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FSU Toutes Highest Four Year Graduation Rate in State History

June 29th, 2018 by Jake Stofan
Florida State University is boasting the highest graduation rate in state history. Seven out of ten students finish within four years.
The success was highlighted at the Board of Governor’s meeting, Tuesday.
“We’re proud of our progress and we don’t take it for granted and we certainly are not going to let our foot off the gas,” said FSU President John Thrasher.
Students we spoke with say graduating in fours years helps them in the long run.
“We definitely will have like less student loans and stuff,” said FSU freshman Tiffany Weidner.
“You get more experience than someone who wouldn’t graduate in four year,” said another freshman at Florida State, Brendan Ledesma. “You get more experience in the actual workforce.”
The graduation rate is up 3% over last year and almost 20% since 2005.
FSU says the steady increase is the result of a targeted approach, including what’s called the ‘Take 15 Initiative’, which encourages students to take 15 credit hours a semester.
“It really helps them focus and it helps them do better because they have to manage their time and be smart about the work that they’re doing,” said Dean of Undergraduate Studies Karen Laughlin.
The increasing student success at FSU has also made it a popular choice for students applying for college.
A record 51,000 students applied for the 2018 Summer and Fall semesters.
But the university will have to turn away about nine out of ten applicants.
President Thrasher says the high level of interest has its own challenges
“We don’t want to cut folks out that really have an opportunity to come here and so we’re enhancing our opportunity in our CARE program, which goes out and tries to solicit kids that probably may be on the margin,” said Thrasher.
FSU is currently ranked the 33rd best public university in the country.
Leadership hopes to break into the top 25 within the next three years.
FSU announced it will be getting $98.7 million in performance funding this week.
That money will go towards helping the university reach its goals.

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Judge Says Committee to Protect Dogs Can’t Fully Participate in Upcoming Case

June 29th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda
A group supporting a ban on Greyhound racing lost a bid in court Friday to fully participate in a July trial.
Greyhound breeders are arguing the ballot language voters will see on Amendment 13 in November is misleading.
The state says it isn’t.
But the two agree on one thing: The Committee to Protect Dogs shouldn’t be allowed to fully participate in next month’s trial.
“It would open the door of intervention by any number of groups or persons,” said Major Harding, an attorney representing breeders.
In an odd parring, the opponents sat together at the plaintiffs table in court, while the Committee to Protect Dogs sat at the opposing counsel’s table.
It argued they were responsible for the amendment getting on the ballot, and they should be allowed to defend the language during trial.
“It is a major set back if we don’t get this on the ballot and if we don’t get it voted on,” said Stephen Turner with the Committee to Protect Dogs.
The Greyhound Association’s lawyers and the State said the matter is simply a question of law. What does the language say and it shouldn’t be opened to emotional arguments.
“The defendants intend vigorously to defend the ballot language,” said Jason Pratt, an attorney representing the Secretary of State.
The judge sided with the state and greyhound breeders.
Despite losing their argument here in court today the folks hoping to ban greyhound racing aren’t upset.
“That’s fine. As long as it gets appealed, it’s fine. She made a very judicious ruling,” said Turner.
The case goes to trial July 26th. A ruling is expected that day.
Under the ruling, the Committee to Protect Dogs would only be allowed to appeal an adverse ruling if the state chose not to do so.

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New Restrictions on Opioid Prescriptions Take Effect Sunday

June 28th, 2018 by Jake Stofan

This weekend marks the start of major changes to the way Florida doctors can prescribe opioid medications.

