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World War II Vets Honored in Capital City

November 11th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

For the past five years, Altrua, a business in the state’s capital city picks a hometown hero to honor during the Veteran’s Day parade.
This year, there are two, both veterans of the second world war.
“It’s just amazing what these guys did during that period of time and they weren’t ever asked to do it, they just did it because it was the right thing to do for our country and for the world,” said Skip Smelko, President of Altrua Global Solutions.
Selecting World War Two veterans this year was no coincidence.
June 6th of this year marked the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings.
Following behind the marching bands and floats, veterans Brice Thornton, who took part in the invasion, and Julius Fisher, who helped bring supplies to the front lines, took center stage.
They were then honored in a special ceremony.
“The sacrifice that these guys made for our freedoms and what we have here today is second to none,” said Smelko.
Both vets were given gift cards, a year’s worth of home cleanings, letters from US Senator Rick Scott and other tokens of appreciation.
But Thornton tells us he doesn’t think of himself as a hero.
“I’m pledged to defend this country just like you are and so when I was called that’s what I done,” said Thornton. “I was able to come back, have a good life. A lot of my friends didn’t come back.”
Organizers said they’re fortunate to have had the opportunity to honor the two men this year. 
 
The country loses about 350 WWII veterans each day, and the Department of Veterans Affairs predicts the last will be gone by 2044. 
 
That would be the 100th anniversary of the Normandy landings.

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Tragedy Spurs Effort to Strengthen Pool Safety Laws

November 8th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

88 children drowned in Florida in 2018.

The year prior, two-year-old Kacen Howard drowned after he bypassed a defective pool fence at a family friend’s home.

Kacen’s tragic death spurred new legislation that would increase safety standards for residential pools.

A routine trip to run errands quickly turned into a nightmare for April Philips and Brittany Howard.

Howard’s two-year-old son Kacen was left with an adult at Philip’s home.

“Their son Kacen opened the sliding glass door, bypassed the weak defective pool fence that surrounded the pool and fatally drowned,” said Philips at a town hall meeting in the city of Oldsmar in 2018.

Kacen would have turned three the following day.

The tragedy spurred Kacen’s mother and her friend to action.

“We must instill laws, guidelines, education and awareness in the adults of today so that we can save the children who will be the adults of tomorrow,” said Philips.

The result is a bill named aptly named the Kacen’s Cause Act.

The legislation would beef up Florida’s pool safety laws by requiring new pools have at least two safety measures installed.

The bill would also require the two safety measures to be installed on a pool if a home is sold.

Currently only one is required.

“In my former career as a fire fighter I had to pull kids out of pools and 20 years later it still bothers me. I don’t want to see a mother or a father or a sister or a brother or a neighbor to have to go through that tragedy of seeing a kid drown in their pool in their backyard,” said bill sponsor Senator Ed Hooper.

New pools could have any a combination of five safety measures.

A pool cover, fence or alarms in the pool itself.

There’s also the option of self-latching doors or alarms on the doors and windows with access to the pool.”

If passed into law, violators could face up to a $500 fine, or would be required to take a drowning education course.

Last year the bill didn’t receive a hearing in the House, but Senator Ed Hooper has vowed to file the bill every year he’s in office.

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DEP Puts New Focus on Transparency

November 8th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is embracing a new era of transparency after eight years under a former Governor that wouldn’t acknowledge a changing climate.

The first step is a data filled website on water quality.

Protecting Florida Together is more than a website according to Noah Valenstein, the Secretary of Department of Environmental Protection.

He called it a statewide conservation about the environment.

“Are we we doing our jobs, first of all? Right? Is the agency making sure water quality is protected and getting better?” said Valentein.

Right now, the website lists nutrient levels in three troubled bodies of water in south Flordia.

It will be built out statewide.

“If we are not having a conversation about water quality statewide, then we’re in trouble, right, and I think that’s where we were in years past,” said Valenstein.

In addition to a new website, there is a new attitude.

