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State Agencies Acknowledge Pollution Contributes to Algal Blooms

January 23rd, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Under the previous governor, Florida’s environmental agencies refused to acknowledge humans played a part, but now they are shifting their tone when it comes to dealing with toxic algae blooms.

The same agencies told lawmakers Wednesday morning, human activity and pollution is making the blooms worse.

In September during the peak of the Red Tide bloom the Florida Fish and Wild Life Conservation Commission gave an update on the crisis.

Officials doubled down on a particular line: Naturally occurring.

Now 15 months after the bloom began and a new Governor taking office, the FWC and Department of Environmental Protection are acknowledging human pollution as another possible factor.

“Control of those excess nutrients into inshore waters will help with the impacts of red tide once it gets there,” said Gil McRae, Director of the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.

Jonathan Webber with the Florida Conservation Voters says its an important change in tone.

“People in the Executive branch are taking this really seriously and acknowledging that there is a link between prolonged or worsening red tide and human activity,” said Webber.

While the Governor and FWC are so far focused on septic to sewer conversion as the best way to reduce nutrient loads, they also acknowledge agriculture as one of the culprits.

“Also management of storm water because as we get these heavy storms, a lot of that water hits our coastal systems very quickly. It’s much better to slow that water down and filter it through wetlands which remove a lot of the nutrients,” said McRae.

Lawmakers like Representative Holly Raschein are taking note.

“There’s a large population south of Lake Okeechobee and the human impacts on this whole thing and I think everything is kind of on the table,” said Raschein.

One thing that didn’t come up in Wednesday’s presentations is whether global warming may be affecting algal blooms.

Conservation groups say that also needs to be part of the conversation.

Governor Ron DeSantis issued an executive order earlier this month, calling for a septic to sewer grant program to be established.

It also directed state agencies to closely study red tide and blue green algae to find scientific way of reducing impacts of the blooms.

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Bill Allowing Home Vegetable Gardens Passes First Committee

January 23rd, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Thousands of homeowners across Florida will soon be planting their spring vegetable gardens.

Some cities have enacted bans on gardens in the front yard, but  powerful lawmakers are challenging the bans with legislation they say will protect homeowners property rights.

For 17 years, a Miami Shores couple grew a vegetable garden in their front yard.

Then the city threatened 50 dollar a day fines.

“This is a property rights issue. It’s not a home rule issue,” said Representative Elizabeth Fetterhoff.

Now losing court fights have sparked legislative debate over property rights.

“We want to make sure that fruits and herbs and various things like that are also included,” said Fetterhoff. “Tomatoes. Some of you may not know is actually a fruit, so we want to make sure individuals can grow their tomatoes.”

For 30 minutes, lawmakers peppered the sponsor with questions.

The League of Cities says only ten or so have banned the front yard gardens.

“Certain neighbors were afraid that if you had tall crops if could affect the property values of the neighboring property, for example,” said David Cruz with the League.

In the end, the committee voted 13-1 to stop local governments from banning the front yard gardens.

“It goes back to victory gardens. Our government used to encourage us to grow gardens,” said Fetterhoff. “They used to encourage us to provide for ur families, and now we have local government coming in and telling private property owners they can’t grow gardens, they can’t provide for their family.”

One of the more pressing questions asked by lawyers was whether allowing front yard gardens would impact restrictions in deeds.

The answer is it won’t.

Based on the debate, and the questions both answered and unanswered the legislation is almost certain to be a political hot pepper, err, potato.

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MSD Commission Says Schools Are Ignoring the Law

January 23rd, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

The Chairman of the School Safety Commission set up after last years massacre at Marjorie Stoneman Douglass High School says many school districts in the state are ignoring the law and playing tricks with its requirements.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri says many have done little to put locks on doors or secure their campuses.

“The law is very clear, there needs to be a school safety officer, a good guy with a gun, on every campus. You don’t have that,” said Gualtieri. “And some of the districts are interpreting the word assigned to mean they have to be assigned but not actually physically there. That’s wrong. That’s disingenuous. and stop playing games because we need to make sure we got somebody there to protect the kids.”

Gualtieri also says many districts have failed to file school safety assessments with the state, another requirement of the law.

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Lawmakers Aim to Increase Dental Care Access

January 23rd, 2019 by Jake Stofan

63 of Florida’s 67 counties have areas with a shortage of dental care professionals.