More than 15 million prescriptions for opioids were given to Florida patients between 2016 and 2017.
The Centers for Disease Control has found a direct correlation between an opioid  prescription being written for a lengthy period of time and the chances someone will become addicted.
“The whole thrust is like, pay attention to the patients so that we can make sure that that person doesn’t go down that pathway to addiction,” said Mark Fontaine with the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association.
A new law taking effect on July 1st will limit doctors to prescribing a three day supply, with the option of up to seven days if deemed medically necessary.
Patients with cancer, terminal illnesses and traumatic injures are expect from the restrictions altogether.
The new law also requires doctors to now check each patients prescription history in the Prescription Drug Monitoring Database before writing a script, which may take some getting used to for medical professionals.
“There will be a learning curve for a lot of healthcare practitioners that were not checking the prescription drug monitoring database prior to the law being implemented,” said Joe Anne Hart with the Florida Dental Association.
The law also expands the prescription data base across state lines to prevent doctor shopping.
“Like here in Tallahassee you could run up to Georgia and get a doctor there,” said Fontaine. “You could run to Valdosta and get a doctor and now we’ll be able to check that.”
The new law will require ongoing education for best practices for physicians who prescribe opioids.
Getting up to speed will be important, because the new law also raises the criminal penalty for irresponsibly prescribing opioids, increasing potential prison time from five to 15 years.
The new law will also make more than $52 million in state and federal funds available for drug treatment programs and resources.

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Committee to Decide Future Home of Confederate Statute

June 28th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda
Florida is getting closer to replacing the statue of a Confederate General who has represented the state in the U-S Capitol since 1922, but a committee meeting in the state Capitol must first decide where the confederate general  will be relocated.
Florida sent Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith to the US Capitol’s statuary hall in 1922. Born in St. Augustine, he barely lived in the state. His claim to fame was that he commanded the last confederate force to surrender.
“And then fled the country after the Confederacy lost the Civil War,” said U.S. Representative Cathy Castor when we spoke with her last July.
Castor has been pushing for Smith’s removal since she was sent to Washington in 2006.
“General Kirby Smith is not an appropriate depiction of the great people of the state of Florida,” said Castor.
This year, lawmakers voted to replace Smith with Mary McLeod Bethune.
Die hard supporters of General Smith want him moved here to the Capitol Plaza, or inside the Capitol, but that’s not going to happen.
That’s because no agency or state official has suggested that’s a good idea.
“I know there are people on both sides of the issue that have very strong feelings,” said Towson Fraser with the Florida Arts Council.
Shortly after these picture were taken Fraser took his family to the Capitol and Smith had been moved.
“And was told he’s in an inaccessible area and you’re not allowed to go look at him,” said Fraser. “So it seems to me anyway that no matter where we put him here in Florida, he’s going to be in a more accessible publicly available place.”
Finding a suitable new home for the General is one of the requirements for replacing a statute in statuary hall.
At least three other states have replaced statues in the US Capitol since it was permitted in 2000.
Florida’s other statute is of John Gorrie, who is credited with inventing the first ice machine, making him the father of air conditioning.

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Water Wars

June 27th, 2018 by Jake Stofan
The U-S Supreme Court gave Florida a partial victory today in its decades long battle for water with the state of Georgia.
In Eastpoint, Florida on the shore of Apalachicola Bay, fresh water kept from flowing by the state of Georgia has devastated the fishing industry.
Oyster boats remain docked along the shore.
It once produced 90% of the oysters consumed in Florida, and 10% of the nation’s supply.
But six years ago the bay collapsed.
A  water starved Georgia turned off the spigot at Lake Lanier, so it could send the water to Atlanta.
“We need that freshwater to support the bay. It’s the lifeblood of the bay,” said Georgia Ackerman with Apalachicola Riverkeeper. “The nutrients that come down the river support not only the estuary of Apalachicola Bay, but fresh water continues down the west coast of Florida taking care of a very important commercial fishing industry.”
With less fresh water flowing, the bay has become more salty, bringing more predators.
Shannon Hartsfield represents the Franklin County Seafood Worker’s Association.
“Our salinity is staying so high in the bay its ridiculous,” said Hartsfield.
The case now goes back to a special master, where Florida will have to prove that it has been hurt more than Georgia will be hurt in the future it f it has less water.
With the oyster industry already devastated,, those who work the bay say this decision is likely too little too late.
“We have very few oysters to reproduce, and once thats gone, it’s over with,” said Hartsfield. “There’s no opportunity for jobs here. There’s no industry here for a job. So, there’s no hope here.”
Without a flow of freshwater into the bay and then into the gulf, the entire gulf fishery could be doomed.
Only a few dozen people oyster in the bay, down from more than 100 when drought forced Georgia to begin taking more water around 2010.

