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Jeff Vasilinda becomes the Vasilinda Family’s first published author!

Child Support Collections a Mixed Bag

June 25th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Some Florida children are losing out on child support due to the pandemic, but there is a bright side to the equation.

The Women’s Law Group is seeing an uptick in calls from parents.

“We’ve seen an increase in how many people are now receiving their child support payments they are supposed to be receiving by court order,” said Lara Davis, an attorney with the group.

Statistics provided by the Florida Department of Revenue show for the three month period after the state closed down, custodial parents saw a drop in state collected payments of over $21 million.

And the amount collected from parents who voluntarily send checks through DOR dropped $14.2 million.

“A lot of people are struggling if they not getting unemployment, if they have the kind of job that doesn’t qualify for that, and plus they’re not getting their child support. It’s difficult for a lot of parents out there,” said Davis.

There is an upside to the story.

Kids and child support are getting an $8 million dollar boost.

That’s because the state gets to keep 40 percent of unemployment checks when there is a past due amount.

But an even bigger boost for kids has been the Federal stimulus checks flagged for back child support.

In the three months after the pandemic began, a whopping $145 million was withheld from Florida bound stimulus checks for kids.

So even with the lack of some payments, payments are up $100 million over the three month period compared to last year.

But Davis said the pandemic has created another worry for parents, they fear for their kids’ safety while at the other parent’s house.

“They’re not restricting one parent because the other parent feels they are not being careful enough,” said Davis.

And Davis said an uptick in divorces since the beginning of the pandemic could lead to more kids needing child support in the near future.

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VISIT FLORIDA Seeks Post-Pandemic Budget Boost

June 25th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

VISIT FLORIDA, the state’s tourism marketing agency is hoping lawmakers will boost its funding to help offset the economic damage cause by the pandemic.

The request is going to be a hard sell with state revenues down and a House Speaker highly critical of the agency’s effectiveness.

VISIT FLORIDA received $50 million from the Legislature for the upcoming fiscal year, largely due to fears the pandemic could wreak havoc on the tourism industry.

It did.

Hotel revenues alone are down $3.8 billion since March 1st.

“Orlando, when I was down there, was a ghost town, which was frightening,” said Carol Dover, President of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

Dover is also a VISIT FLORIDA board member.

She said $50 million for marketing the state simply isn’t enough.

“I mean a $50 million budget even in a good year is lean,” said Dover.

She hopes when the Legislature returns, whether in a special session or next year, funding for VISIT FLORIDA will be raised to $100 million.

But the proposition will be a hard sell in the Florida House.

Current House Speaker Jose Oliva has been no friend to the agency and would have likely killed it during the 2020 session if not for the pandemic.

But House Budget Chair Travis Cummings believes the incoming House Speaker may see things differently.

“He comes from the Tampa region, so to speak, and St. Pete where tourism is obviously critical,” said Cummings.

We asked Speaker Designate Chris Sprowls for his take on VISIT FLORIDA spending.

He responded, “It’s too early to speculate on the next budget cycle while we wait for the ultimate outcome on this budget.”

But Dover points out other states are already boosting their marketing agencies.

She fears if Florida doesn’t do the same, it will be at a competitive disadvantage.

“We have a lot to advertise, but we have got to do it and do it in a manner that makes customers feel safe,” said Dover.

And with the state making national headlines for record daily cases numbers, indications are things may get worse for the tourism industry before they get better.

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Fraternity Death Under Investigation

June 24th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida State Police were called at 6:30 Wednesday morning to the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity near the main gate of Flordia State University.

They discovered the body of 21-year-old Sam Stone.

Stone was a recent graduate of FSU.

He attended high school in Tampa and was set to be deployed to Afghanistan this coming October.

He would have turned 22 in two weeks.

”Obviously it’s been a terrible morning,” said Sigma Alpha Epsilon Vice President Colton Williams. “He was a charismatic leader. His whole aura was really involved around his ability to lead and get people to follow. He was just incredibly gifted with just so many traits that I think his family would be so proud of him for.”

Williams recalled one example, where he and Stone were driving.

