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Toll Road Plan Taking Fire From Environmental Groups

May 20th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Environmental groups have condemned Governor Ron DeSantis for signing a bill they believe would harm environmentally sensitive areas in the state.

The new law will start planning for three new roads through mostly rural parts of the state.

It would be largest road project in the state since the 1950’s.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce said it will ease congestion and bring more business to rural counties.

“Infrastructure is the lifeblood of an economy,” said Christopher Emmanuel with the Chamber. “We’ve got 4.5 million new Floridians that we can expect by 2030, three million new drives on our roadways, and this is an important infrastructure piece, to help conect those people to jobs and rural communities to urban cores.”

$45 million is earmarked for 2019-2020 to initiate planning for a new toll road from Collier to Polk County, connecting the turnpike to the Sun Coast Parkway and extending the Parkway to the Florida Georgia line.

Aliki Moncrief with the Florida Conservation Voters said the new roads could devastate ecosystems in the mostly rural lands.

“The state would be destroying wetlands and so you’re destroying habitat for all the animals that depend on wetlands, but you’re also destroying wetlands that help protect our drinking water supplies,” said Moncrief.

In addition to eventually building the roads, the plan would construct water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

It also requires environmental impact studies be conducted prior to breaking ground.

Jordan Lubkmann with Earth Justice is concerned the studies will be treated only as a formality.

“And it will really remain to be seen who is allowed to participate in the task forces,” said Lubkmann.

The road expansions were the top priority on Senate President Bill Galvano, but he’ll be long out of office by the time construction is set to begin.

However, the three legislators next in line for President all voted in support of the bill.

Galvano said he’s confident the project will be seen through to completion.

“If we’re breaking ground by 2023, once that’s on its way, it’s on its way,” said Galvano.

Spending on the project is set to increase incrementally, reaching $140 million a year starting in 2022.

It would remain at that funding level until its scheduled completion date in 2030.

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Judges Highlight Importance of Justice Access After Hurricanes

May 20th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

With just 12 days remaining before the start of the 2019 Hurricane Season, the Commission on Access to Civil Justice was briefed on a litany of problems created for the courts and those who use them during Hurricane Michael.

They included the inability to get a quick hearing for divorced parents with a prohibition of taking children further than 50 miles from the other parent, unusable courthouses, a lack of working technology, and more.

Justice Jorge Labarga, chair of the access commission said those charged with a crime got a hearing within the 24 hours as required by law.

“It’s important that people who get arrested during those days, the process continues to exist, because that’s how people know the rule of law is in place. It’s very easy for tempers to flare during those times and things happen, so we need to make sure that people know a judge will hear your case immediately,” said Labarga.

In two counties, Bay and Jackson, full courts services were down for as many as 19 days.

Volunteer staff and judges from nearby counties helped fill in as judges and their staffs recovered.

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New Texting Law Part of 20 Year Fight to Keep Daughter’s Memory Alive

May 17th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law legislation that makes texting while driving a primary offense Friday.

It will also make school and construction zones handsfree.

It was the latest victory in the fight for safer roads in Florida.

The push has in part been led by a father and daughter who lost one of their own in a crash more than 20 years ago.

The fatal car ride took the lives of five teens in 1996.

Among the victims was a young Dori Slosberg.

Dori’s father, Irving Slosberg was elected to the Florida House in 2000.

His sole mission has been ensuring her death was not in vain.

“It’s all about Dori living forever,” said Irving.

The effort started with strengthening the state’s seat belt laws.

Irving sponsored legislation requiring seat belts for minors that became law in 2004.

That same year, the non profit organization Dori Saves Lives was established.

Dedicated to making Florida’s roads safer, it was headed by Emily Slosberg, Dori’s twin sister, who was also in the car during the 1996 crash.

“It’s personal. I lost my twin sister in a car crash and I was almost killed, and I don’t want another family to go through what we went through,” said Rep. Emily Slosberg.

In 2009 Dori Saves Live’s helped pass the total ban on driving without a seatbelt.

