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Supporting Puerto Rico

February 12th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda

A half dozen Florida lawmakers were joined by the Congressman who represents more Puerto Rican immigrants than anyone else at the Capitol today. They are calling on the GOP controlled legislature to act fast to begin the draw down of money in the recently passed budget resolution to help school districts facing an influx of immigrants from the Caribbean following Hurricane Maria this year.  Congressman Daren Soto says the time to act is now.

“I’m proud that we got two point seven billion dollars for schools impacted by recent disasters., including Florida. And I urge my legislative colleagues to apply for this money without delay, particularly, in schools that had hundreds or thousands of new students, from Puerto Rico, the Virgin islands’ and other areas Across the devoted landscape in the Caribbean” Soto told reporters at the news conference.

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Lawmakers Considering Changes to Drug Free Zones

February 9th, 2018 by Jake Stofan

There are 23 hundred inmates in Florida prisons for selling drugs in a drug free zone. It costs Florida tax more than $46 million. The zones create enhanced penalties and in some cases mandatory sentences.

 

“And frankly most people don’t know about these enhanced penalties,” said State Senator Jeff Brandes.

In 1987 when Florida first created drug free zones it only applied to schools. Since then 7 new designations have been added, including churches, parks and even convenience stores.”

 

“Whether you’re a foot away from a zone could be the difference between 15 or 30 years in prison,” said Sen. Brandes.

The added zones have made some urban areas, where the population is disproportionately black, almost entirely drug free zones.

The result is eight out of ten prisoners convicted with enhanced penalties are black.

Lawmakers are considering changing the zones to cut prison costs and make the laws more fair.

“We want something that’s actually is going to have an effect,” said Sen. Brandes. “Not just focus on punishment, but would actually focus on reducing crime. I don’t know that the current situation actually does anything to reduce crime.”

Other lawmakers believe the enhanced penalties do in fact deter criminals.

 

“I remember the gentlemen who robbed a store with a bow and arrow and was arrested, was caught and said he was desperate, but not stupid not to use a firearm because he knew the law would put him away for a long time,” said State Senator Aaron Bean.

Some potential fixes include reducing the size of the zones, removing the designation from some places and narrowing the crimes that qualify for enhanced penalties in the zones.

 

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Suspects in FSU Law Professor Murder Facing New Charges

February 9th, 2018 by Jake Stofan

Two suspects in the murder for hire plot of an FSU law professor are facing new charges as of Friday. Katherine Magbanua and Sigfredo Garcia have been charged with Conspiracy to commit murder and solicitation to commit murder. The state has been seeking to try the two together but has been rebuffed by the judge. Prosecutor Georgia Cappleman is hoping the conspiracy charges would open the door to a joint trial.

“It is my theory that they were involved in the same conspiracy and that is part of the argument of trying them together is that the facts are the same, so we’ll find out if the court agrees with that,” said Cappleman.

Bond on the charges has been set at a hundred thousand dollars. Both both are being held without bond on first degree murder.

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Effort to Restrict Voter Date Stalls for Now

February 8th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda

Legislation to shield the most basic information contained in voter registration files stalled today. But as Mike Vasilinda tells us, there is a simple fix for voters who don’t want their phone number or email address in public files.

Florida’s Supervisors of Elections have been trying to remove registered voters addresses, date of birth, email and phone numbers from the public record since at least 2013.

 

“I believe we open our populace, our residents, our citizens, to some inappropriate behavior” Sponsor Cyndi Stevenson told the Public Integrity and Ethics Committee.

Supervisors stepped up their efforts to shield the information after the Trump Administration asked for and got the states voter database last summer.

 

“It’s really the number one complaint get at the local county Supervisor of Election level” says Supervisors lobbyist David Ramba.

But when pushed, for specifics, only a handful of the more than 12 million voters have considered unregistering.

“I had a few, I had a few” says Bay County Supervisor of Elections Mark Anderson

Leon Supervisor of Elections Mark Early had more.

