applications under legislation filed in the state capitol. The so called Ban the Box bill would not prohibit employers from asking for details at subsequent interviews, but Rep. Shevrin Jones says the idea is to level the playing field during the initial application process.

“All we’re asking is that you remove it from the application process, call that individual in for a fair interview process, then you have the opportunity to ask that question. Again, allow the that individual…give them a shot” says Jones.

Republican leaders have assigned the bill to four committees, making it unlikely it will make it through the legislative process this year.

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Asset limited, income constrained, employed seek tax prep help

February 22nd, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

The United Way is asking state lawmakers to one point two million dollars to help low income Florida families, referred to as ALICE families,  prepare their federal tax returns. ALICE stands for asset limited, income constrained, employed. United way says their free tax service for ALICE families has saved them millions in taxes they would have otherwise paid. Pinellas County Bus Driver Keisha Murray says she is able to pay her bills because of the help she has received.

“Not everyone works 9-5 like me, and these families need help. These families need this assistance very badly. And the more we’re able to get it out, the more we can help all these families, ,not just in Pinellas County, but in all of the different counties to get their money back” Murray told reporters.

As many as 2.6 million households  are classified as ALICE or working poor families. The one point two million being sought would help an additional 31 thousand families file returns and received the tax credits to which they are entitled.

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