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Lawmakers Hear Case Against Legal Marijuana

October 15th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Members of a House committee heard from a Harvard scientist about the potential pitfalls of legalizing recreational marijuana in Florida.

The scientist argued the social costs might outweigh any economic benefits.

House majority leader Ray Rodrigues has long raised concerns over the use of marijuana.

“High THC that’s being smoked on a daily basis is harmful,” said Rodrigues in a committee meeting in April of 2019.

Now, in the Committee he chairs he’s bringing scientists to give lawmakers a glimpse into some of the data that he says is often left out of the legalization debate.

Dr. Bertha Madras, a Harvard Professor of Psychobiology expressed concerns over rising THC content in modern cannabis and increased rates of depression, psychosis, schizophrenia, suicide and other substance abuse among marijuana users.

“It is the most self-delusional drug of all,” said Madras. “People are not aware of what’s happening to them as they use heavily, as they use more and more, as it erodes their sense of wellbeing.”

Another concern raised by the Harvard Professor debt with recent vaping illnesses across the US.

She said 75 percent of cases were related to THC vaporizers, not nicotine.

“I urge this state to be thoughtful and diligent before launching yet another massive human experiment,” said Madras.

Advocates push back, attributing many of the issues marijuana users experience to social stigma.

“Normalization, it’ll help all around with families, with family relations, with just everything in general,” said Melissa Villar with NORML Florida.

The presentations are strictly to educate lawmakers, who may find themselves in a position of developing regulations around legal marijuana whether they like it or not.

Three citizen initiatives for legalization are gathering signatures for the 2020 ballot.

“And it’s important we’re equipped with facts that we can then share with our constituents,” said Rep. Rodrigues.

Testimony from a former Colorado Marijuana official and the Florida Board of Health will be heard Wednesday.

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Lawmakers Give First Approval to Internet Sales Tax Collection

October 15th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida is losing $700 million a year it is already owed on internet sales.

State lawmakers took the first step to begin collecting the money, passing the bill through its first committee Tuesday, but there are concerns over who will benefit from the collections.

A 2018 US Supreme Court decision cleared the way for states to start collecting taxes from vendors who make internet sales made into their state.

43 of 45 states with a sales tax jumped on the idea.

“Only us and Missouri. We are falling behind the times and its not fair for anyone in our state,” said Senator Joe Grutuers who is sponsoring the Senate bill.

In Florida the payment remains voluntary.

Purchasers must fill out a form and submit a check.

Fewer than 5,000 forms are filed each year.

Retail giant Walmart urged support for the measure.

So did the Florida Conservation Voters.

“We many unmet needs in terms of conservation initiatives, protecting our precious water quality,” said Lindsey Cross with FCV.

Earlier this year it was the Governor who killed the idea because he thought it looked too much like a tax increase, but sponsors have been working on him ever since.

The sponsor and business groups would like to see the $700 million that would be collected go to tax reductions on business rents.

“And I thing we should continue working on eliminating the commercial rent tax,” said Gruters.

The cash is enough to pay for a teacher raises pushed by the Governor, but the AFL-CIO is worried the people who pay the tax won’t benefit.

“If we take $700 million from working families that buy things online and turn around and give it to folks, who quite frankly, don’t need a tax cut, That would be really bad for Florida,” said Rich Templin with the AFL-CIO.

The legislation contains an exemption for out of state retailers.

If they sell less than one hundred products or have sales less than $200,000 annually, they do not have to collect Florida sales tax.

As lawmakers sort things out, buyers should beware.

The Department of Revenue has audited some people who failed to report small internet purchases, which is a first for the tax collectors.

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Sigfredo Garcia Spared Death Penalty

October 15th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

A jury recommended and a judge in the state capital has imposed a life sentence on Sigfredo Garcia, the man convicted of killing FSU law professor Dan Markel in a murder for hire plot.

Garcia’s lawyer, Saam Zangeneh said his defense was hampered because Garcia would not take the stand to implicate the mother of his two children, who was tried with him.