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Eastpoint Fire Caused By State Contracted Prescribed Burn

June 27th, 2018 by Jake Stofan
36 homes and more than 800 acres of land in Eastpoint, Florida went up in flames Sunday.
The cause of that fire has now been identified as a prescribed burn that got out of hand.
“The investigation itself is not formally closed at this point and when it becomes closed there will be additional details available,” said Jennifer Meale with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
The burn was conducted by Wildlands Fire Service Inc, a private company contracted by the state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The burn was part of a nearly $60,000 contract.
So far the state has paid the company more than $25,000.
Many of the Eastpoint residents who lost their homes didn’t have insurance, meaning compensation will likely have to come from legal action against the FWC and the company overseeing the burn.
Melissa Lee’s daughter’s home was damaged in the fire, but is still standing.
She says while a suit is possible, she hopes it doesn’t have to come to a legal battle.
“Hopefully they’ll do the right thing and just come on out and say, hey we did this, we’re going to take care of you,” said Lee.
State Senator Bill Montford represents Eastpoint, he agrees the state needs to do what it can to help, regardless of any potential suits.
“The people who have been harmed cannot wait for the court system to move,” said Montford. “We have people without homes, we have people without food. The state should step up to do everything we can possible to help these people.”
We reached out to Wildlands Fire Service, but did not hear back in time for this story.
The Department of Agriculture’s full report on the fire hasn’t been released yet, as the agency is also in the process of reaching out to the company contracted to conduct the burn.
Shortly before the DOA announced the cause of the fire FWC ordered all prescribed burns in the state be halted.

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Teacher’s Union Asking Lawmakers to Take Pledge to Increase Teacher Salaries

June 26th, 2018 by Jake Stofan
The state’s largest teacher union is calling on lawmakers to increase teacher salaries to meet the national average within the next four years.

Florida teachers make about $47,200 a year on average.

“Florida teachers rank 45th in the nation,” said Joanne McCall, President of the Florida Education Association.

FEA says since 2009 pay is down by 12.2% when adjusted for inflation.

“We have about 40% of our new teachers leave within the first five years and it’s because they can’t make ends meet,” said McCall.

Florida’s average teacher salary is more than $12,000 below the national average, often requiring teachers to work a second job. In one extreme case, a teacher has resorted to selling plasma to pay the bills.

“If she donated plasma eight times in a month she’ll own $300 to supplement her income, which when you think about that, that’s pretty sad,” said McCall.

FEA is asking candidates and lawmakers to sign a pledge, vowing to vote down any budget that doesn’t include a pay raise for teachers and educational staff.

The goal is to get Florida to the national average by 2023.

“The public believes in public schools,” said McCall. “They believe in public school teachers and education staff professionals and we’re going to rally the public and we’re going to put the pressure on these politicians to do right. “

The increase is estimated to cost between $400 and $600 million.

FEA says cutting wasteful spending along with redirecting money spent on private school vouchers could cover the cost.

So far, 19 have signed on, including four Democratic candidates for governor.

State Senator and head of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents Bill Montford has yet to sign, but says not only does he think the goal is attainable, it should be set even higher.

“So is it possible? Absolutely. It is and we just got to push it,” said Montford. “We’ve got to stay on top of it and all of us who really know about public education, we have to stand up and be vocal.”

While Democrats are likely to support the pledge, it will be harder to convince Republicans.

Teachers hope the prospect of a ‘blue wave’ this November could shift the balance of power making the goal more attainable.

