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Educators Fear Religious Liberties Act May Have Unintended Consequences

June 30th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
A new law taking effect Saturday will change the way religious expression in schools is dealt with in the state.
Religious advocates say it conforms state law to existing federal law, but  some are worried the wide scope of the bill may cause some unintended consequences.
Florida lawmakers begin each session with a prayer; more often than not it’s a Christian prayer.
A new law taking effect July 1st, crafted by a minister and a devout Christian,  will standardize what is and isn’t allowed regarding religious expression for schools in all 67 districts.
Senator Dennis Baxley says the Religious Liberties Act will clear up any inconsistencies between one district and another.
“I think it will liberate and deliver a sense of free expression,” said Senator Baxley.
The law protects students right to pray at school and school sponsored events.
It also lets students express religious beliefs in writing assignments and allows them to wear clothes with religious messages.
Religious leaders like Reverend R.B. Holmes says the law is an important statement of Florida’s commitment to protecting religious freedom.
“If persons can wear a t-shirt that defines who they are culturally or politically then Christians and religious folk ought to also have that same right,” said Holmes.
Some in the education field are concerned there could be some unintended consequences because the law applies to all religions, even the most controversial like satanism.
Many school districts enforce dress codes that prohibit clothing which may distract other students.
“The Florida School Board Association says it’s advised school districts to seek legal counsel, to determine how the new law may impact their existing policies,” said Andrea Messina, Executive Director of the Florida School Board Association.
The Religious Liberties Act is one of 125 laws taking effect beginning July 1st.

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Florida’s Budget by the Minute

June 30th, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s new budget begins at midnight tonight. and as Mike Vasilinda tells us, it will cost each man woman and child in Florida, on average, about four thousand dollars.

83 billion is a lot of money. Here’s how it’s being spent:

Each sunrise will see the state spending 227 million dollars. That’s 9. 4 million an hour, 157 thousand a minute and 26 hundred dollars a second.

In the 46 seconds it takes this stoplight to change from red to green, the state will spend sixteen thousand dollars on roads and transportation.

Heath care is the single biggest budget item at 72 million dollars a day.

Schools are next at 65 million a day…or 2 point 7 million an hour.

The 12 State Universities cost 316 thousand dollars an hour to run.  We asked FSU Student Hannah Keller from Tampa what she thought about the cost.

Q: “If I told you it costs about seven thousand dollars a minute to operate all of the universities, what would you say?”

“Wow. I think it’s pretty expensive, but its definitely worth it” Keller told us.

The court system is one of the best buys. Every judge, prosecutor, and public defender costs taxpayers just under a thousand dollars a minute. That works out to 1 point four million a day.

The cost per person? Just over 42 hundred dollars for every man, woman, and child in the state.

The Governor’s top two priorities, Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida total161 million  That’s just under a half million a day. Governor Rick Scott says he’s still working on the cost of government.

“We have the second lowest per capita taxes in the country now. My goal would be the lowest. got another year to go” says Scott.

And in the minute and half it took to tell this story, state government spent about 225 thousand dollars.

Just running the general functions of Government, paying rent and the light bill is costing taxpayers just over eleven million dollars a day.

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Patronis Sworn In as Chief Financial Officer

June 30th, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida has a new Chief Financial Officer. Former State Representative Jimmy Patronis was sworn in this morning by Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga. Patron spend 8 years in the legislature. Governor Rick Scott calls him a friend whom he has known since 2007. Patronis comes from a restaurant background. His family owns Captain Anderson’s in Panama City. He acknowledges he has a learning curve coming into the job.

“You’ve got to remember that I came from the Restaurant business, so everyone’s a customer. And I really look forward to learning as much as I can from those that were stakeholders in this office, and don’t worry CFO Atwater’s number is programmed in my phone and I will be using it frequently.” Patronis told reporters.

Patronis replaced Jeff Atwater, who was elected to the job in 2010 and 2014. He is leaving for a high ranking post at Florida Atlantic University.