“Her Lawyer said it was Sigfredo to Charlie. We could have easily said Katie to Charlie and Sigfredo had nothing to do with this, and Luis. We could have made that argument. I think it would have been a stronger argument for us to make, but we were instructed not to make that argument,” said Zangeneh.

And after the sentencing, Ruth Markel, the mother of the slain law professor broke her silence to reporters.

“We respect the process. There’s a lot more work to be done, and we are looking forward and hoping it will be done soon. We want to thank all of the law enforcement, the state attorneys office,” said Markel.

The case against the mother of Garcia’s children, Katherine Magbanua, ended in a mistrial.

A new trial date could be set later this month.

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VisitFlorida Fighting For Funding Once Again

October 15th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

VisitFlorida, the state’s primary tourism agency is again asking lawmakers for funding.

Last year the agency took at $26 million cut, resulting in a 42 percent reduction in staff.

The funding cut has also made it more difficult for the agency to respond to negative press from storms and other natural disasters that take a toll on the state’s image as a top vacation destination.

“If VisitFlorida is not here to be the voice saying Florida is open for business, just because Dorian’s off the coast doesn’t mean you shouldn’t come to the panhandle or Tampa Bay, then no one is going to have that message. And that science is going to be detrimental to our Florida economy,” said VisitFlorida CEO Dana Young.

With the agencies’ funding set to expire on June 30th, VisitFlorida is hoping to have its funding reauthorized for eight years, but it may depend on what deal can be cut with the House Speaker, who has been critical of the agency in the past.

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Wilton Simpson Designated as Next Senate President

October 15th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

A Pasco County egg farmer, Wilton Simpson, was designated to lead the State Senate after the 2020 election by his fellow GOP Senators Tuesday.

Simpson is one of the state capital’s low key lawmakers who likes to get things done without taking the credit.

A framed quote from gangster Al Capone hangs on his office wall, warning people not to mistake his kindness for weakness.

“And don’t mistake my kindness for weakness. That was the part that I would l would always say to folks, because People would say, you know, you’re so nice, how are you going to be a legislator because you have to be mean or sometimes. You have to be tough sometimes. So I would tell them, don’t mistake my kindness for weakness,” said Simpson.

Simpson wants to revamp foster care in Florida and promises more of the same when it comes to being business friendly.

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Democrats Aim to Reduce Prison Population

October 15th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Democrats in the state house want to give non violent offenders behind bars more gain time for good behavior.

Their goal is to reduce the prison population and avoid building more prisons and relieve the shortage of correctional officers.

Rep Diane Hart of Tampa is a co sponsor.

She has visited more than two dozen prisons and found most to be in disrepair.

“House bill 189 will reduce the state correctional population by 11 percent, equating to the release of over 10,000 people. By passing this legislation, we will save the state over one billion dollars over the next five years,” said Hart.

The gain time initiative would reduce the time non violent offenders spend in prison from 85 percent of their sentence, down to 65 percent.

It would apply retroactively to anyone now in prison.

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GOP and Dems United in Fight Against Open Primaries

October 14th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Democrats meeting in Orlando over the weekend officially came out against a proposed constitutional amendment known as All Voters Vote.

Republicans and Democrats here in Florida seldom agree on anything, but they have found something to oppose together.

During the 2018 Florida primary, there were five Democrats and two Republicans running for Governor.

Under All Voters vote, all seven would have faced off in August, with the top two vote getters advancing to November.

“It’s going to enable more voters to vote and have a say in the process, because in those closed party primaries, the winner only has to speak to a very small sliver, the extreme wings of their parties to get through the primary process,” said All Voters Vote Chair Glenn Burhans.

The Republican and Democrat parties are both opposing the amendment in the Supreme Court, as is the Attorney General Ashley Moody, who called it misleading.

Evan Power is the Republican Chair in the state’s capital.

“I think what we are going to do is throw everybody into a jungle primary, and then money will control who comes out of that jungle primary, and then you’ll end up with two Republicans or two Democrats, and then the other party is going to be even more upset about it,” said Powers.

But Democratic Strategist Steve Schale thinks the opposition is misguided arguing open primaries could give parties more incentive to reach out to independent voters.