Stone asked him to pull over and hopped out of the car and went to the rescue of an elderly man having trouble with his walker.

A person on scene Wednesday who appeared to be an advisor to the fraternity told us alcohol was involved, but hazing was not part of today’s death.

“Oh yet another fraternity death, when in reality this was just a very sad accident that I’m heart broken about,” said Williams.

“University records show Sigma Alpha Epsilon was suspended just a month into last fall’s semester for alcohol violations.

That suspension ended at the start of the spring semester.

The fraternity sits next to the former Pi Kappa Phi House, the fraternity involved in the 2017 hazing death of Andrew Coffey.

David Bianchi is the Coffey family’s attorney.

“I have spoken to the Coffey’s and they are sickened by it. It’s just another tradgey as far as they are concerned,” said Bianchi.

This is the second tragedy to strike the fraternity in recent weeks.

In May, Lance Mercy was killed in a car accident while visiting family in Maryland.

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Lawsuit Asserts Mask Ordinance Violates Privacy Rights

June 24th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

The county surrounding the state’s capital city is the latest jurisdiction to mandate face masks for indoor public places, but a lawsuit is already planned that could set a precedent for challenging similar orders around the state.

Starting at midnight people entering businesses in the state’s capital will be required to wear a face mask or face fines between $50 and $250.

Assistant constitutional law professor Michael Morley at Florida State University believes the policy is inline with U.S. Supreme Court precedents

“These are all within the traditionally accepted scope of state authority,” said Morley.

But Leon County Republican Party Chair Evan Power said the lawsuit he intends to file will make a privacy argument, because the ordinance exempts people with certain health issues from wearing a mask.

“You’re going to start questioning whether people have disabilities or not have disabilities and it opens that privacy part up,” said Power.

Florida does have heightened privacy protections embedded in the State Constitution, but Morley is skeptical a court would strike the ordinance down.

“Given that we’re dealing with an infectious disease, measures to try to stop its spread would likely survive any type of state constitutional challenge,” said Morley.

If successful, the suit filed in Leon County could be used as a blueprint for challenging similar ordinances across the state.

But Dr. Ron Saff, who has advocated for a statewide mask mandate on behalf of Physicians for Social Responsibility, hopes that isn’t the case.

“They’re saying that their right not to wear a mask is more important than someone’s right to not catch a potentially fatal disease,” said Saff.

Unclear is whether the ordinance passed by the county will apply to the grounds of the State Capitol.

The Governor does not typically wear a mask during press briefings at the Capitol and has consistently rejected the idea of issuing a statewide mask order, citing concerns over equal enforcement.

A press contact for the Governor told us staff will review the ordinance once it’s published.

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Secretary of State Defends Governor’s Election Order

June 23rd, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s Elections Supervisors didn’t get everything they wanted to make voting easier during the pandemic, but the Secretary of State is defending the decision not to allow more time for mail and early voting because supervisors got help another way.

Instead of more time to send out and count mail ballots, and more days of early voting, Secretary of State Laurel Lee said the Governor dealt with the underlying problem supervisors were trying to solve, a lack of poll workers and polling places.

“By using state workers and encouraging state workers to serve, we have a new field of potential elections workers. And the same can be said about using our schools as precinct locations,” said Lee.

But Leon Supervisor Mark Earley tells us he does not believe schools will become polling places.

“We tried to stay out of the schools for many reasons. Security issues, and certainly now, with the pandemic, I don’t want to get into the schools now,” said Earley.

During a speech to the Economic Club of Florida, Lee sought to distance Florida from claims coming from the President about the Security of mail voting.

“The voter has an opportunity to come in and say, yes, that is my ballot,” said Lee.

An she told the audience that attacks on the voting infrastructure are a daily occurrence.

“We’ve invested millions in our cyber infrastructure statewide,” said Lee.

In addition to continued attacks on the system, the Secretary believes voters are going to be bombarded with misinformation; everything from a candidate’s stance to the day of the election being changed.

And Lee said if you see something on social media that raises a question, don’t swallow it.

Go to local supervisors for an answer.