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How FAMU Lowered Crime Despite Being in the County With the Highest Crime Rate in Florida

June 29th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
Two weeks ago we told you residents in the state Capital were more likely to become victims of a crime than anywhere else in the state. \
Florida A&M University did not return out call that day, but reported crime at FAMU has seen a huge drop.
Crime in Leon County is the highest in the state, but at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, reported crime is the lowest it’s been since at least 2000.
FAMU’s Police Department says being located in an area with high crime rates has it’s challenges.
“By being an open campus, we have traffic coming in and out of our campus all the time,” said Chief Terence Calloway with FAMU PD.
FAMU PD responded to the challenges by increasing police visibility on the campus, and students have taken notice.
“Campus police, every time you need them they’ll be there, trying to help out or do something, trying to help somebody. So I feel like they care more about us than just the general area,” said FAMU student, Devone White.
Along with a visible police presence, FMAU also utilizes security measures, including more than 300 security cameras, blue light stations and text alerts that inform students when crime is occurring around them.
They also have a service that escorts students to make sure they’re not left walking alone at night.
“It eliminates robberies or attempted robberies, attempted what ever it may be. And as the students call it, the FAMU Uber,” said Chief Calloway.
On campus students say they feel safe, but off campus they notice a drastic change.
When students come in for orientation they’re given a lesson on safety tips that apply both on and off campus.
“The police officer, he spoke to us to make sure that we felt safe. He let us know that if we need anything that he’d give us his number and we could call him right away if anything happened,” said FAMU student, Electra Duchemin.
FAMU PD says there’s still work to be done, but for now Chief Calloway says for the most part what goes on at campus doesn’t reflect what surrounding statistics imply.
FAMU PD’s total reported crimes dropped by nearly 50% between 2015 and 2016.

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Eyewitness Identification Changes Coming to Florida Police Agencies

June 29th, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

Imagine being fingered for a crime by an eyewitness even though you were nowhere near the crime scene. It happens more often than you might think. But as Mike Vasilinda tells us, legislation signed by the Governor requires police agencies to soon use neutral administrators when conducting lineups.

The 2014 Innonence Commission found that eyewitness identifications were wrong three out of four times. To fix the problem, law enforcement must soon start administering in person or photo lineups with someone who has no clue who’s suspected of the crime. Nancy Daniels was a public defender for more than two decades and a member of the Innonence Commission.


Q:”How important is this”?

“”Very important. This has been a huge problem in Florida and around the country” says Daniels.


This British comedy sketch takes the problem to the absurd.

”I’m going to ask all of you to drop your numbers.” which reveals four arrows pointing at the center suspect.

“By having an independent administrator who doesn’t know who the suspect is, those subtle cues and suggestive things will go away” says Daniels.

The eyewitness procedures were first added as guidelines there years ago. Now in October, they become mandatory.

Florida’s Police Chiefs and Sheriff’s originally resisted the change. This year they supported modified legislation. Sandy Poreda of the FL. Police Chiefs Assn. says it’s because the law accommodates smaller departments.

“And the idea is that you want to have someone who doesn’t know anything about the case work with the eyewitness. And really, in theory, that’s wonderful. But when you have small organizations, some of our smaller police departments, that’s almost impossible” says Poreda.

Under the legislation signed into law, even small departments must find a way to make sure the officer conducting the lineup isn’t giving cues to the victim.

“And they also under the legislation have to advise the person that the right person might not be in the lineup” which Daniels says will take pressure off the witness.

The legislation comes as Florida leads the nation with 27 death row exonerations.

The legislation allows defense attorneys to seek disqualification of an eyewitness when procedures are not followed.

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Whistling Justice Laid to Rest

June 29th, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

Know as the whistling justice, the life of former Supreme Court of Florida Justice Parker Lee McDonald was honored at Florida’s high court today. McDonald appointed to the high court in 1979 and served until 1994. McDonald is best know for his 1984 opinion that curtailed the dismissal of blacks from a jury simply because of race. The U-S high court adopted the same standard two years later. Current Chief Justice Jorge Labarga called McDonald a common man with uncommon intelligence.

“To people who knew him said he was somewhat consumed by the idea of justice, Justice not just of the rich, who could afford the best lawyers, but also the small town kid who never had a chance” says the Chief Justice.

McDonald was the 68th Justice appointed since statehood. The Justice also had a keen but subtle sense of humor. He died Saturday at the age of 93.