 

“I was able to talk most of them down, but I think we had two dozen roughly that went ahead and unregistered anyway” Early told us.

A compromise to limit the exclusion to just those soon to be voters under 18 who have pre registered to vote was in the works. When the sponsor didn’t follow the plan…

“I would move we temporarily postpone this bill.”

 

The debate ended. For now. Rep. David Richardson (D-Miami) says he wants to respect voters privacy, but…“Facebook and other entities have so much more information about us than that is available through these public records available through the elections office” says Richardson.

Including your phone number or email in a voting record is voluntary. That means you can remove it if you like.

Under the legislation, political parties, qualified candidates, or political committees could still see the information, but not someone thinking about running, or the general public.

Governor Rick Scott vetoed similar  legislation in 2013, saying keeping the information public would give voters the most efficient access to election related materials.

The effort to shield the information of pre registered voters under 18 is likely to continue moving this session.

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Push for More Mental Health Training for Law Enforcement Officers Moves Forward

February 8th, 2018 by Jake Stofan

One in five inmates in local jails suffer from severe mental illness. For the officers on the front lines, it can be difficult to distinguish between a violent criminal and someone who is mentally ill.

 

“One of them in particular, who is very close who is very close to me is six-foot three… If you don’t know the signs of mental illness and you see this young man and you think he’s acting out… you may use force that’s not necessary,” said State Senator Bobby Powel.

An incident where a caretaker in Miami was shot by police while trying to get his autistic patient out of the street prompted the passage of autism training for law enforcement officers last year. Now, lawmakers want to make sure police are trained to recognize all mental illness.

 

“The key here is to help law enforcement officers become sensitive,” said Barney Bishop with the Florida Smart Justice Alliance.

Police are already trained to identify mental illness when they go through basic training. New legislation would require them to get a refresher every four years.

 

“As we evolve we want to make sure that our public safety officers have the best information available,” said Sen. Powell.

Legislation approved by a Senate committee Thursday requires the department of law enforcement to develop the training, but advocates say the training should be given by mental health professionals.

Advocates say the option is already available… for free.

 

“We have many community mental health centers statewide who already provide that training at no cost to law enforcement,” said Melanie Brown-Woofter with the Florida Council for Community Mental Health.

Police now undergo 40 hours of training every four years, if approved the mental health training could be included in the 40 hours or added to it.

If passed the training would being being required in October of this year.

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Lawmakers Want to Ban Conversion Therapy in Florida

February 8th, 2018 by Jake Stofan

Conversion therapy is a controversial practice which attempts to make LGBTQ individuals straight.

Lawmakers are proposing legislation that would ban state certified licensed mental health professionals from using the therapy on minors. Sponsors say conversion therapy has been discredited by most mental health organizations for being ineffective and causing mental and sometimes physical harm to those who it is used on.

Jose Vega was underwent the therapy for five years. He says it caused him to become depressed and even contemplate suicide.

“I mustered everything that I could to continue to fight and to move forward. I worked hard to dispel everything that was instilled in me for almost six years. Today I share my story that I import the dangers of conversion therapy,” said Vega.  “This practice is life altering. It shattered, it almost shattered my life.”

The practice has already been banned in 9 states and also in 15 municipalities in Florida.

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FAMU Hazing Conviction Challenged

February 7th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda

A former FAMU Band member, sentenced too more than six years in prison for a hazing death is challenging his conviction. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, lawyers argued today the law is vague and the former band member deserves a new trial.

Drum Major Robert Champion died after agreeing to a ritual known as crossing bus C. Champion was pummeled as he walked through the bus after its last performance in 2011. Dante Martin organized the ritual. He’s serving six and a half years in state prison.

Attorney Rupak Shah asked the hazing law be thrown out and Martin get a new trial.

“We also have before the court Mr. Martins request for a new trial in his manslaughter conviction” Shah told justices.