The state now has five full time cyber specialists working to protect the statewide voting infrastructure.

Lee also emphasized Tuesday that no voting machine is attached to the internet where it can be hacked.

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FSU to consider Name Change for Doak Campbell Stadium

June 23rd, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida State University President John Thrasher has asked the university’s athletic director to look into potentially renaming Doak Campbell Stadium after more than 2,000 signed an online petition.

The former university President shut down students’ calls at the time to integrate the university, but Campbell’s grandson argues the situation was more nuanced.

Former FSU President Doak Campbell served from 1941 to 1957.

He encouraged the construction of the stadium that now bares his name, but his actions during segregation have led to calls for a name change.

“Football is the face of the university,” said former FSU football player Dr. Kendrick Scott.

Scott started an online petition, which has collected almost 2,500 signatures.

He asserts Campbell’s stance against integration is well documented.

In one case, Campbell attempted to prohibit the school newspaper from writing about segregation.

“It is to me just counterintuitive for someone to have those views of not wanting to integrate… and to have that person front facing on the stadium,” said Scott.

As a result of the petition, current FSU President John Thrasher has tasked the Athletics Director with reviewing the issue and making recommendations.

But Campbell’s grandson, who shares the same name, asserts his grandfather was not pro-segregation.

“He never professed any segregationist opinion,” said Doak Campbell III.

He says his grandfather feared segregationist lawmakers would seek retribution against the university.

“So he was trying really to protect the institution and the students. He was not trying to make a statement,” said Campbell. “He did not want the university dragged into a very hot political topic.”

Both Campbell and Dr. Scott believe the university’s investigation will go their way.

Dr. Scott hopes if the name is changed, the stadium will be renamed in honor of former FSU Coach Bobby Bowden.

We reached out to the university’s athletic department for comment on this story, but were told the Director doesn’t plan to speak publicly on the topic until the review is further along.

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New Penalties for Bear Poaching and Bus Passing

June 22nd, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Governor Ron DeSantis signed 21 bills over the weekend and among them were two bills aimed at protecting vulnerable populations.

Drivers who pass stopped school buses and bear poachers will soon face tougher penalties.

Right now killing a bear out of season carries a lighter penalty than killing a turkey or deer out of season.

Rep. David Smith believes that just doesn’t make sense.

“It was more of a penalty to shoot a turkey one day out of season than to kill a bear that you couldn’t hunt at all,” said Smith.

Thanks to Smith’s bill, signed by the Governor Saturday, the crimes will carry the same weight starting July 1st.

Violators will face up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine.

They’ll also lose any fish and wildlife issued license for three years.

“The things that make Florida, Florida we have to protect because if we lose them we’re never going to get them back,” said Smith.

A second bill signed this weekend aims to protect another vulnerable group, Florida’s children.

According to the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, almost 3,800 citations were issued for illegal passing a school bus in the 2018-19 fiscal year alone.

Currently passing a stopped school bus results in a $100 to $200 fine, depending on which side you pass.

Starting next year fines will be doubled.

“We’re just going to have to keep increasing the fines until we get compliance with the law,” said bill sponsor Rep. Emily Slosberg.

A second offense within five years will lead to a six month to two year long drivers license suspension.

“To send a loud and clear message that we are serious about school bus safety in our communities,” said Rep. Ardian Zike, who also sponsored the legislation.

And as the Governor combs through the 210 bills passed during the legislative session, the big question on lawmakers’ minds is what will become of the budget and whether they’ll be called back to the Capitol early to make revisions.

Despite state revenues losing almost $900 million in April, Governor Ron DeSantis has maintained the Legislature will not need to return before November, promising a heavy veto pen on the budget.

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Spike in Positive Cases Continues

June 22nd, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida crossed the 100,000 mark Monday as the state added 2, 926 new coronavirus cases.

The dubious milestone comes as the Governor is declining to to issue a statewide mandatory mask order.

The line of cars waiting for a COVID-19 test at a site in Tallahassee stretched more than a hundred deep and around the corner for hours end Monday.