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Governor Holds Condominiums to 2020 Deadline for Getting Up to Fire Code

June 29th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
The deadly High-rise fire in London has reverberated in Florida.
Citing the fire, Governor Rick Scott has vetoed legislation at the would have ended sprinkler requirements for  condominiums in Florida.
Fire safety advocates say it’s a victory for public safety and for firefighters.
Two were killed and ten injured when fire broke out in the Dolphin Cove Condos in Clearwater in 2002, The building had no sprinklers.
The National Fire Sprinkler Association says there is a fire in a Florida high-rise every three days.
“Many of them are in sprinkler properties. Minimal damage, no fire deaths. The fire deaths in high-rise condominiums in Florida are in the non-sprinkler properties,” said Buddy Dewar with the NFSA.
State law passed in 2000 requires all high-rise condominiums to install sprinkler systems by the year 2020.
“If there’s fire sprinklers it usually will hold that fire to a very small fire because the fire sprinklers will activate. And then the firefighters are coming in really to what we would call mop up,” said Director of the Division of State Fire Marshal Julius Halas.
Citing costs, Legislation passed earlier this year would have allowed residents to vote to end sprinkler and other safety requirements.
““Each association should have that right to decide if they want to do those sorts of things,” said bill sponsor Representative George Moraitis.
The bill also would have delayed the deadline for the sprinklers installation to 2022.
“It became a national code requirement in 1991. and in 2000 Florida adopted that national code requirement. So it’s been 17 years in the running and they just keep postponing and postponing,” said Dewar.
The legislation was one of five bills vetoed this week.
“Hopefully that will send a clear message of the importance of fire safety for the citizens in those buildings and certainly for the firefighters,” said Halas.
2017 was the third time lawmakers passed a change to the sprinkler law and a Governor said no.
According to the National Fire Protection Association says fire departments around the country respond to 14,500 fires in high-rise apartments each year.

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Justices Skeptical over Death Penalty Arguments

June 29th, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

Aramis Ayala announced in March, two months after being sworn in as a State Attorney in Orange and Osceola Counties,  that she would no longer seek death sentences. Governor Rick Scott, saying he was shocked, immediately began transferring cases out of the circuit.

In all 24 cases were transferred.

Ayala challenged the Governor’s authority in the Supreme Court of Florida.

Her lawyer barely got a sentence out before he was interrupted by pointed questions from Justice Fred Lewis.

“Was there not a statement, I’m not going to follow Florida law, essentially?” asked Lewis from the bench.

“When they decide how they are going to treat some cases versus other cases,  that is absolutely an exercise in discretion.” responded Ayala Attorney Roy Austin

Chief Justice Jorge Larbarga openly worried about setting up a system of unequal justice.

“You’re going to have one circuit with a death penalty,, another circuit without it, all over the place. How is…How is that proper”?

But Ayala’s attorney argued the case isn’t about not following the law.

“The State Attorney made a decision on sentencing. It was very clear that she is gong to prosecute homicide cases” said Austin.

The state Solicitor General Amit Agarwal says the Governor could have suspended Ayala, but did not.

“If petitioners policy is allowed to stand, we’re going to have a situation where you have law free zones in respect to some statutes in some parts of the state” Agarwal told Justices.

Afterwards the State Attorney says her case was had been made.


“I did what I believe what is proper under Florida law. No laws have been violated” Ayala told reporters in a brief statement.

If Ayala prevails here at the Supreme Court, state Lawmakers will almost be certainly asked to re-write the law.”

There is no timetable for a ruling, but Justices are expected to take days, not weeks in releasing their decision.

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Father Angry Over Ayala Death Penalty Stance

June 29th, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

Raphael Zaldivar leaves Ayala hearing in Supreme Court of Florida

Raphael Zaldivar’s son was murdered in 2012. The killer got a death sentence, but because the verdict was not unanimous, courts have ordered a new sentencing phase for the killer. The case is one of 24 transferred out of State Attorney Aramis Ayala’s ninth circuit because she will not seek death sentences. Zaldivar was in the Supreme Court today as Justices decide if the transfers were legal. Afterwards he shouted at Ayala as she left and told reporters he was eager for a ruling.

““I’m very confident the judges will rule on Governor rick Scott’s favor and we can move along putting these savages to death back in the state of Florida.”

Q:”What will it do for you if your son’s killer is put to death. How will you feel’?

“That’s all I wanted from them, you know. I want him executed. I want him buried” Zaldivar told reporters.