“You’ll be able In the near future, to sign up and actually get an email alert saying a new sample came through and you’ve got blue green algae within your area,” said Valenstein.

Funding is at a record high.

And the State’s first Chief Science Officer Dr. Thomas Fraiser said the kind of data being posted has never been in on place before.

“You’re looking at the same data we’re using to see whether or not we’re doing a good job or not, and I think we are. It’s a pretty exciting time for us to do this, and it hasn’t really been attempted before,” said Fraiser.

And a watchdog group of former employees that monitor the agency said they are seeing some positive changes and hope more are on the way.

Soon to be introduced legislation will move septic tank regulation from the Department of Health to DEP.

The Governor’s plan would require permitting for new septic tanks and consider the quality of near by water before the permit would be granted.

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Congressman Lawson Touts Plan for Cheaper Prescriptions

November 8th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

US Congressman Al Lawson spoke with retirees in the state’s capital city Friday morning.

Lawson fielded questions from his constituents on a wide range of topics including immigration, impeachment and the war in Afghanistan.

The main focus though was healthcare.

Lawson is supporting a bill that would allow Medicare and Medicaid to negotiate maximum drug prices and prohibit prices from exceeding 120 percent of the cost of the same drug in certain other countries like Canada, the UK and Australia.

“And America is the richest country in the world, ain’t no question about it, but we p[ay so much more for prescription drugs,” said Lawson.

Lawson did not endorse universal single payer healthcare, a proposal endorsed by Presidential Candidates including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

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FAMU’s Medical Marijuana Education Program Takes Flack From Lawmakers

November 7th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

FAMU’s minority medical marijuana education program came under tough scrutiny from lawmakers Thursday morning. 
 
The program has had a difficult time explaining how it’s spent its funding. 
This was the second time FAMU’s Medical Marijuana Education and Research Initiative presented to lawmakers.
The program’s new Director Patricia Green-Powell tried to focus on the positive.
“41 events across Florida have netted over 20,000 participants,” said Green-Powell.
But lawmakers were quick to cut to the chase.
The program has been fraught with concerns over how it’s spent state money. 
FAMU was given $2.1 million for the education program in August, just weeks later DOH stopped requiring the university to report how it was spending the money.
The university now filling the primary oversight role didn’t sit well with lawmakers like state Senator Audrey Gibson.
“The program just runs whichever way?” Gibson asked.
“No, there’s oversight with our Office of Compliance,” Green-Powell responded.
Glory Brown, Director of FAMU’s Office of Sponsored Programs said the university would be open to more oversight from the state.
“Our records are open, they’re available. We have a Department of Compliance, we have the audit, we do regular meetings monthly and we adhere to any request,” said Brown.
Senate Budget Chair Rob Bradley wouldn’t specify exactly what part of the program’s budget concerned him most.
“There’s several things. The entire program brings concern to me,” said Bradley.
Financial information presented to lawmakers showed salaries make up more than three fourths of the program’s $1.4 million expenditures.
FAMU says it’s satisfied with progress that has been made with the education program.
14 research projects through the program are currently in their early stages.

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Everglades Restoration Could Be Pivotal to Fighting Rising Seas

November 7th, 2019 by Jake Stofan
The Senate Appropriations Committee got a briefing from the State Department of Environmental Protection Thursday morning.
The state allocated a record $413 million for Everglades restoration projects in 2019.
One Senator asked whether DEP was considering the potential impacts of sea level rise in their restoration projects, and how rising seas could negatively impact the wetlands.
DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein said in short, Everglades restoration is one of the state’s best ways of combating sea level rise.
“Getting water through the system, hydrating, restoring aquifers in South Florida, restoring flow into Florida Bay, creating that hydraulic pressure and head to prevent the speed of saltwater intrusion is one of the most important things we can do as the State of Florida for long term resilience,” said Valenstein.
DEP reports all $413 million has been designated to projects, some of which they expect could be complete by 2023.