One woman told us her 24-year-old daughter works in a restaurant were someone tested positive.

Another told us her son was exposed and she’d spent about ten minutes with him in her home.

While we were at the front of the line, a corporate restaurant worker was getting tested after a co-worker tested positive.

The problem, she said, is that she heard it from coworkers, not the restaurant.

“It wasn’t until I called my manager, until I found out that it was real,” said the worker who asked to remain anonymous.

On Saturday, the Governor acknowledged that people in their 20’s and 30’s were spreading the disease.

“We’re seeing positive tests at increasing rates which suggests you are seeing increasing transmission, particularly amongst that group,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

But when asked, he declined to issue a mandatory mask order.

“I’ve not preempted locals from doing what they think is right. But at the same time, you know, you have to enforce that,” said DeSantis.

Dr. Mark Michelman from Clearwater believes these lines for testing will only going to get longer unless the Governor takes severe measures.

“Do something quickly. Today. Tomorrow at the latest. At least mandate mask wearing indoors for everyone. At least do that,” said Dr. Michelman.

And while the Governor isn’t biting, the Department of Heath reissued a health advisory asking people to wear a mask when they can’t socially distance.

While declining to issue a mandatory mask order, the Governor did say fatalities and admissions to ICU units continue on a downward path.

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Most Floridians Were Optimistic Just Before Recent Case Spike

June 19th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida set a new record for daily cases Friday, with 3,822 residents and nonresident testing positive.

Despite the steadily rising case numbers a new survey conducted by the Florida Chamber of Commerce shows Floridians by and large are optimistic about the future.

Almost six out of ten Floridians approve of the Governor’s handling of COVID-19.

About the same believe the economy will improve within six months time.

That’s a good sign to House Budget Chair Travis Cummings.

“The majority of folks seem to think that Florida’s doing a good job of the time that we shut down as well as kind of when we’re opening back up,” said Cummings.

David Hart, President & CEO of the Florida Chamber said consumer confidence often becomes reality.

“If there’s an assumption that things are going to improve, it generally breeds that result,” said Hart.

Cases have been steadily rising since June 6th when the survey began, but the survey period ended just before the four day streak of skyrocketing cases.

Democrat Representative Adam Hattersley thinks if the survey were taken again, the results may be quite different.

“We hit 2,000 new cases in a day for the first time last week, late last week, and now all of a sudden we’re at 4,000 in a day. So we have to stay focused on the current data,” said Hattersley.

Republicans like Representative James Grant aren’t surprised by the spike in cases.

Grant believes what’s more important is that hospitalizations and deaths have continued on a downward trend.

“The need to stay inside, the need to be diligent was to flatten the curve to make sure that we had the infrastructure to treat people in the healthcare system who needed it. And what we’ve seen here in Florida is that we have absolutely succeeded in doing that,” said Grant.

And despite the rapid increase in cases over the past four days, the Governor has no plans to shut down the economy again any time soon.

According to the survey Republicans were far more likely to see the situation positively compared to Democrats.

85 percent of Republicans approved of the Governor’s handling of the crisis compared to just 31 percent of Democrats.

The partisan break was similar on the six month economic outlook.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Jobless Rates Up as New Claims Fall

June 19th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s jobless report released Friday shows more people were working in May, but the state’s unemployment rate is still rising.

It’s up seven tenths of a percent and now sits at 14.5 percent

Earlier this week, Governor Ron DeSantis expressed optimism about May’s unemployment numbers.

“Hopefully, positivity will be reflected,” said DeSantis Tuesday.

He was wrong.

The jobless rate is still climbing.

“Some of the furloughs that were initially identified as temporary layoffs may be more permanent,” said DEO economist Adrienne Johnston.

1.4 million Floridians are out of work.

During a virtual briefing, we asked how many people aren’t being counted because they have left the work force.

“At this time, we could pull that information and it could give us some sense of how many folks are what we call discouraged workers,” said Johnston.

But new unemployment claims are slowing.

210,000 people filed claims in the first 17 days of of June.

That’s less than half than were filed during the last 17 days of May.

However, those that are filing are still having trouble.