The courts decision in the Ayala case will decide if Zaldivar’s sons killer spends life in prison or faces a likely death sentence.

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Gwen Graham Delivers Over 4,000 Petitions to Senator Rubio Against Senate Healthcare Plan

June 27th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
Former US Representative and gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham was at the State Capitol today speaking out against the Senate’s proposed healthcare bill and delivering nearly 5,000 petitions to Senator Marco Rubio’s Office.
Congresswoman Graham is urging Senator Rubio to vote no on the bill she says would cost 22 million people their insurance, and would make drastic cuts to Medicaid.
The bill also allows preexisting conditions to affect insurance costs, something Graham says has become personal after her husband was diagnosed with stage IV prostate cancer.
“This has made this very personal for me. He now would be considered to have a preexisting condition and if he ever lost his insurance he would not be able to get insurance if preexisting conditions were not covered,” said Graham.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says a vote on the Senate bill won’t be taken until after the July 4th Recess.

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New Law Allows All County Residents a Voice in Public School Learning Materials

June 27th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
Your neighbor will now have a say in what your kids are learning in school, thanks to new law.
The new law has many in the education system concerned.
Three years ago state lawmakers told local school boards to seek more input when selecting textbooks. Keith Flaugh with Citizens Alliance says few listened.
“Parents get you know like a three to four week window to raise objections, after they’ve already made their decision what they’re going to buy,” said Flaugh.
The concerned Naples Grandfather forced legislation through during this past session that now requires school boards to give all county residents a say on selection.
Supporters say parents and families will now be guaranteed a say in what their kids are taught, something they say they were previously left out of.
Not everyone agrees. State Senator Bill Montford, a former school superintendent voted no on the legislation. He worries people taking advantage of the complaint system might keep old books on the shelves.
“It could cause the students in these schools not to have the opportunity for a good textbook or good material just because someone may disagree with something in there. And again they may very well be in the minority,” said Senator Montford.
Conerstone Learning Community is a private school and not impacted by the new law. Nonetheless, Director Jason Flom agrees the new law is a bad idea.
“We risk putting opinions over facts. We risk putting feelings and beliefs over tried and true methods,” said Flom.
Even with the new law, local school boards will still have the final say on adopting new educational materials, but voters have the final say on who is elected to the school boards.
School Boards will also be required to keep a list of instructional materials they’ve purchased on their websites.

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Governor Rick Scott Name Jimmy Patronis as New Chief Financial Officer

June 26th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
Governor Rick Scott has named a former state legislator to be the state’s next Chief Financial Officer.
Jimmy  Patronis of Panama City has a long resume, but us environmentalists says his actions while in office raise concerns.
Governor Rick Scott, in a rare appointment, has named the former Panama City State Representative to be the states next chief Financial Officer.
“Look forward to bringing a continued legacy of economic prosperity, job creation and a stronger economy to our great state,” said Patronis after the announcement Monday morning.
Patronis supported Scott for Governor in early 2010 when few know the current Governor.
“He’s a small business person, he knows the impact government has on businesses. He knows higher taxes and more regulation hurts businesses,” said Governor Scott.
Patronis, made a name for himself supporting anti-regulatory legislation that many felt harmed the environment.
As CFO, Petronius will vote on state lands and will have oversight of the Department of Environmental protection.
As a legislator, he sponsored 2013 legislation signed by the governor that sped up the permitting for natural gas pipelines.
It is credited with helping ease the construction of the Sabal Pipeline which sparked numerous protests.
“He was a standard bearer for developers who wanted to bypass much needed regulations who just wanted somebody who would just get them right through,” said Johanna Cervone with the Florida Democratic Party.
Petronius replaces Jeff Atwater, who is resigning to take a top post at Florida Atlantic University.
“It was the honor of a lifetime you know from City Council to state house to state senate to sitting on the Cabinet. It’s been a wonderful run,” said Atwater.
Since working as a State Representative Patronis has held the positions on the Constitution Revision Commission and the Public Service Commission.
Patronis is expected to swear in on Friday, Jeff Atwater’s last day.
Patronis will finish out Atwater’s term which ends next year.
It’s unclear whether he will run for a full term in 2018.