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Lawmakers Look to Balance Privacy and Public Safety With Red Flag Technologies

November 6th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

 

The Parkland report exposed many missed opportunities to flag accused gunman Nikolas Cruz as a potential threat.

Now private companies are developing tools that could aid law enforcement and schools to identify threats before they happen.

Two companies showed off their technologies to state house members Wednesday.

“We have uncovered and reported more than 200 different threats,” said Douglas Licker with Lumina Analytics.

Lumina Analytics offers a product called Radiance, which allows police to scan the web for public information on a specific person and identify potentially threatening behaviors .

“A manual web search to the same magnitude would take someone over a year to complete,” said Jessica Dareneau with Lumina Analytics.

The other company Psynetix Laboratories, has a program called SIREN.

It focuses on education, providing a template for interviewing students who have already been reported as possible threats.

It then creates the student a profile that is scored against known mass killers.

“We’ve identified 13,089 potential behaviors,” said Dr. Russell Baker with Psynetix Laboratories.

Baker said flagging potential threats using machine learning has a 97 percent accuracy rate, compared to 39 percent using traditional pen and paper methods.

However, FSU Law Professor Wayne Logan cautioned lawmakers of the potential Orwellian consequences of the new technology.

“We’re predicating our interventions with respect to people on what they might do, not what they’ve done,” said Logan.

Recently the Legislature passed a law specifying how police can use drones.

In 2020 similar legislation may appear regulating these new technologies as well.

“We want law enforcement to have clear predictability about how to use these tools in an investigation and simultaneously we want individuals to know due process and individual liberties are going to be preserved. If we’ll give both of those entities clarity we’ve done our job,” said Rep. James Grant.

It’s a heavy burden, as the legislative process tends to move much slower than technology.

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State Supreme Court Considers Financial Obligations Under Amendment 4

November 6th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Questions of when a felon has completed their sentence swirled at the Florida Supreme Court Wednesday.

In August, the Governor asked the court for an advisory opinion as to what the amendment approved by voters really means, but the answer is likely to come from a federal court, not the state’s highest court.

The attorney for the Governor, Joseph Jacquot, told justices getting an answer as to what “completion of all terms of sentence” really means is urgent.

“Elections are coming, and the Governor has the responsibility to protect the integrity of the electoral process,” said Jacquot.

Justices wanted to know if restitution was also included.

“That’s not a term of sentence? That would be new me under Florida law,” said Justice Barbara Lagoa.

A Federal lawsuit over fines and fees is already underway.

ACLU attorney Anton Marion told state justices that requiring those payments would violate the federal constitution and not fulfill voters wishes.

“It does not require the payment of all financial obligations because doing so would mean every person unable to pay is serving a life sentence. It can not be that more than four out of five returning citizens is serving a life sentence,” said Marion.

Afterwards, the Governor’s lawyers didn’t respond to questions.

The ACLU called the hearing a publicity stunt.

“Part of the reason he sought this opinion is that he wanted to prevent the Federal Court for making a decision,” said ACLU Florida Legal Director Daniel Tilley.

What opinion the Supreme Court issues won’t be binding.

The real decision on felons rights will be made in April after a federal court trial.

The judge in that case has already ruled Florida can’t keep someone from voting if they are too poor to pay a fine.

The court will be looking at state lawmakers to fix the law before the April trial begins.

Two of the justices hearing the case have been nominated to the Federal Appeals Court likely to hear an appeal no matter which side loses the voting rights case this April, raising the question of whether they will have to recuse themselves.

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Lawmakers Want More Protections for Those Who Working in the Heat

November 6th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Heat stress kills dozens of Americans working in extreme temperatures and sends thousands more to the hospital each year.

That’s why Democratic state lawmakers have proposed legislation that would require employers receive training on heat exposure.

It would also require employers to offer free cold water, access to shade and brief breaks every few hours to those who work in extreme conditions.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith said most employers already provide the amenities, but there are bad actors.

“And the reason they are not compliant is because it’s simply a recommendation from OSHA that they do these specific things like guaranteeing access to water, rest and shade,” said Smith.