The Slosbergs also championed the Dori Slosberg Driver Education Safety Act in 2011.

It added $5 to the cost of traffic tickets, with the money funding high school drivers’ education programs

The Slosbergs then turned their focus to texting while driving.

“You get one thing under control and you’ve got a new problem and this problem is really worse than the seat belt problem,” said Irving.

The first victory came in 2013, when Florida made texting while driving a secondary offense.

Six years later, police will now be able to pull drivers over for texting alone.

“This honors her memory and it just does not remain a tragedy, her death, because we’re going to be saving lives with this legislation,” said Rep. Emily Slosber, who co-sponsored the 2019 texting while driving legislation.

“The road safety issue has moved up the ladder. It’s important now,” said Irving.

The Slosbergs say their work isn’t finished.

Their next goal, make Florida a hands free state.

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Governor Signs Transportation Legislation into Law

May 17th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Governor Ron DeSantis signed one of the most controversial piece of legislation from the 2019 session behind closed doors Friday morning.

The legislation sets in motion the potential to build three new toll roads with construction beginning as early as 2323. Christopher Emmanuel with the Florida Chamber of Commerce says the infrastructure expansion is critical to Florida’s growth.

“This bill does a number of great things, but probably the most important thing it does is it helps prepare Florida for the future,” said Emmanuel. “We’ve got 4.5 million new Floridians that we can expect by 2030, three million new drives on our roadways, and this is an important infrastructure piece, to help conect those people to jobs and rural communities to urban cores.”

In addition to building the roads it also would construct water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

Environmentalists expressed concerns over impacts to wildlife and water quality and had asked the Governor to veto the bill.

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Study Suggests Amendment 4 Bill Would Disproportionately Impact Blacks

May 16th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

A new study by the Brennan Center for Justice found more than 2,000 felons registered to vote in Florida within the first three months of 2019.

It was a 99 percent increase over the past two non general election years.

Legislation awaiting Governor Ron DeSantis’ signature would require felons pay back fines, fees, and restitution before they have their voting rights restored under Amendment 4.

DeSantis said he supports the requirement.

“You know as a prosecutor there were times when restitution was more important than incarceration,” said DeSantis.

Of the felons who have registered to vote since Amendment 4 took effect in January, 44 percent self identified as black.

Blacks make up only 13 percent of current registered voters in the state.

“People are going to be disproportionately impacted and those people are going to be people of color,” said Kara Gross with the American Civil Liberties Union.

The report also found the newly registered felons make $15,000 a year less on average than the general voting population.

Social Justice Groups have said it suggests the financial requirements would pose a substantial obstacle to restoration.

However, there are alternatives to payment under the Amendment 4 implementing bill.

A felon can petition a judge to waive fines or fees or have them converted to community service hours.

When we spoke with House Sponsor James Grant in March, he said he didn’t take into account who would be impacted when drafting the bill.

“My only job was to be as objective as possible to maintain the will of the voters and when the contract put before the voters was after they complete all terms of their sentence, that’s exactly what we’re going to do,” said Grant.

But Scott McCoy with the Southern Poverty Law Center said that was a grave misstep.

“If we knew we had a racial disparities problem we should definitely do policies and institute laws that try and rectify and eliminate those racial disparities,” said McCoy.

With approval from the Governor expected, both the ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center said lawsuits are in the works.

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Seven Day Hurricane Preparedness Tax Holiday Signed into Law

May 16th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

More than $121 million in tax breaks were signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis Wednesday.

The first savings Floridians will see is the seven day hurricane preparedness sales tax holiday at the end of May.

For the past three years in a row Florida has been hit by a major Hurricane.

Ace Hardware Manager David McCellen witnessed first hand after hurricane Michael that many people failed to prepare ahead of time.

The result was a mad dash for supplies.

“We were working 10, 12, 14 hours a day,” said McCellen. “From the time we opened the door in the morning until late at night we had customers in the store. We had no power and we were going working off of generators our self trying to get these things out for the customers.”