His lawyers say the law is so vague the average person “Can not make heads or tails and accurately determine what is criminalized and what’s not.”

 

And, his attorney argued the law make exceptions for competitions, and that Champion was walking Bus C for prestige and honor, which he defined as a competition. Justices weren’t buying it. Justice Barbara Pariente was pointed:

 

 

“This would mean any hazing from any fraternity,  their competition would be to see, what, who can stay alive and who dies?”

The State said simply, Champions consent doesn’t let Martin or anyone else off the hook.

“The legislature has determined that is doesn’t matter that he wanted to do it” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Davenport.

Even if judges agree and throw out parts of the law, it’s not likely to affect the trials of nine FSU Fraternity brothers, charged in the death of one of their pledges.

Steven Turner argued for the Criminal Defense Lawyers Assn. “It is not proper to convict this gentleman, under this statute, as drawn. For the circumstances here. That’s the problem. It fits for a fraternity problem. It fits for a sorority problem” says Turner.

But there are no certainties until the court rules, and that could take months.

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Public School Advocates Say House Speaker is Bullying the Legislature to Pass His Scholarship for Bullied Students

February 7th, 2018 by Jake Stofan

Public School advocates are calling House SpeakerRichard Corcoran a bully on fliers sent to House Republicans. They’re angry he’s holding state funding for public schools hostage unless his controversial education package is approved.

 

“Tying the budget to unvetted policy is unheard of,” said Sue Woltanski with Common Cause Florida.

A major part of the package, ironically, is legislation that would fund scholarships for bullied students to go to private schools.

“That gives parents a choice and especially for the kids that are most vulnerable at our schools,” said House Education Chair Representative Michael Bileca.

7th grade student Hailey Vadi was bullied at her public school. She told House members she’s been more successful at her new private school.

 

“I made more friends there and nobody judged me,” said Vadi.

The scholarship would be funded from sales taxes on automobile purchases. Motorists would have the option to choose if the sales tax from their purchase went to the program or into general revenue.

Sponsors anticipate generating $40 million for the scholarship. Opponents fear it could take as much as $367 million from General revenue.

Public School advocates say the bill isn’t about bullying. It’s about taking money from public schools and giving it to private schools.

 

“They continue to come up with funding schemes that go into private pockets but my children’s title one school, we struggle all the time to make ends meet,” said Rich Templin with the Florida AFLCIO.

Public school advocates say there’s no guarantee a student will be better protected from bullying at private schools, especially since the schools aren’t required to report bullying like public schools.

In 2015 more than 123,000 high school students in the state reported being bullied over a 12 month period. Only 47,000 incidents were reported.

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Democrats Stand in Opposition to House Education Package

February 7th, 2018 by Jake Stofan

House Democrats are standing in opposition to the education package pushed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran. At a press conference Democrats called the speaker a bully for holding funding for public schools hostage, unless his Legislation passes.

Democrats say the Education bill is comprised of at least 13 separate proposals, which they say should be vetted individually. Some of those proposals include requiring teachers unions to have at least 50% membership for certification and funding scholarships for bullied public school students to go to private schools. Democrats say it ties the hands of Legislators to either accept everything, or risk losing $8.3 billion dollars for public schools.

 

“Lets stop bullying the 120 members and the 40 members of the Senate to hear a 2,000 line bill and force it down our that and tell us take it or leave it,” said Representative Shervin Jones, “And then to hold our budget hostage, our children hostage all for political gain is not only insulting, but it is disrespectful to the 20 million people within the state of Florida.”

Minority party leaders vowed all 40 democratic members are ready to debate the bill, in an attempt to stop its passage.

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Red Light Cameras Challenged at Supreme Court of Florida

February 7th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda

A challenge to the constitutionality of red light cameras was heard today by a skeptical Florida Supreme Court. Justices questioned the claims of a south Florida man who was ticketed for illegally making a right turn on red. His lawyer, Steven Rosenthal argued during the appeal of the 158 dollar ticket that too much discretion over who got ticketed was given to the camera vendor and not law enforcement.