“Yeah, again, first of all we need those folks to vote for us in November, so if we start talking to them in primaries, it helps the conversation along,” said Schale.

During the 2016 primary the top two vote getters were republicans, Putnam and DeSantis, but organizers dispute that’s they way it would have turned out if this amendment were in place.

“They’re forgetting 3.7 million non party affiliates that couldn’t have voted in those primaries,” said Burhans.

The amendment would apply only to elections for Governor, Cabinet and State Legislature.

California and Louisiana are the two states were all voters can vote in primaries.

Other states allow voters to choose which partisan primary they’d like to vote without becoming a member of those parties

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Death Penalty Under Consideration for FSU Law Professor’s Killer

October 14th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

The same jury that on Friday found a man guilty of murdering FSU law professor Dan Markel is now considering whether Sigfredo Garcia should face the death penalty.

The ten woman two man jury heard from a psychologist who said Garcia was traumatized at an early age because he father was unfaithful to his mother, spent time in prison, and died when Garcia was just eleven.

Ruth Markel, the law professor’s mother, told jurors she is still waiting for justice that may never come.

“And the grief and pain of a mother who loses her child never ends. For me closure and normalcy are only words in a dictionary. Not a reality I will ever experience again. We have waited for more than five years for those involved in Dan’s murder to brought to justice, which has only exacerbated my pain, grief, anxiety and health,” said Markel.

The jury deadlocked on whether co-defendant Katherine Magbanua was also guilty.

She faces a retrial, likely early next year.

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Agriculture and Septic Tanks Targeted by Blue Green Algae Task Force

October 14th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The state’s Blue Green Algae Task Force has published its first round of recommendations to lawmakers aimed at cleaning up Florida’s water ways.

It was formed by Governor Ron DeSantis after the devastating out break of toxic cyanobacteria, better known as blue green algae, in 2018.

“To improve Florida’s water quality, making sure we’re protecting these treasures that make us unique as a state,” said DeSantis in January.

The task force’s initial recommendations follow multiple meetings around the state.

Beth Alvi with Audubon Florida said she likes what she’s seen so far.

“It was really interesting to see them ask the right questions and follow the dots to the questions that all of us who have been working in this arena have been asking for years,” said Alvi.

The recommendations include better monitoring of nutrient reduction plans and increasing best management practice enrollment and enforcement for agriculture.

“Lake Okeechobee’s problem, a big part of it is agriculture,” said Leon County Water Conservation Commissioner Bill Howell.

Septic tanks are also a major nutrient polluter in Florida.

There’s more than 2.5 million in the state and 280,000 are leaking.

“That’s going directly into the water table. That’s the drinking water,” said Howell.

The task force wants to bring back septic tank inspections, which haven’t been mandated since 2012.

“To keep your septic tank working well you need to have regular inspections,” said Alvi.

The task force also wants lawmakers to move septic tank oversight to the Department of Environmental Protection.

They’re currently monitored by the Department of Health.

More recommendations from the task force are sure to follow.

The group is set to meet for a total of five years.

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Opioid Task Force Conviens

October 11th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The Statewide Task Force on Opioid abuse met for the first time in the state Capitol Friday morning.

The panel is tasked with making legislative recommendations to help stem a crisis that is killing 17 Floridians every day.

It’s an epidemic touches almost every corner of society.

That’s why the state’s opioid task force includes law enforcement, addiction experts and mental health professionals.

“This is not a situation of trying to make bad people good, but rather sick people well,” said Task Force Co-Chair and Seminole County Sheriff Dennis Lemma.

In its first meeting three committees were designated.

Prevention, treatment and law enforcement.

“We were always playing defense. This demonstrates that now we’re ready to play offense,” said Former State Representative and task force member Jim Boyd.

The law enforcement component will likely be targeted at traffickers according to members.

But Sheriff Lemma said for those who are addicted, the focus will be on treatment.

“We feel that crime and delinquency are symptoms of other problems,” said Lemma.

Task Force Chair Attorney General Ashley Moody said any recommendations will be based on proven methods and data.

“We’ve already been looking at what’s working and what’s not across the state so that we can overlay those with death rates and seeing where are death rates going down and what practices are being used,” said Moody.