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LGBTQ Activists Calling For Executive Order From Governor to Protect LGBTQ State Employees

June 23rd, 2017 by Jake Stofan
LBGTQ activists say Governor Rick Scott broke his promise to do more to protect against discrimination after the Pulse night club shootings.
One year later there are still no additional employment or housing protections for LGBTQ individuals.
Brandon Wolf is a survivor of the Pulse Nightclub shooting.
The tragedy took the life of his close friend.
Wolf says even in the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in recent history, little to no progress has been made in the state.
“If somebody out there in the private sector didn’t realize that I identified as LGBTQ they could watch this interview and I could lose my job. I could lose my home. I could be denied access to public accommodations. That is appalling,” said Wolf.
Florida law does not protect LGBTQ individuals from employment discrimination.
Activists with Equality Florida say the Governor promised an executive order to extend protections to state employees and contractors, but has since pulled back.
The Governor’s Office has issued a statement explaining why the order never became reality.
“In accordance with federal guidelines” the order says in part: “Florida state agencies do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.”
State Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith says Scott’s statement isn’t backed up by solid legislation or policy.
“It requires explanation, it requires proof and he needs to answer why he has not delivered on the executive order that was promised,” said Representative Smith.
At least 11 counties and 33 cities in Florida have passed their own local ordinances offering employment protections to LGBTQ individuals in both the private and public sector.
20 states have also adopted policies to protect the LGBTQ community from employment and housing discrimination.
The lack of explicit language in Florida policy means traditional routes of discrimination protection don’t exist for LGBTQ state employees, but civil suits may be filed against an employer if a person were terminated due to their sexual orientation under EEOC guidelines.

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Father’s Anti Texting Fight Continues

June 23rd, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

The families of people who have died at the hands of texting or otherwise distracted drivers are unhappy state lawmakers did noting this year to prevent deaths. But as Mike Vasilinda tells us, one distraught father is using his hurt and anger to keep pushing for change.

Anthony Branca was 19 when he died just before thanksgiving in 2014.


“He slowed down to take a left turn on his motorcycle and the guy behind him didn’t because he was distracted by something” says Anthony’s father Demetrius.

Dad Demetrius has turned his anger and hurt into action. He’s been a frequent advocate for tougher texting laws at the state Capitol.

“46 other states have enacted primary laws against distracted driving” he told a rally in April.

But legislation that would have allowed obviously distracted drivers to be ticketed never got a hearing in the House.

“There’s a lot of people ho are gonna die between now and next legislative session that we maybe could have rescued” says Demetrius.

The Department of Highway Safety says there were more than 50 thousand accidents caused by distracted driving in 2016 alone.

That’s one hundred thirty-six accidents a day; or almost six an hour. every day and a half, somebody dies.

And the prognosis for changing the law in 2018 isn’t much better says the Senate sponsor Rene Garcia (R-Miami).

“It’s going to be hard to get that passed through the House of Representatives” concedes Garcia.

The problem is the man next in line to be Speaker. Rep. Jose Oliva, readily agrees that there is a problem,  but he worries about infringing on  civil liberties. Demetrius agrees with Oliva on that point.

I”don’t want the police to be able to pull me over and look in my phone. But they don’t need to look in my phone to see what I was doing to know that I was driving distracted” Demetrius told us.

The tenacious father, relentless in telling his son’s story, says Anthony would be doing the same for him if the death had been his instead.

In addition to continuing to lobby for tougher penalties for texting, Demetrius Branca says he’s also pushing the idea of requiring hands free devices if someone needs to talk while driving.


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One Year After Pulse, Activists say Governor Rick Scott has Dropped the Ball on Protecting LGBTQ Rights

June 22nd, 2017 by Jake Stofan
Officials with Equality Florida and the Florida Democratic Party are criticizing Governor Rick Scott for failing to issue an executive order protecting LGBTQ individuals from employment discrimination.
Leon County Democratic Party Chairman, Andy Janecek says the Legislature as a whole has failed the LGBTQ community when it comes to protecting employment rights.
“In Florida aside from some county protections, there’s now law that protects you if you go to work the next day and you place a picture of your new partner or your wedding on your desk, your employer can terminate you for that very reason in Florida. That is still allowed and that’s unacceptable,” said Janecek.
Activists say they had an open dialogue with the Governors staff in the wake of the Pulse Night Club shooting and were assured Scott would take action on the issue. Now more than a year later there hasn’t been any movement on the issue.

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