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Future Uncertain for Eastpoint Residents After Wildfire Torches an Estimated 40 Homes

June 25th, 2018 by Jake Stofan
State officials are cleaning up after a wildfire in Eastpoint, Florida torched 950 acres and as many as 40 homes.
Cell phone video shot Sunday evening depicts a scene, which many residents describe as the most horrifying moment of their lives.
Barbara Fox says she and her family barricaded themselves in their garage as they attempted to fight back the flames.
“The wind was amazing and you could hear explosions outside,” said Fox.
Barbara’s home was amazingly spared, but the same can’t be said for an estimated 30 to 40 others.
“All the houses across the road were down, were just completely gone,” said Fox.
Many residents like Shirley Freeman were still waiting to be allowed to survey the damage early Monday afternoon.
“We don’t know anything. My brother lost his and he had a little baby puppy in there that got burnt to death because he couldn’t get to it and save it,” Freeman said. “I just want to get in there and make sure that I still have a home.”
While the fire was contained, hotspots threatened to resurrect the blaze.
Theories on what caused the fire range from a lightning strike to a controlled burn that got out of hand.
Residents we spoke with suspect it was a controlled burn.
The State’s Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis says the cause has not not been determined, but officials are working overtime to get power restored and help residents moving forward.
“Right now they cannot access their most precious investment they’ll ever make financially in their life and that’s their home,” said Patronis. “Duke has been around here almost 24 hours now getting the power restored in order to be able to get the scene safe so the people that are here can try to get back to normal.”
The community is also coming together and collecting supplies for those in need.
“The people around town have just more than generous. They have opened their doors to everybody that needs help,” said Sandy Sanders with the American Red Cross.
Residents say many who lost their homes don’t have insurance making recovery especially daunting.
The Franklin County Sheriff’s Office has set up a GoFundMe page to help the victims of the fire.
The department is looking to raise at least $150,000.

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Rising Seas Threaten Florida, Little Action From Scott and Legislature

June 22nd, 2018 by Jake Stofan
One out of 10 Florida homes could be subject to almost daily flooding by the end of the century according to a new report by The Union of Concerned Scientists.
The culprit… rising sea levels resulting from climate change.
The report suggests Florida stand to be affected more than any other state.
Predictions by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show up to 6 1/2 feet of sea level rise by 2100.
An increase of that magnitude would cost billions of dollars to the state and local governments in lost property values.
“If tax values, property tax evaluations are going down and tax input to these cities and counties is shrinking, it’s going to be very difficult for them to cope,” said Dr. Jeff Chanton, a professor of Oceanography at Florida State University.
Environmental groups say the new predictions should sound a major alarm.
“This report is a serious wake up call in a series of wake up calls. Unfortunately our leaders have been pushing the snooze button for too long,” said Jonathan Webber with Florida Conservation Voters.
Scientists say not only have lawmakers been hitting the snooze button, but many including Governor Rick Scott have been slow to even accept there’s a problem.
“The state government until quite recently, climate change was a dirty word and not to be mentioned,” said Chanton.
A recent review of the Governor’s most recent financial disclosures showed one-sixth (about $20 million) of Scott’s 2014 net worth of more than $132 million was tied up in companies who have said climate change Legislation stood to hurt their businesses.
But most of Scott’s wealth is hidden away from the public in blind trusts.
“We have no idea the full extent of his investment in opposing climate change,” said Attorney Don Hinkle, who is suing Scott in an effort to gain access to the details of his blind trust.
Scott has to file a new financial disclosure next month as part of his bid for the U.S. Senate.
It may be the most clear look the public has gotten of Scott’s investments.
Scientists also fear if the Governor’s constitutional amendment to require a supermajority in the Legislature to approve new tax hikes passes this November, it could further stifle proactive measures to combat rising seas.
In response to this story the Governor’s Office made a point of noting this past session Scott secured $3.6 million for a new Florida Resilient Coastline Initiative within the Department of Environmental Protection, which will assist local governments with sea level rise planning and coastal resilience projects, in addition to protection of coral reef health.