While opioids are the main focus of this task force, some of the members expressed a desire to be more proactive in addressing other drugs gaining popularity like methamphetamine.

Task force member and Miami Judge Steve Leifman believes the task force’s work might help stop the next drug crisis before it happens.
“Just chasing a particular drug is not necessarily going to do it, but it is a great start for us by focusing on the opioids to then look at the other issues,” said Leifman.

The task force will need to work fast if they hope to have recommendations in place by the start of the next legislative session in January.

The task force is will be meeting once a month going forward.

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Garcia Guilty of Markel Murder, Hung Jury for Magbanua

October 11th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

A jury in Tallahassee has found one person guilty of first degree murder in the slaying of an FSU law professor, but it could not come to a unanimous decision in the case of a woman co conspirator.

The family of slain law professor Dan Markel left the courtroom without talking to reporters.

Prosecutor Georgia Cappleman said the family is pleased with the verdict, despite the jury being unable to come to a unanimous decision on codefendant Katherine Magbanua.

“It’s been a long road and I’m really happy to get the beginnings of some justice for the Markel family,” said Cappleman. “They’re happy, they’re very happy.”

Katherine Magbanua cried as she heard the jury could not agree on murder charges against her.

The father of Magbanua’s children Sigfredo Garcia now faces the death penalty.

“I think that she had been reserving her emotional aspect for a long time and it reached its tipping point,” said Garcia’s Attorney Saam Zangeneh. “You know, and listen to what she just heard. That the father of her children may be put to death.”

Jurors did convict Sigfredo Garcia on a conspiracy.

The only conspirators named in the trial were the family of the slain law professor’s ex-wife, though no charges have been brought against the family at this time.

Cappleman described the verdicts as a good start, despite failing to get a conviction for Magbanua.

When asked if now-convicted Sigfredo Garcia might cooperate to save himself from the death penalty and to save the mother of his children Cappleman said it wasn’t her call to make.

“I don’t do the reaching out. He’s represented by council so I don’t reach out to folks that are represented by council. They’ll have to let me know if that’s what they want to do,” said Cappleman.

Magbanua will remain in jail where she’s been for three years.

A hearing in her case is set for later this month.

A hearing on whether Sigfredo Garcia will receive the death penalty will be held on Monday.

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DEP Announces $166 Million for Electric School Buses

October 11th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Busing for many Florida students will soon be going green thanks to money from the Volkswagen emissions settlement.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection announced $166 million will be made available to help schools transition from diesel to electric school buses.

Environmentalists like Aliki Moncrief are applauding the move.

“Making sure that our kids have buses that aren’t spewing toxic chemicals right into their air space, making sure that our kids and our schools are kind of at the leading edge of a clean energy economy with electric buses I think is a really wise choice,” said Moncrief.

Exactly how the funds will be divvied up has not been decided yet.

DEP could cover 100 percent of the cost of new electric buses, or possibly cover a part of the cost to stretch the funds further.

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Markel Murder Trial Now in Jury’s Hands

October 10th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

The fates of two people accused of killing an FSU professor are now in the hands of twelve jurors.

Prosecutors urged the jury not to be swayed by the fact that those ultimately responsible are not in the courtroom.

Prosecutors began their two hour summation pinning the blame squarely on the family of Dan Markel’s ex wife.

“What enemy or enemies had Mr. Markel made that set into motion such a brutal act? The answer: his own family,” said Prosecutor Georgia Cappleman.

For three weeks the government has played wiretaps and a video referred to as the bump, where an undercover FBI agent hands a note to Donna Adelson, Dan Markel’s ex-mother-in-law, and then recorded who talked to whom.

“She goes straight to Charlie Adelson who goes straight to Katherine Magbanua, who goes goes straight to Sigfredo Garcia. Exactly what this undercover operation was designed to ferret out,” said Cappleman.

But Cappleman told jurors that justice for anyone not in the courtroom would have to wait for another day.

“We are all trusting you to render a wise and legal verdict in this case,” said Cappleman.

Defense lawyers did their best to try and shift the blame to someone else.