This year, there’s no need for the post storm rush.

Under the 2019 tax package Floridians get a full week, from May 31st through June 6th, to get their households hurricane ready and save some money while doing it.

Some items covered by the Hurricane tax free holiday are coolers, gas cans, flashlights, batteries, and tarps.

Generators under $750 are also on the list.

McCellen said he’s noticed the holiday rising in popularity.

“You see people do that. And then they’ll go ahead and purchase something a be ready because people are learning the last two or three years here, you’ve got to be prepared because these storms have hit and they’ve hit hard,” said McCellen.

Carolun Johnson with the Florida Chamber of Commerce added tax free holidays don’t only benefit customers.

“These sales tax holidays are very popular and it encourages homeowners and families and business to get out and support their local retailers,” said Johnson.

This year there is also a five day back to school sales tax holiday.

It runs from August 2 to August 6.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce estimates between the two sales tax holidays Floridians will save about $46 million.

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Seminole’s Cut Off Funding to State

May 15th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Starting Wednesday, the Seminole tribe said it will no longer pay the state a share of its casino revenues.

The Tribe contended the state broke their deal by allowing dog and horse tracks to offer banked card games.

Florida will lose an estimated $30 million a month it may never get back.

In November 2016, a federal Judge found the state was violating its compact with the Seminole Tribe by allowing horse and dog tracks to run games where the house pays winners and collects from losers.

“Like Blackjack,” explained Seminole Tribe Attorney Barry Richard.

A letter sent to the Governor suspended roughly $30 million a month in payments to the state immediately.

“The Tribe refrained from doing this for two years when it could have in order to be cooperative, but they are paying for something they are not getting, and like anybody else, if you are paying for someone to cut your grass and they’re not cutting half of the yard, you stop paying,” said Richard.

Lawmakers tried to fix the problem with a new deal, but time ran out in the 2019 session.

It’s clear they planned on the money spigot running dry.

“We’re not to count dollars that we”ve been told are not believed to be owed by the Tribe,” said Senate President Bill Galvano in March.

The Tribe said it will start paying the state again, once it shuts down the banked card games, but the tribe says the money it won’t pay is gone forever.

“The back suspension payments don’t have to be returned, but if the state fixes the problem, then the payments renew at that point,” said Richard.

It’s unclear why the state never shut down the games challenged by the Tribe after the 36-page opinion ruled the tribes contractual rights were being violated.

The state could shut them down any day under existing law.

The Tribe can continue with its current games until their deal with the state ends in 2030, but its incentive to settle would be a new compact that allowed Roulette and other games not covered in the current deal.

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School Funding Referendums Must Now Share With Charter Schools

May 15th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Local communities that vote to increase property taxes to help fund local schools will now have to share the money with charter schools.

The change is part of the tax package signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis Wednesday.

Carole Gauronskas with the Florida Education Association said it stifles the voices of voters.

“The referendum money that was voted on by the voter in the local district said we want to support, we want to tax ourselves for our local neighborhood schools,” said Gauronskas. “Tallahassee is overreaching. They are taking away the will of the voter and they’re saying what you did doesn’t matter in the voters booth. We’re telling you how you’re going to spend that money going forward and you’re going to split it with charter schools.”

23 counties that approved similar tax increases prior to July 1st, 2019 are exempt from sharing the funding with charter schools.

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Businesses to Save On Rent Thanks to New Tax Cuts

May 15th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Florida business will see a decrease in their rent starting July 1st.

Under the tax package signed by Governor Ron DeSantis, sales tax applied to business rent tax will be reduced from 5.7 percent to 5.5 percent.

Carolyn Johnson with the Florida Chamber of Commerce said the cuts will impact most businesses in the state.

“Almost every business leases their space and they are charged a sales tax on that rent and so this reduction will result in significant savings to businesses across the state, job creators across the state and allow them to reinvent back into their business,” said Johnson.