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Qualifying Ends for State Candidates, Record Number Running For Governor

June 22nd, 2018 by Jake Stofan
The line up for this election season is now complete.
Candidate qualifying for state and local offices ended Friday at noon, and there appears to be record setting interest in running for office.
This is what it looked like over a twenty minute period at the State Division of Elections Friday morning.
Largo veteran Noel Howard is one the record 19 people who paid at least $5,200  to run for Governor this year.
“I think we need to have a serious look at the handicap situation here in Florida. We’re thirteen percent of the population,”
Seven Democrats and seven republicans will be on the August ballot.
Orlando developer Chris King was the final major Democratic contender to file.
He’s poured over $3 million of his own cash into the race over the last 16 months.
“I want to be the Governor who brings private prisons and the death penalty to an end here in Florida,” said King. “The Governor who will legalize and regulate marijuana.”
In addition to the candidates paying the fee, there’s a handful of write-ins.
Their name won’t be on the ballot, but they can tell their grandkids they ran for Governor.
UPS made two deliveries to drop off qualifying paperwork.
Even the slightest mistake will keep candidates off the ballot.
Terry Power rushed into the division after getting a call Friday morning saying there was an error in his previously filed documents.
“I remember thinking I’m glad I was a pilot. I’ve been here many times and it was an hour and ten minutes,” said Power.
Not far behind Power was a Palm Beach State Representative who walked in as qualifying was closing after he forgot to file his paperwork
Fewer State Senate and House incumbents are also seeing more challenges running against them then in years past.

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Jeff Greene’s Outlines Progressive Agenda

June 21st, 2018 by Jake Stofan
Greene flew to the Capitol on his private jet to qualify for Governor.
At 15 his parents lost everything. His mother waited tables at the Breakers in Palm Beach.
“I was a busboy during college at the Breakers Hotel. I was clearing those dirty dishes too,” said Greene. “I worked three jobs, and let me tell you something, when I’m Governor, I’m going to make sure every busboy in Florida can have the same dreams I had, and maybe they’ll be flying around in a private jet too.”
When his parents lost their business, Greene stayed behind with relatives in Massachusetts.
“Why? Because I heard the schools in Florida were not good enough to get me into a top university.That’s what I heard in 1970,” said Greene.
Now he says every child deserves a chance to succeed.
“So, two years of Universal Pre-K education. It can’t be tied to your good fortune of being born in a wealthy zip code,” said Greene. “Every child deserves to get a good education.”
Greene would ban AR-15 style rifles.
“If they want to fire, you know, 50 round guns, and go off fifty rounds in a minute, or fly fighter jets, join the military, but not on our streets,” said Greene.
Greene is pushing the same progressive agenda as other Democrats.
He says he’s in the race for two reasons: They haven’t caught fire, and they need his money.
“We have not had the funds to compete with this Republican onslaught,” said Greene. “This Republican amount of money thats been two to three times what we’ve been able to spend.”
Greene has already pledged to give half his $3.3 billion away… or at least half of what’s left after the Governors race.
Greene says he will take no special interest or PAC money and is limiting individual contributions to $100.
State law allows contributions of up to $3,000 in the gubernatorial race.

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U.S. Supreme Court Clears Way for States to Tax Online Purchases

June 21st, 2018 by Jake Stofan
The U-S Supreme Court today cleared the way for states to collect sales tax from out of state internet vendors.
A previous decision made before computers were commonplace banned the collection.
Some estimates suggest Florida could be losing as much as a billion dollars a year.
James Miller with the Florida Retail Federation says the decision will go along way to stabilizing brick and mortar retailers.
“Online has had such a competitive advantage. You know, when you’re not paying six, seven percent, especially on those big ticket items, so that can be significant savings, so people are going to use those sights rather than some of the Florida based ones. So this is great news,” said Miller. “We’re excited by it. Again, level playings field. Everyone’s playing by the same rules. And because of that competition and innovation is are going to determine who succeeds, not who ever’s paying taxes and not paying taxes.
State law already requires residents who buy out of state merchandise to voluntarily pay sales tax, but few do.
Enacting internet collection will require an act of the Legislature.