Accused triggerman Sigfredo Garcia’s lawyer tried to shift the blame to Luis Rivera, the gang kingpin who became the government’s key witness.

“A gangster killed Dan Markel. Luis Rivera killed Dan Markel,” said attorney Saam Zangeneh.

The lawyer for Katherine Magbanua turned the attention back to the Adelson’s.

“They tried to build a case around her. To force her to cooperate, so they could get what they have been going after for years now, the Adelson family,” said Attorney Chris DeCoste.

The jury got the case just before 4 pm.

The Adelson’s have not been charged with any crime and they deny any involvement in the Markel murder.

The case is going to be the subject of at least two national news magazines shows in the coming weeks.

Both Dateline NBC and 20/20 are working on the true crime story.

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A Year After Michael Timber Farmers Still Facing Crisis

October 10th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Hurricane Michael made landfall one year ago Thursday and the longest recovery will likely be for those in the timber industry.

For timber farmer Mathew Stokes the one year anniversary of Hurricane Michael conjures up painful memories.

“Thinking of those three or four hours we spent in the tub sweating with the power off waiting for it to pass,” said Stokes.

And when the winds subsided…

“The whole world changed,” said Stokes.

The biggest hit was to Mathew’s tree farming company, Neal Land & Timber in Blountstown.

Using a drone Mathew showed us the damage to one of his thousand acre plots, which was a total loss.

“It’s just getting more and more expensive everyday it seems like, but we’re trying to go forward and get good growth out of our trees,” said Stokes.

In all, his company owns 45,000 acres across six counties.
“We’re well up over $30 million worth of lost timber on the stump,” said Stokes.

The timber industry took a $1.3 billion hit from Michael.

Unlike other crops, timber is essentially uninsurable.

Even worse for many it’s a living 401K.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people who said you know this was my retirement plan,” said Blountstown City Manager Traci Hall.

Hall said the impacts to the timber industry haven’t even fully manifested.

“We have a lot of people that are going to be jobless once everything is cleaned up,” said Hall.

Mathew believes government reimbursement could help, but told us at the end of the day there’s no silver bullet.

“We’re just going to have to work through it and do the best we can,” said Stokes.

Mathew estimates replanting and regrowth will take between 12 and 15 years, but it could take even longer depending on what level of assistance the federal government agrees to provide.

Mathew added while the road ahead will certainly be challenging, he’s hopeful things will turn out alright in the end.

He’s said he’s just blessed he and his family made it out of the storm alive.

“Thanking God that we lived through it and that we are here to be a part of the recovery process,” said Stokes.

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One Year Later Hurricane Michael Far From Forgotten in Blountstown

October 9th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Thursday marks the one year anniversary of Hurricane Michael’s landfall in the Florida Panhandle.

We revisited the small city of Blountstown Florida on the eve of the anniversary to speak with residents and city officials about how recovery has progressed so far.

Michael became the worst disaster to strike Blountstown on October 10th 2018.

City Manager Traci Hall remembers the storm vividly.

“We watched roofs come off of local businesses out the windows. We watched the steeple blow off the methodist church,” said Hall.

Local business owners Edwin and Lynn Strawn rode out the hurricane in their home.

“Watching the trees fall. We just couldn’t believe it,” said Edwin.

Hours later the devastation was obvious.

“We could not see down the street in any direction,” said Edwin.

But the storm united the city under a single cause.

“You know everybody in this community helped everybody in this community,” said Lynn.

While the initial outpouring of support was great, a year later scenes of rotting tarps of homes are all too common.

It’s a constant reminder that recovery over the last year has been slow.

Many structures were uninsured, for others claims have been slow to process.

“You can drive anywhere and see blue tarps, tarps that are coming off of houses, houses that have not been repaired,” said Lynn.

For the city, Federal aid has also been slow.

“We’ve spent over $13 million on this storm and are waiting on reimbursement,” said Hall.

Despite the hardships, the people of Blountstown remain optimistic.

“This community is wonderful, resilient, l very supportive and I know together we can make this happen,” said Hall.

On the anniversary the city will gather for an evening of prayer.

They expect a big crowd.

A testament to the resilience of this community.

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