The reduction is expected to save Florida businesses $65 million over the next year.

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Hurricane Michael Sparks Utility Rate Hikes

May 14th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Panhandle residents will see their electric bills tick up by about $8.00 on average later this year to pay for hurricane damaged infrastructure, but legislation awaiting the Governor’s signature could raise rates statewide to harden the grid in preparation for future storms.

Gulf Power replaced 7,000 power poles following Hurricane Michael.

To help recoup $342 million the company spent, Gulf Power asked the Public Service Commission (PSC) for higher rates.

Some community leaders came to speak in support.

“600 hundred miles of dirt roads, trees everywhere,” said Ted Everette, Director of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce. “They were there and they were picking up the pieces.”

The PSC approved Gulf Power’s request Tuesday.

With the PSC’s blessing, Gulf Power customers will see a three to eight percent increase on their monthly bill for the next five years.

“We did that intentionally to make this less of a burden on our customers who may still be recovering from those financial impacts and those storm impacts of Hurricane Michael,” said Sandy Sims with Gulf Power.

A bill awaiting the Governor’s signature would allow utility companies to raise rates before a storm in order to harden the electrical grid by moving power lines under ground.

“The crazy thing is, why didn’t we do this 20 years ago,” said Senate sponsor Joe Gruters.

Sen. Gruters said the Gulf Power rate hike is a case example of why hardening is in the public interest.

“That’s what happens when you don’t prepare and hopefully what we’ll be able to do is have the infrastructure in place so that will never happen again,” said Gruters.

While Gulf Power said it continues to harden its grid, it pointed out there are some examples where underground lines aren’t ideal.

“This was a wind event, however I have worked storm surge events and under-grounding power in those instances weren’t necessarily an advantage,” said Sims.

The hardening plan would come with its own cost to customers, about $4.00 a month according to most estimates.

Gulf Power representatives said they expect panhandle customers to see rate increases starting in July, which is more than a month after Hurricane season begins.

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Governor Confirms Two Florida Counties Were Hacked in 2016 Election

May 14th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

After meeting with the Federal Bureau of Investigations, Governor Ron DeSantis confirmed that two Florida counties were hacked during the 2016 election cycle.

The Governor was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement and has refused to name the counties.

A single sentence in the Mueller report has raised as many questions as it answered, saying, “The FBI suspected Russian military intelligence hackers were able to ‘gain access to the network of at least one Florida county government’ through a spear-phishing campaign.”

After meeting with the FBI in their Tallahassee office, the Governor confirmed it was not one but two counties.

“Two Florida counties experienced intrusion into the Supervisor of Election network. There was no manipulation or anything,” said DeSantis.

Which counties were hacked remains a mystery.

“I’m not allowed to name the counties. I signed a disclosure agreement,” said DeSantis.

But even the Governor believed the information should be made public.

“I think they think that if we named the counties, then that may reveal information to the perpetrators that we know kinda what they did,” said DeSantis.

The hack originated with an independent contractor who got an email and then forwarded it to supervisors around the state.

At least 140 elections employees got the email.

Ron Labasky with the Florida Association of Elections Supervisors said supervisors are still confident in the voter registration system.

“To the extent that I have any involvement, yes,” said Labasky.

While the Governor said the FBI lauded Florida for being ahead of others in cyber security, he would not say the state won’t be hacked again.

“The threats evolved, so I don’t want to ever say there are no more threats,” said DeSantis.

Because actual voting machines are not online, it would be virtually impossible for hackers to tamper with vote totals.

DeSantis said both counties were notified about the hack prior to the 2016 election and worked with the FBI to eliminate the threat.

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FPL Customers Won’t See Rates Decrease

May 14th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Florida Power and Light (FPL) customers will not see their utility rates decrease after all.

The Florida Public Service Commission (PSC) broke with staff recommendations Tuesday morning and voted to allow FPL to keep all of its $772 million tax refund it received after the change in the federal tax code.