Lawmakers say the lack of access afflicts one in four Floridians.

To help increase access to affordable dental care, Sate Senator Jeff Brandes has filed a bill that would authorize dental therapists in Florida.

The position would require less schooling than a traditional dentist, but would be able to perform many of the same procedures only dentists are allowed to perform under state law.

“We have millions of people who are under served in this space and this creates for us an opportunity to lead in the country by allowing Dental therapists and to grow a new profession and to create a new pathway for individuals in the state,” said Brandes.

The Florida Dental Association opposes the legislation, arguing it could take between five and six years to fully implement.

Instead the association favors legislation that would incentive more dentists to work in areas with care shortages, by helping graduates pay off their student loans.

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DeSantis Picks Third Justice

January 22nd, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Governor Ron DeSantis has made his third appointment to the Florida Supreme Court, naming a nearly 18 year veteran of state Government rather than a judge to the states highest court.

What sets this justice apart from most is that he has never been a judge.

On Inauguration Day Governor Ron Desantis made it clear.

“Judicial activism ends right here and right now,” said DeSantis.

On Tuesday, he named his third justice to the state’s highest court, Carlos Muniz.
Muniz has worked at the highest levels of both the legislative and executive branches in Florida.

“In my new role, I will have a solemn duty to set aside my own policy preferences,” said Muniz. “I wholeheartedly welcome that obligation”.

Muniz will be the only justice on the high court not to have served on a lower court.

“Governor Bush said he is one of, I think he maybe even said the smartest guy that ever worked for him in eight years,” said DeSantis.

The appointment immediately got high marks from the Even pro Florida Justice Reform Institute.

“Policy making decisions will no longer be made at the Flordia Supreme Court,” said FJRI President William Large. “They will be made at the Florida Legislature, as they should be.”

Even Pro-Choice advocates believe if the judges behave as they say they will, by not making laws, abortion rights in Florida will be safe.

Their point: If justices follow the constitution, Florida’s privacy clause protecting choice should prevail.

“It shouldn’t be done with a right wing bias or a left wing bias. It should be upheld,” said State Senator Lori Berman.

All three of the DeSantis appointments must face voters in a 2020 retention election.

Muniz becomes the 89th Supreme Court justice since statehood.

Most recently Muniz was appointed by President Trump to be the General Counsel for the US Department of Education.

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State Lawmakers Propose Protections for Women Seeking Abortion

January 22nd, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Citing statistics that show threats and violence against women seeking abortions or other services from abortion providers are on the rise, a group of Democratic lawmakers in the state Capitol have filed what they are calling “Access to Clinics” legislation.

The measure would protect women from harassment coming and going to a clinic.

“Reproductive health care providers should not have to fear for their personal safety when they provide care to their patients, and patients should not have to fear to access their clinics and not need to fear violence for decisions that they had to make, that many times taken them a significant amount of effort, significant amount of emotion, significant amount of funding,” said Representative Amy Mercado.

Violating the Clinic Access legislation carries up to one year in jail and up to a$25,000 fine.

The legislation also allows for restraining orders for repeat offenders and allows a civil suit against the offenders.

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Lawmakers Consider Amendment 4 Legislation

January 22nd, 2019 by Jake Stofan

More than one million Floridians with felony convictions are expected to have had their voting rights restored under Amendment Four.

The restoration went into effect earlier this month, but lawmakers are discussing possible legislative action to make sure the will of the voters is carried out.

Between testimony from supervisors of elections and state agency heads, it quickly became clear to lawmakers many questions still need to be answered.

The most pressing: Who qualifies for rights restoration and how do they and supervisors know if a sentence has been completed?

“Clearly we want to maximize people’s opportunity to vote, but we also very clearly need to follow the voters’ intent, which is that all terms of the sentence be completed,” said Senator Jeff Brandes.

Lawmakers are also looking at how to ensure the process of registering felons who have completed their sentence is fast and streamlined.

An estimated 50,000 people in the state complete their felony sentences each year.

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which got the amendment on the ballot wants to ensure lawmakers don’t try and narrow the scope of the amendment.

“More than a political science exercise or a legal discussion this is ultimately a discussion about real people’s lives,” said Neil Volz with the Coalition.