“I mean, its a catastrophic failure on behalf of the state,” said Shiela Houze.

Houze, an unemployed Jacksonville resident, finally got a check June 10th after trying since April, but she’s still owed back benefits.

“I should have gotten the full amount because it’s been over 12 weeks. I should have gotten my complete payout of $4,875,” said Houze.

But so far, she’s gotten on $250.

And if that payment doesn’t come before July first, Sheila expects her landlord to file an eviction notice.

Unless the moratorium on evictions is extended, which is possible, thousands of Floridians could become homeless.

Attorney’s we’ve spoken with advise having frequent conversations with your landlord or banker now.

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Governor’s Election Help Likely Too Little, Too Late

June 18th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

After requesting assistance for months, Governor Ron DeSantis has finally issued an executive order aimed at easing the burden on election supervisors headed into the Primary and General Elections.

The Governor’s executive order offers state workers administrative leave to work the polls and encourages counties to do the same for their employees.

Their help is need to make up for an expected shortage of poll workers.

“That might help us some,” said Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley.

Earley, who also serves as Vice President of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, expects it may be tough for some counties to swing.

“I think everybody is in a big deficit situation right now,” said Earley.

The order also orders schools closed on election day to be used as polling places.

Andrew Spar, Vice President of the Florida Education Association worries bringing hundreds of voters into schools in the middle of a pandemic could be risky.

“Have voting in there until late in the evening and then reopen the next day? Does that give enough time for sanitizing and appropriate cleaning?” said Spar.

Last, the order allows supervisors to count mail ballots once they’ve tested their machines for accuracy, but Earley said due to time limitations in law, it really provides only two extra days.

“So you know, that doesn’t help a whole lot either,” said Earley.

Supervisors were hoping the Governor would allow them to consolidate polling places, get two extra weeks to count mail ballots and conduct early voting through election day.

They say the Governor’s order is likely too little too late.

“There are some items in there that could potentially be helpful… But frankly I think there’s not a whole lot of meat on the bone,” said Earley.

Supervisors are hopeful they’ll be able to conduct the Primary Election without major issues, but they worry without additional executive action the November election will be a lot tougher.

Because supervisors expect an influx of vote by mail ballots, it’s more important than ever to request and return your ballot as soon as possible.

You can also return your ballot to your local supervisor of elections in person or vote in person if you requested a mail ballot but have not returned it.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

TaxWatch Recommends Delaying Pay Raises

June 18th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Government watchdog Florida TaxWatch offered up a dozen ideas for balancing the budget in the wake of the pandemic.

They include collecting the tax already owed on internet sales to delaying more than $900 million in pay raises slated to take effect July first.

“Florida TaxWatch believes that the payriases for teachers and state employees were overdue and well deserved, however if the budget situation calls for drastic measures we are offering as an option reducing the cost of those raises in 2021. This should only be done by delaying them, not eliminating or reducing them,” said Kurt Wenner, Vice President of Florida TaxWatch.

The Governor has two weeks to act on the budget.

As we reported Wednesday, he is promising to veto hundreds of millions in projects, including his own initiatives.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Vetting Chinese Ownership

June 18th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

More than a hundred thousand Florida companies who do business with the state are getting a letter asking about their ownership.

The letter seeks to determine if the companies are owned by the Chinese government, and at least one viewer isn’t happy with the letter’s tone.

Florida spends more than $50 billion a year on outside vendors.

Those vendors are being contacted by CFO Jimmy Patronis, asking if they are owned by the Chinese government.

His goal, be prepared to withhold payments if sanctions are sought over the coronavirus.

“There’s no two ways about it. The state of Florida has seen loss of life. We’ve had loss of economic opportunity, loss of jobs. So there is a huge debt to be paid back to the state of Florida. I think having that data in hand is critical,” said Patronis.

The letter caught the attention of a viewer who called it intimidating.

“The veiled threat is in the second paragraph, where it says you are hereby requested to respond in 30 days by verifying your status…in order to avoid necessary followup by the Department,” said the business owner, who asked to remain anonymous. “What are they capable of? They could easily knock me out of the cue for a bid. Or flat out deny me an award.”