“In this case, three thousand a month of the case are not reviewed by an officer, so there is no probable cause determination” Rosenthal told justices.

State lawmakers are also looking at the cameras. Legislation to ban them has cleared the state House, but has not been heard in the Florida Senate.

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Deleting Confederate Holidays

February 6th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida has nearly two dozens legal state holidays or days or days of observation. Three recognized civil war hero’s. But as Mike Vasilinda tells us a divided Senate Committee voted to remove the three from official status.

From George Washington to Susan B. Anthony, Florida has a long list of legal days of observance.

Now legislation would remove Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s birthday, , Confederate President, Jefferson Davis’ birthdate, and Confederate Memorial Day from the list. Kelly Crocker says lawmakers shouldn’t be messing with history.

“Fifteen thousand men from Florida volunteered to serve in the confederate army., and over four thousand of them never came home” says Crocker in justifying why Confederate Memorial Day should remain on the books.

Sponsor Lauren Book calls the observances divisive.

 

“It’s important to condemn racism and hate and reaffirm that we are indeed one nation, indivisible” Book told fellow Senators.

But Two dozen opponents showed up to challenge the change.

Sever Newsome came from Yulee, Fl.

“This bill is just another stab in the back and insult to our ancestors. My ancestors!”

James Shillinglaw said lawmakers had better things to worry about.

 

“Seventy-five percent of the black community grow up without a father in the house. That’s what you should be addressing” he said.

 

 

The removal was approved 4 to 2. State Senator Tom Lee, no relation to the General, was surprised by the volume of opposition. He voted no.

“We got a flood of phone calls from all over the state. Who, you know, privately celebrate these holidays, and were very passionate about it” said Lee afterward, adding no one was forcing anyone to celebrate the holidays.

None of the opponents were opposed to a slavery memorial, which could be approved this year.

The Florida Slavery memorial is just one vote away from going to the Governor’s Desk.

The legislation has four more committee hearing before ever being heard on the floor of either house, and one of those committees has no more scheduled meetings as Lawmakers hit their halfway point tomorrow.

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Lawmakers and Local Municipalities Search for Middle Ground on Bike Sharing Regulation

February 6th, 2018 by Jake Stofan
Bike Sharing companies are spreading throughout Florida. They allow users to take bikes for a spin after renting them from an app.
State Senator Dana Young is sponsoring Legislation seeking to regulate the companies.
She says the goal is to keep restrictions on the companies uniform throughout the state.

“A patchwork level of regulation just doesn’t work for the consumer or the companies operating the service,” said Young.

Cities and counties worry the Legislation would restrict their ability to oversee the companies in their jurisdictions. Jeff Branch with the Florida League of Cities says dockless bike shares have been problematic elsewhere, because they allow users to leave bikes almost anywhere.

“If you have a public sidewalk in front of your house, you could have 100 bikes sitting out there,” said Branch.

An amendment tagged on to the bill requires the companies to follow all local ordinances and remove any bikes parked unlawfully within 24 hours.
The companies would be fined $10 a day for each bike parked illegally.
J.R. Harding with the Florida Alliance for Assistive Services and Technology says removal should be required immediately so the bikes don’t block the paths of the disabled.

“One could not use the ramp. One might not be able to access a business,” said Harding

The Legislation allows for municipalities to ban bike sharing companies out right, but specifies if they allow one, they have to allow completion and treat them all the same. It also requires bicycle sharing companies to carry at least half a million dollars of liability insurance.
Cities and counties say while the bill is getting closer to something they would support, they’d prefer complete local control over the companies.

“What works for Tallahassee is not necessarily going to work for Miami-Dade or Orlando,” said Jennifer Laxner with the Florida Association of Counties.