The amendment specifically excludes murderers and sex criminals, but lawmakers say even that has to be defined.

Desmond Meade with The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition argues lawmakers should consider testimony it collected from voters while drafting the amendment.

“The had a problem with a person that was convicted of first degree murder, people that commit rape, people that commit sexual offenses against children,” said Meade.

Some of the Senators like Kieth Perry have a more broad view.
“First degree murder, I don’t think it was that intent. I think murder in a general sense,” said Perry.

The Florida rights Restoration Coalition says it will be bringing people directly affected by amendment four to the Capitol in March, to meet with lawmakers to help inform them about any potential Legislation.

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State Lawmakers Pushing Major Marijuana Reforms

January 22nd, 2019 by Jake Stofan

State Democrats say they’ll be proposing major marijuana legislation this year.

The proposals include everything from changes Governor Ron DeSantis has proposed like allowing smokable medical marijuana all the way to full recreational legalization.

“As Chair of the Progressive Caucus one of my responsibilities is going to make sure that we find a House and Senate sponsor for decriminalization, for full legal and adult use cannabis and for many of the reforms around medical cannabis that we’re talking about,” said Representative Carlos Gillermo Smith. “There is going to be legislation to match every single issue under the sun related to medical cannabis and adult use recreational cannabis this year.”

Other proposals include, allowing tourists with out of state medical cannabis cards to purchase cannabis in the state and extending the time a patient’s medical card is valid before they have to pay for renewal.

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MLK March: Looking Back at Strides Made and Road Ahead

January 21st, 2019 by Jake Stofan

More than 200 marched on the state Capitol Monday morning in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.

Leaders of the march say with the passage of amendment 4 in November the state made a major stride towards realizing Dr. King’s dream.

Marchers gathered at the historic C.K. Steele Bus Terminal where civil rights protesters advocated for equality in the 1950’s.

Drums gave the cue to start.

Last year annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day March focused on restoring felons’ right to vote.

Florida’s policy at the time disenfranchised more than one million people, disproportionately affecting minorities.

With the amendment’s passage organizers say Florida made a great stride towards racial justice.

“That all incorporated in Dr. King’s dream for us to live together in solid brotherhood and to that rock of brotherhood that stands,” said Tallahassee NAACP Chapter President Adner Marcelin. “Treating each other with the necessary respect and forgiveness.”

FAMU President Dr. Larry Robinson reminded the crowd, a single victory isn’t an excuse to stop fighting.

“Our work must go into overdrive now and we will not be able to take any days off,” said Robinson.

While last year felons right to vote was on minds of marchers, this year the ongoing government shut down loomed as a reminder of the deep divisions still present in today’s society.

Pastor Judy Mandrell says the countries leaders should take to heart the words of Dr. King and come to a resolution.

“Hatred can’t drive out hatred, but love can. Love is what can help us get in a better place,” said Mandrell.

Other issues organizers say still need to be addressed in both Florida and the nation, better access to healthcare, education and economic opportunity for minorities.

Dr. King would have turned 90 this year.

A memorial for King sits in the courtyard at the State Capitol. It was dedicated in 1984.

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Governor Wants to Shake Up the Medical Marijuana Industry

January 18th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

In addition to asking state lawmakers to make smokeable cannabis available to patients, Governor Ron DeSantis also wants to shake up the entire distribution system.

The Governor likens the current seed to sale structure to a drug cartel.

DeSantis didn’t mince words when asked if agreed with the way Florida’s Medical Marijuana Industry was operating Thursday afternoon.

“They created a cartel essentially,” said DeSantis. “I don’t know that the amendment necessarily prohibits that, but that is not good policy.”

Under the current policy, 14 companies have a virtual monopoly controlling everything from seed to sale.

Jeff Sharkey with the Medical Marijuana Business Association says that makes it nearly impossible for smaller operations to acquire licenses.

“So there has been some concern and question about, do we need to be vertically integrated, you’ve got to do the whole thing,” said Sharkey. “Or can we allow people to do pieces of this they’re very good at?”

DeSantis wants to open up the market, by allowing companies to provide specific services, like growing, transporting or dispensing.

We reached out to representatives from medical marijuana provider Trulieve, but were told the company wasn’t ready to comment on DeSantis’ proposed changes.

Current licensees stand to lose the most if the market is opened up.