Patronis told us no intimidation was intended.

“Read the letter. It’s very clear. We ask them to participate. Its simply an ask,” said Patrons.

“But how can it be voluntary if I need to avoid a necessary followup by the department?” said the business owner.

The letter cost at least $50,000 in postage, not including any printing or prep costs.

The CFO calls it money well spent.

Much of the information the CFO is seeking is also available on the state’s corporate filing website, but it would not include companies registered in other states who are also vendors in Florida.

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Governor Dismisses COVID-19 Spike, Rejects Mandatory Masks

June 17th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Governor Ron DeSantis is rejecting the notion the state is experiencing a spike in coronavirus cases, despite more than 14,000 residents testing positive in the past week.

The Governor plans to go full steam ahead with reopening and is rejecting calls to impose mandatory safety precautions.

Governor Ron DeSantis attributes the 15 day streak of over 1,000 daily cases to increased testing.

“We’re not shutting down,” said DeSantis.

The state is conducting about 30,000 a day.

“As you test more you will see more cases,” said DeSantis.

He also said hotspots are largely isolated to certain industries like agriculture.

“When you have a virus that disproportionately impacts one segment of society, to suppress a lot of working age people at this point I don’t think would likely be very effective,” said DeSantis.

Florida Democrats have criticized the Governor’s dismissal of the spike in cases.

“Governor DeSantis has lost control of Florida’s COVID-19 response. His policies are simply not working, and he’s recklessly reopening Florida despite the data screaming for caution,” said Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried in a statement.

And a caravan of protestors at the Capitol Wednesday argued the Governor has a roll to play in ensuring adequate protection for workers.

“Workers need to be protected on the job and we are seeing in certain industries statewide and nationally that protection has been pretty lax,” said Michael Newberger with the Florida AFL-CIO.

On Tuesday physicians called on the Governor to mandate face masks in public places.

Just a few hours later DeSantis shot the idea down.

“We should be trusting people to make good decisions. Floridians have shown they can do that,” said DeSantis.

Dr. Ron Saff with the Physicians For Social Responsibility said the Governor’s argument reminds him of those made when people protested seatbelt laws.

“And I suspect some of those people are the same ones that are fighting the mask idea. It makes good sense to wear a mask just like it makes good sense to wear a seatbelt,” said Dr. Saff.

And while daily cases numbers have set multiple new records in the past week, the overall positivity rate in the state remains below six percent.

As of Wednesday the state’s dashboard reported 1.4 million Floridians had been tested, with almost 83,000 testing positive.

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Governor Seeing Red on Budget Cuts

June 17th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s $93.2 billion budget was written as the pandemic began, and the Governor is promising massive vetoes to meet the state’s balanced budget requirement.

The Red Wedding is a famous massacre scene from the HBO series Game of Thrones.

Governor Ron DeSantis referenced the series when we asked about coming budget vetoes.

“There’s going to be a lot more vetoes. Its gonna be a lot of red. It’s kind of the veto equivalent of the Red Wedding from Game of Thrones. There’s gonna be things that are in my budget that I’m definitely going to veto,” said DeSantis.

State revenue was down almost $900 million in April.

May’s numbers won’t be out next week.

A caravan of workers protesting at the Capitol Wednesday are worried cuts could run deep, including a $400 million state worker pay raise.

“But I certainly hope that workers for the State of Florida, who have not seen any increases in many years is not a group of people that’s going to suffer the consequences of potentially calling a special session and making sure they are taken care of,” said Florida AFL-CIO President Michael Williams.

Not bringing the Legislature back, basically deprives Democrats of a forum for criticism between now and the election.

Democrat State Senator Janet Cruz told us teacher raises, affordable housing and environmental spending are now more critical than ever.

“And its unfair that I represent the folks in my district and I don’t get to have any input as to what will happen here,” said Cruz.

But after lawmakers passed the budget in March, what stays in and what gets cut is solely up to the Governor.

Also due this Friday are new unemployment numbers for May, which could help gauge any economic turnaround.

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