There are no specified penalties in the legislation for employers who don’t comply.

Sponsors say it would be up to state agencies to determine proper punishments.

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Lawmakers Want Couples to Read Marriage Guide Before Tying the Knot

November 5th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

What is the secret to a healthy marriage?

While that question may never truly be answered, a group of Florida lawmakers believe the state isn’t doing enough to help new marriages succeed.

“The present handbook that we give has a few pages that are nice and then it goes to about 16 pages of how to get a divorce,” said Senator Dennis Baxley.

Baxely is backing a bill that would provide couples seeking a marriage license with an informational package full of marriage advice and resources.

“Things like family expectations. What I am expecting out of the marriage and this life together,” said Baxley. “Things like conflict resolution. If we have a difference what are our signals? How are we going to communicate that so that we are effective instead of just having an all out war and throwing the kitchen sink at each other?”

Richard Albertson with Live the Life, said the guides would help couples steer couples to the existing marriage resources in the state.

“If we give that to them in their handbook right when they get married you can really help couples down the road when they hit that bump in the road and they’re struggling and they’re having a rough time to get some help,” said Albertson.

The guides would be developed and distributed through private funds so there would be no cost to taxpayers, unlike the state’s divorce rate, which stands at nearly 50 percent.

House Sponsor Clay Yarborough said divorce takes a toll on every part of society, including about $2 billion from tax payers’ wallets.

“You’re talking about temporary assistance for needy families, the child welfare system, the juvenile justice system, Medicaid,” said Yarborough.

Those seeking a marriage license would have to sign off saying they’ve received and read the guide, but sponsors said whether couples follow the advice is out of their hands.

The bill sponsors also emphasized the guides would focus strictly on themes universal to both gay and straight marriages.

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Lawmakers Push Again for Conversion Therapy

November 5th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

A group of lawmakers is pushing once again for the state to stop issuing licenses to medical professionals who practice conversion therapy on children.

Gay rights activists argue the largely discredited practice is a form of child abuse that leads to increased rates of depression, suicide and stigma against the LGBTQ community.

Randy Thomas, the former Vice President of a Florida based conversion therapy organization Exodus International, which closed its doors in 2013, said he came to believe the practice as a sham.

“Not only was our mission failing, people weren’t turning straight. We watched our mission fail, but we also came to the conclusion that conversion therapy was deadly, dangerous and destructive,” said Thomas.

The bill has been filed in previous years.

Last year, it wasn’t heard in a single committee.

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Dems Push for Expanded Voting Access

November 5th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

On the day may cities in the state are holding local elections, Democratic lawmakers are pushing a plan to make it easier for people to register and vote.

Under HB 1365, Florida residents could show up on election day, register and vote.

Sponsor Rep. Geraldine Thompson said the current system is behind the times.

“In today’s age of technology, we’re able to have people come and show their identification, register and vote on the same day. We’re a very mobile society, but we are wedded to an archaic system,” said Thompson.

The legislation is supported by the League of Women Voters.

Under current, voters must be registered at least 30 days before an election.

The legislation also seeks to allow voters to cast a provisional ballot anywhere in the county where they are registered, not just in their local precinct.

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Canadian Drug Importation In the Works

November 5th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida lawmakers were told plans are moving ahead to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada Tuesday.

However, taxpayers, not patients, are likely to be the first beneficiary of the plan.

Low income Floridians receiving Medicaid are likely going to be among the first to see cheaper prescriptions coming from Canada, according to Senate Health Policy Chair Gayle Harrell.

“People are really really challenged these days to afford their life saving medications,” said Harrell.

The Agency for Health Care Administration has developed a list of state agencies that are likely to be able to take advantage of cheaper drugs.

“Flordia Medicaid, County Health Departments, mental health treatment facilities, developmental disability centers licensed by the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, and the Department of Corrections,” said AHCA Secretary Mary Mayhew.

150 drugs have been identified.

HIV treatments are likely to offer the most savings.