The licenses they hold are worth upwards of $50 million, even if they haven’t sold a single product yet.

Florida’s requirement for growers to follow a seed to sale model was successfully challenged in court last year.

The state appealed, blocking the ruling, but DeSantis has suggested he could drop the appeal, if the Legislature doesn’t cooperate.

“Policymakers, they want industry to survive, but you know there’s plenty of room here for other qualified people to get in and participate in this growing medical marijuana market,” said Sharkey.

Two bills have already been filed for the 2019 session.

One allows smoking, the other would require dispensaries be independently owned instead of controlled by the growers.

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Leaders in State Capitol Teaming Up to Help Federal Workers

January 18th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

A coalition of faith, businesses and civic leaders has convened to help furloughed federal workers in the the State’s Capitol.

The group calling themselves the “Love Thy Neighbor Movement” are helping gather recourse and encourage banks, city governments and medical providers to be conscious of the financial stress put on an estimated 300 government workers in the city directly impacted by the Government shutdown.

It’s been 28 days since the shut down started and the coalition is begging Congress and the President to set aside their differences for the good of the 800,000 federal employees nationwide going without pay.

“It’s not about Democrats or Republicans, or black or white or brown or jews or catholics or protistans. It’s about our community and how do we make sure that we provide resources to men and women who need their lights to stay on,” said Reverend Dr. R.B. Holmes.

The coalition says if the Government shutdown doesn’t end soon, it will take the fight directly to Washington DC, traveling by bus to meet face to face with lawmakers.

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DeSantis Sets Deadline for Smokable Medical Marijuana

January 17th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Nearly 170,000 medical marijuana patients in the state may soon have a new option for how they take their medicine… smoking.

Governor Ron DeSantis announced Thursday the state will drop its appeal of a court ruling that threw out the state ban on smoking medical cannabis if the Legislature doesn’t change the law during the first two weeks of March.

When 71% of voters approved medical marijuana in 2016 many thought smoking would be an option for patients.

The Legislature had other ideas.

“They voted for medical marijuana. They did not vote specifically for what form it comes in,” said then Representative Elizabeth Porter at a committee meeting in 2017.

Lawmakers’ decision to outlaw smoking spurred Amendment Author John Morgan to file his ‘No Smoke is a Joke’ lawsuit.

“There are 400, 500,000 people, sick people today that are counting on this,” said Morgan in July of 2017.

A circuit court agreed with Morgan, ruling the Legislature’s ban on smoking was unconstitutional.

The state appealed, blocking the ruling from taking effect, but now that may change.

Governor Ron DeSantis says he will drop the appeal if the Legislature doesn’t change the law to allow smoking by mid-March.

“Whether they have to smoke it or not, who am I to judge that? I want people to be able to have their suffering relieved,” said DeSantis.

Senator Rob Bradley, the author of the law says DeSantis is on the right track.

“It was put into law for some very good solid policy reasons, but it is starting to get the feel of an issue that we probably need to move past,” said Bradley.

Medical marijuana advocates agree, but only if the change actually happens.

“People can say all kinds of things, so I’m going to remain cautiously optimistic,” said Josephine Cannela-Khrel with the Florida Cannabis Action Network.

The announcement has Medical marijuana business advocates rejoicing.

They believe it’s a first step toward dropping appeals in other cases like the limitation on the number of growers licenses.

Calling the current distribution system a cartel, DeSantis also wants lawmakers to change the state’s seed to sale requirement opening the market and creating more access.

The issue is at the center of another lawsuit being appealed by the state.

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Marcy’s Law Confusing Law Enforcement

January 17th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Ambiguities in the victims rights amendment approved by voters are creating headaches for law-enforcement agencies across the state.

Different agencies in the same county have different ideas of what’s required, and both legislative changes and lawsuits are on the horizon.

The Amendment giving crime victims new rights barely squeaked into the constitution with just over 61% of the vote.

Now the First amendment Foundation and virtually every police legal adviser in the state says the amendment leaves too many questions unanswered.

Ambiguous is the word most are using.

At the Tallahassee Police Department, every victim’s name from every report is being redacted, including reports from years ago.

“We can not, basically reveal the victims name, and or their family or their location,” said TPD Spokesmen Damon Miller. “So a lot of things will be dependent on the relationship to the victims.”