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What Does the Future Hold For Immigrant Children Housed in Homestead?

June 21st, 2018 by Jake Stofan
Video provided by the Department of Health and Human Services shows the first glimpse into the conditions at the 1,200 bed Homestead facility housing immigrant children.
At least 94 children housed there were separated from their families while crossing the boarder.
“They’re already fleeing some form of persecution and trauma and this certainly was another layer that the U.S. Government inflicted upon them,” said Human Rights Attorney and Immigration Expert Mark Schlakman.
While President Donald Trump ordered an end to the practice of separating families, the future for the 2,300 already separated remains uncertain.
“Will those 2,000 families be reconnected to their loved ones? Do we know where their loved ones are? This is a total absence of moral leadership in my opinion,” said Gubernatorial Candidate and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.
“It would be reasonable to presume that there would be some effort to reunite these young children with their families,” said Shlakman.
Three Democratic Gubernatorial Candidates confirmed on Twitter that they plan to march together outside the facility this weekend.
Gillum also plans to attend.
“For me personally it was hard to shake the images of these kids being torn away from their family members,” said Gillum. “It’s not who we are as a country.”
The future is also uncertain for more than 1,000 teenagers also being housed at the Homestead facility, many of whom crossed the boarder unaccompanied seeking asylum.
While Gubernatorial candidates march outside, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson will be inside the facility speaking with the children housed there as well as staff.
It’s believed there are an additional 174 separated children housed throughout Florida, aside from those in the Homestead facility.

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Jeff Greene Qualifies for Governor

June 20th, 2018 by Jake Stofan
Billionaire Jeff Greene is now an official candidate for Governor.
The Palm Beach Democrat filed his paperwork this afternoon in the State Capitol.
He has promised to spend as much as is needed to win, and told reporters he hopes to reverse 20 years of Republican rule in the Capitol.
“Anyway you look at it, the Democratic message is the winning message in the state of Florida. There are more Democrats. I think more independents absolutely lean Democratic. The problem is we have not had the funds to compete with this Republican onslaught,” said Greene. “This Republican amount of money that has been two to three times what we’ve been able to spend. So will I put my money behind our message? Yes I will.”
Greene’s net worth tops $3 billion, but he noted his parents were poor and he himself once worked as a busboy.

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Report: Florida’s Low State Taxes Cost Residents More on the Local Level

June 20th, 2018 by Jake Stofan
A new report shows that state taxes in Florida are among the lowest in the nation.
Florida TaxWatch says the state ranks 42nd, but the low state tax burden comes at a cost in other, higher taxes.
Floridians pay an average of $5,679 a year in state and local taxes, almost $1,400 below the national average.
Florida TaxWatch says one of the reasons is tourists pick up part of the tab.
“That does offset the need, or the requirement for having a state income tax, a state inheritance tax,” said Dominic Calabro with Florida TaxWatch.
While the overall burden is low, the study found that local government taxes in Florida are the second highest in the country.
As lawmakers cut taxes, they pushed the burden to local government, especially when it comes to schools.
“So then the local has to raise their taxes, so the local is the one who looks bad and the state looks good,” said Joanne McCall, President of the Florida Education Association.
Florida is also one of the few states that charges businesses a sales tax when they rent property.
That’s made business taxes the 12th highest in the country.
This year, lawmakers cut the tax on commercial rentals by 0.1%, saving between 30 and $40 million.
The Florida Retail Federation has been fighting to end the rental tax altogether.
It’s something that all the businesses that rent space have to deal with,” said James Miller with FRA. “Also, local governments have been running wild with local taxes to pay for programs and initiatives on the backs of businesses. So that report doesn’t surprise us at all that we would have taxes that high.”
Also bringing down the state tax rate are higher than average taxes on utilities, fuel, cell phones and alcohol.
People in Arizona pay the least state and local taxes at $4924 a year.
North Dakotans pay the most at just over $12,000 a year.

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