The state alone expects to save $150 million a year by bringing in cheaper Canadian drugs.

Mayhew is hopeful approval from the Federal Government will come within 18 months.

“So I am optimistic there is a sense of urgency in Washington,” said Mayhew.

But lawmakers were also told the Canadian government itself has raised some concerns.

“Are we going to be taking away their drugs and leaving individuals in Canada without adequate supply? Obviously, that is not our intent,” said Mayhew.

A second part of the legislation which would offer cheaper imports to pharmacies across the board is still in the initial planning stages.

The Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which is charged with developing the plan to get cheaper Canadian drugs into pharmacies will present its plan to lawmakers in December.

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Taggert Gets the Boot

November 4th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

With three games left in the season, Florida State University has fired its head football coach after just 21 months on the job.

From one end of the state’s capital city to the other, Florida State’s 9-12 record under Willie Taggert was a financial disaster.

Seats were empty, hotel rooms unoccupied and boosters were threatening to withhold their support.
It will cost the university boosters as much as $18 million to dump Taggert, but FSU Athletic Director David Coburn said the university did the math.

“Season ticket sales, renewals, new tickets moving forward. Obviously those are tied to Booster contributions to the annual fund. You’re looking at the implications for concessions, parking, all of that. When you look at that vis a vie the cost of a buy-out, the cost of a new coaching staff,” said Coburn.

Boosters will pick up the majority of the buy-out.

The firing comes after an especially poor game against Miami on Saturday.

“He had to go,” said FSU Student Jared Bansky.

Coburn said the Sunday meeting with Taggert wasn’t easy.

“It was a pretty emotional conversation for both of us,” said Coburn.

The Garnet and Gold has been a mainstay for Florida State fans for over 40 years.

The past two years have been the ever had.

This will be the second time in three years that Odell Haggins has taken over as Interim Head Coach.

He told the players to keep their heads high.

“We are Florida State,” said Haggins.

In a statement on Twitter, Taggert took the high road saying in part, “My family and I wish FSU nothing but the best and we’ll be cheering on the Seminoles the rest of the way”.

So will businesses in town which are now hoping the financial hemorrhaging is over.

Taggert’s base salary paid by taxpayers is just $215,000 a year.

Boosters will pick up the majority of the buyout, and any money the fired coach makes at another school could offset how much FSU must pay him.

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Environmentalists Push for Full Funding of Florida Forever

November 4th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Five years ago 75 percent of Florida voters approved setting money aside for land conservation and acquisition, but since its passage lawmakers have never fully funded Florida Forever.

Environmental groups used the 5th anniversary of passing Monday, to call on lawmakers to dedicate $100 million to Florida Forever going forward.

Prior to 2009 the program received $300 million a year.

Lawmakers dedicated just $33 million in 2019.
“The people of Florida voted and it’s time for our legislators to listen,” said Christine Johnson with the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast .

Senate Budget Chair Rob Bradley said part of the funding was low this year was because the state hadn’t spent all the money it received in 2018.

But he believes the administration is picking up the pace.

“I’m confident in talking to Governor DeSantis and his team that they’re going to move the money out the door quicker,” said Bradley.

That could increase the odds for more funding in 2020, and possibly in the future as well.

State Senator Linda Stewart is sponsoring a bill that would guarantee $100 million to Florida Forever and make the funding reoccurring.

“If we have left over leave it and then give the $100 million again the next year. That just gives us more to work with,” said Stewart.

The bill also would prohibit money in the trust fund from being spent on administrative costs, which has taken up a third of the pot in previous years.

Environmentalists like Aliki Moncrief with the Florida Conservation Voters said overall, she’s optimistic going into the 2020 session.

“The more lawmakers we’ve talked to this year, more are willing to entertain the idea of a dedicated stream of funding,” said Moncrief. “I think that the question is going to come around, well at what level?”

The Governor requested $100 million for Florida Forever this past Legislative session.

Those we spoke with expect him to make a similar request this year.

Senator Stewart said $100 million is only her starting bid.

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