While in the state Capitol, the police department is redacting everything, the sheriff’s department isn’t redacting anything unless the victim requests it.

Richard Greenberg is the President of the Florida Criminal Defense Attorneys Association.

He calls what the amend does, unprecedented.

“The public could be able to provide information, but if they don’t know who the victim is or maybe where the incident occurred, things like that, it’s going to hinder law enforcement,” said Greenberg.

State lawmakers have already held a round table, and legislation to clarify the amendment will be filed.

Court challenges, particularly a federal challenge over the rights of the accused is also in the works.

A similar amendment in Montana was declared unconstitutional, and courts in states where it has been adopted are reviewing its constitutionality.

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What if they forgot to change the law when Cabinet downsized?

January 16th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Governor Ron DeSantis’ picks to head the state Veterans Affairs and Revenue agencies are hung up over procedural questions being pushed by the lone state wide elected Democrat.

It is the first time we’ve seen the new Governor’s temper flash in public.

State Representative Danny Burgess is an army vet.

His passion convinced the new Governor to select him to run the state Veterans Affairs agency, but now he’s caught up in a skirmish between the Governor and the State’s lone elected Democrat, Nikki Fried.

“I will have to vote no today based on process and procedure,” said Fried.

Under a requirement that was overlooked 20 years ago when the Cabinet was downsized, the appointment now requires a unanimous vote, rather than a simple majority.

The Governor pushed back.

“Well, for the Department of Veterans Affairs, the statutes require the Governor, it’s a Governor appointment, it’s not a Cabinet appointment, so I’m going to go ahead and have Danny interview. I think that’s appropriate,” said DeSantis.

Fried’s caution dates back four years when Rick Scott said the top official at the Department of Law Enforcement had resigned.
It wasn’t true.

The official was forced out.

Fried says this isn’t about Burgess but about keeping the system honest.
“To make sure we are honoring transparency and the Sunshine laws here in our state,” said Fried.

So far, two candidates have filed to replace Burgess, but for now, he remains a member of the Florida House, and will until the appointment gets worked out.

Fried is expected to support Burgess when the vote comes up at the next scheduled meeting.

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Assignment of Benefits Key Issue for 2019 Session

January 16th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Insurance companies are butting heads with contractors and consumers are stuck in the middle.

It’s a battle over an option that allows people to sign their policy over to repair companies and who pays for the attorney’s fees.

Insurance industry insiders wrapped up a two day long summit in the state’s capitol Wednesday.

One of the top issues: Assignment of Benefits.

It allows people to sign away the rights to insurance proceeds to contractors, who then take over and negotiate with the insurance company.

“When you turn over your rights under your policy to a third party they then have the ability to file a claim on your behalf, they can seek damages from your insurance company on your behalf,” said Florida Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier. “They can do all of these things without your knowledge and often times it can lead to an excessive amount of litigation.”

The cost of that litigation falls on the insurance company.

Current law requires insurers to cover the cost of the policyholders attorney, or in the case of an assignment of benefits agreement, the contractor.

Tasha Carter is the Director of the Division of Consumer Services within the Department of Financial Services.

She told us about a case following Hurricane Michael where a contractor used the protection to over charge for services.

“$18,000, just to place a tarp on their roof,” said Carter.

Those cases often lead to legal battles, that insurers credit for driving up rates for consumers.

A bill already filed for the 2019 session would remove insurer’s responsibility to pay attorney’s fees in disputes brought by contractors, but keep protections for lawsuits brought by policy holders.

However, Jeff Grant, owner of Bone Dry Reconstruction told us in 2017, if contractors are responsible for covering the cost, they’d be vulnerable to abuse from insurers.

“It’s pure economics for the insurance company,” said Grant. “If they can save $50 doing the wrong thing, then they’re going to try to save $50.”

That could make contractors more hesitant to take risky jobs, leaving consumers between a rock and a hard place the next time a major storm hits the state.

Legislation to address assignment of benefits issues have been brought up for at least the past five years. It’s yet to be seen if this year’s attempt has the support it needs to make it to the finish line.

The Restoration Association of Florida and a coalition of contractors issued a statement Wednesday afternoon calling on the Governor to hold insurance companies responsible for paying out claims for Hurricane Michael damage.

The Association says insurance company’s lowball payouts are to blame for increased litigation.

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