Mark Bubriski with FPL said the company will instead use the money to pay back costs it incurred after Hurricane Irma, which will prevent customers from seeing their rates increase.

“It cost about $1.3 billion to restore power following Irma and because of the tax savings we did not have to raise rates on customers and today our rates continue to be about 30% lower than the national average and among the lowest in the state and the nation,” said Burbriski.

As part of the deal, FPL will have to report its estimated annual revenue four times a year to the Public Service Commission.

If its profits rise above the 11.5% allowed by law, the PSC would then likely lower rates.

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Francis Epps Finds New Home on FSU Campus

May 14th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

The Statue of Frances Epps, the grandson of Thomas Jefferson, is back on the FSU campus.

It was removed in January after student opposition and a task force report found, while Epps played a roll in establishing FSU, he was not the founder.

It was also learned he was a slave owner.

Now a plaque paints a more true picture of his past, both good and bad, and the statue is now in a less prominent place.

FSU criminology major James French told us we can all learn from the replacement.

“Just in general, I think history, good or bad, we learn from it. And if we try to take that away, we can make the same mistakes again. So, I’m not saying its right or wrong, but if if it is wrong, we still need to have that,” said French.

The same task force that suggested relocating the statute also recommended the renaming of BK Roberts Hall at the FSU law school.

Roberts blocked a black man from attending law school.

The change required legislative approval, but the legislation did not pass.

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Florida Public Universities Rank #1 in the Nation for 3rd Straight Year

May 14th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

For the third year in a row, US News and World Report has named Florida’s public universities number one in the country.

Governor Ron DeSantis called that good news.

The Governor spent Monday in New York pitching Florida to new businesses.

He said they understand the state’s great weather and low tax structure, but added it’s the people that make the state number one.

“At the end of the day, that’s important. It has drawn investment and will continue to draw investment, but I think probably the most important thing is human capital. And so we’ve let people know we take pride in being number one. We want to continue to improve and raise the bar,” said DeSantis.

Factors that went into the ranking included cost, the time to graduate, and the debt required to graduate.

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DOC Whistle Blower Facing Retaliation?

May 13th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Reports of abuse and poor conditions in Florida prisons are being aired by former and current correctional officers. One whistle blower who first shared his story with us more than four years ago, is fighting his termination which his lawyer says is retaliation.

In November 2014, We interviewed Correctional officer Tim Butler, but we didn’t tell you his name or show his face.

“I feel my life is in more danger than its ever been.”

No longer incognito, Butler says he was called on the carpet almost immediately.

“They always said they knew it was me because of my boots, the way I walked. I said, the way I walked?”

What followed according to his lawyer Ryan Andrews, was a year of intimidation.

“For violating his first amendment rights, they paid him a ninety nine thousand dollar settlement and they’ve been gunning for him ever since. He’s a preacher.”

Andrews continues: “You would think the department would be happy when he reports wrong doing or abuse of power, misuse of position and inmate beating and sneaking in contraband. You would think he would be rewarded for that, but instead, when he reported it, they terminated him a couple months later.”

Now, Butler has been given his termination paperwork. Accused of being late and using unwarranted force. He calls the charges trumped up.

“You know, I’ve tried to tell them about the food. I tried to tell them about the drugs and stuff we have come in” says Butler.

And says the firing came after he complained about drugs, drones and increasingly dangerous working conditions.

“And I kept on asking them, I said I need some help in the chow hall. Need some more males in the chow hall. They refused to say that, they refused to even do that.”

He also complained about how inmates are being treated.

“The snitch got killed. They failed to protect him.”

“Butler isn’t alone, This published report shows that a dozen current or former employees, all from one prison in Santa Rosa County, have filed for whistle blower protection.”. 

Butler is fighting to get his job back. Not so he can go back to work, but so he can resign with his integrity intact. 

Prisons remain chronically under staffed. A parade of wardens told lawmakers this year they feared losing control of their institutions, had no money to repair facilities, and couldn’t hire enough officers, forcing those still working to work long hours. 

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