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FSU Takes Over the State Capitol

February 6th, 2018 by Jake Stofan

The State Capitol was decorated in garnet and gold today as students and alumni  celebrated FSU Day. The school’s band, the Marching Chiefs played the University fight song in the Capitol courtyard as FSU cheerleaders put on a spirited display.

University President John Trasher recognized the school’s new football coach, Willie Taggart, along with FSU alumni serving currently serving in the Legislature.

 

“We’re so proud so many people came out to support FSU and support what we’re doing,” said Thrasher. “We’re really proud of our programs, we’re proud of the ranking we have nationally and thankful for the Legislature and all it’s done to help Florida State University.”

Taggart’s introduction was particularly important, considering signing day is tomorrow. Taggart has been traveling the country looking for new talent since he took the job as head coach in December.

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Dozier Abuse Victims Legislation Moving

February 5th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda

Ten months ago, the state apologized for more than a hundred years of abuse at the Dozier School for Boys. Now, as Mike Vasilinda tells us, it may take the first step to compensate the survivors.

Once they started looking, Researchers found 30 more bodies than they anticipated in unmarked graves at the Dozier School for Boys. Many remain unidentified. For those that survived, the state apologized last April.


“We say again, we’re sorry” Sponsor Daryl Rouson said on the Senate Floor last April.

The self named White House Boys…the name coming from the cinder block house where they were beaten, called the apology a big step forward. Robert St. Claire now lives in Satsuma, Fl.

 

“I can sleep a little better now, the truth is finally out in the open.”

Now the state may create a registry of the survivors. It is the first step toward possible compensation for the abuses.

“There is some question as to how many are still living” says Rouson, who is now sponsoring the legislation.

Called the Victims of Reform School Abuse, the legislation requires survivors to provide proof from state archives that they were sent to Dozier between 1940 and 1975

And if this legislation passes, victims would have until October first to register with the state. And a certified list of victims would then come back here to the legislature.

Lawmakers could choose to compensate them says Rouson.

“Whether its scholarships for their children, whatever form it comes in, it could be compensation, monetary compensation. But those decisions will be made once we’ve identified a class.”

Or they could just simply look the other way, just as the state did for more than a century.

One 75 year old former resident wrote Senate Sponsor Rouson, saying he left Florida and hasn’t come back since his beatings at Dozier. He vowed to come back if and when the White House where the atrocities took place, is torn down.

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FDOT Directed to Move Forward With Plans to Improve Emergency Evacuations

February 5th, 2018 by Jake Stofan

Hurricane Irma saw 6.5 million Floridians take to the road.  The result… major traffic jams.

 

“Traffic was stop and go, stop and go. Bumper to bumper,” said Darcy Bessette when we spoke with her as she evacuated back in September.

It added hours to travel times.

 

“There’s not many places they can go. They can take either I-95 North or they can take I-75 or they can take I-10 West. I mean, at this point when we have another disaster we’re going to have some problems with people trying to leave our state and there has to be a better process,” said Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith.

The State Department of Transportation has gotten the go ahead to six lane parts of I-75 between Tampa and the turnpike, and to reconfigure the interchange where the two meet.

What the DOT won’t do is reverse traffic to help evacuees get out and then back into the state. State Senator Jeff Brandes calls the reversals problematic.

 

“If you turn everything one way, then how do you get new trucks in, how do you get fuel trucks in, other safety vehicles in? Maybe you want to get the utility vehicles to come in. If they’re kind of pushing against traffic that doesn’t work very well,” said Senator Brandes.

Short term improvements call for increasing emergency shoulder use during future evacuations, expanding the DOT’s Florida 511 traffic website, and installing cameras and message signs along I-75.

The DOT plan also calls for the Division of Emergency Management to identify crucial gas stations along evacuation routes to prevent drivers from running out of gas during an evacuation.

The short term fixes are scheduled to be ready by June 1st, the start of hurricane season.

But some major constructions projects won’t be ready until late 2019 and others until 2025.

 

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