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ACLU Report Questions Mail In Ballot Verification Standards

September 20th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda
An ACLU report on voting by mail problems produced for the ACLU raises questions about varying standards for judging the validity of a voters signature and suggests the state create rules for accepting or disqualifying a ballot.
Leon County Supervisor Mark Earley says those standards already exist.
“I would disagree. I think there are statewide standards. 101.68 of Florida statutes has a very defined process. Certainly, each canvassing board is made up of human eyes, people with different thoughts about what…you know, its somewhat of an subjective process. Anytime you are matching signatures, it’s a subjective process,” said Earley. “But I think we do our best to do things in a uniform manner accross the state in most regards, and I think this is another one of those.”
Voters who’s mail ballots are disqualified are allowed to correct their mistakes until the day before the election.
If they don’t, they can still show up in person on election day.

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Report Suggests Voting by Mail Poses More Risks Than Traditional Voting

September 20th, 2018 by Jake Stofan
A new report by a University of Florida Political Scientist for the ACLU found that voting by mail is the riskiest way to cast a ballot.
The risk of not having a mail ballot counted is greatest for those under 30, blacks and hispanics.
Nearly 28,000, or just over 1% of all mail ballots cast in 2016  weren’t counted.
The most likely reason is that voters didn’t sign the ballot, or their signature didn’t match the voting record.
“The process on mail in ballots is to compare the signature on the ballot when it’s returned to determine, and we hope to determine, that it is the correct voter who has cast the ballot,” said Ron Labasky with the Florida State Elections Supervisors Association.
When ballots are flawed, supervisors are required to contact the voter and give them an opportunity to fix the problem.
“We send a notice, a cure affidavit, to their address where they got their ballot, and if they have an email address  or a phone number on file with us, we will call that number several times,” said Leon County Elections Supervisor Mark Earley.
The bottom line, voting by mail is inherently more risky than casting a ballot in person.
“Yeah, its coming through the mail. It’s not as simple as going to your polling place where your ballot is not going to be rejected,” said Labasky.
The report found that voters under 30 had just 9.2% of all mail ballots, yet 30% of those ballots were rejected.
FSU Student Jaimie Mayer thinks the higher failure rate is due to being unfamiliar with the mail voting process.
“We’re so used to doing everything online now that we kinda almost forget to fill out what’s important,” said Mayer.
Voters who didn’t cure their mail ballot in time can still show up election day and cast a ballot.
The first mail ballots go out to military and overseas voters this weekend.
In state mail voters will get their ballots beginning October 3rd.

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Can Funding the Land Acquisition Trust Fund Combat Red Tide?

September 20th, 2018 by Jake Stofan
Red tide continues to spread along Florida’s west coast.
At least four counties in the panhandle are reporting the algae blooms.
The crisis has Governor Rick Scott ordering a resumption of research into the cause and possible solutions.
Red tide has been known to exist for hundreds of years, but scientists still don’t know enough.
“The funding for basic research questions is just minimal,” said Oceanography professor at FSU Dr. Sven Kranz.
Dr. Sven Kranz says in recent years the blooms have become more frequent and last longer, but since 2013 the state has essentially stopped all research on red tide.
“To understand an outbreak of Karenia Brevis like the one we’ve had the last year basically we do need more research,” said Kranz.
South west Florida is suffering from a nearly year long bloom.
New blooms are also appearing in the panhandle.
Now, Governor Rick Scott says  the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will resume working with researchers to find ways to quell the algae.
However, environmental groups say Scott’s orders aren’t dealing with  pollution and agricultural run off, which they believe is the root problem.
“It’s a result of continued lack of regulation and control,” said Alisa Coe, an Attorney with the Florida Office of Earth Justice.
Red tide algae is caused by high nutrient levels.
Like in a fish tank, the more nutrients added either from natural sources or through fertilizers or animal waste, the more algae.
Unless you have enough plants to consume the nutrients first.
It’s the reason why environmental groups are asking the courts to make funds for land acquisition available immediately.
“We need to start the projects that would capture the water and treat it,” said Coe.
They say it could be used to purchase lands South of Lake Okeechobee, where water could be expelled and filtered through the plant-rich everglades.
A lower court sided with environmentalists earlier this year and ordered the Legislature to fully fund the Land Acquisition Trust Fund.
The state appealed, putting a hold on the ruling and preventing the funds from becoming available.
Scientists agree agricultural runoff plays a role in maintaining longer blooms, but they say research into other factors such as hurricanes and natural processes still need more investigating.

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President of Botswana Wants to Rekindle Relations With FSU

September 20th, 2018 by Jake Stofan
Florida State University was paid a visit by a prestigious alumnus Thursday morning.
His Excellency Mokgweetsi Eric Keabetswe Masisi, President of the Republic of Botswana returned to his alma matter to meet with University President John Thrasher and local lawmakers.
President Masisi obtained a Masters degree in education from Florida State in 1990.
Massi expressed his interest in rekindling a closer relationship with the university.
“There’s a lot of value that you bring and we have a number of universities, both public and private that would benefit from partnering with you and I want to beset you to use me and abuse me in creating those linkages, rekindling them,” said President Masisi. “And in our bilateral relations with the United States government, there is no reason why these should not be taken to greater heights.”
Massi and Thrasher touted FSU’s recent accomplishments including being named the 26th best public university in the nation.

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Supreme Court Will Soon Hear Minimum Wage Case

September 19th, 2018 by Jake Stofan
Can cities and counties pass a minimum wage is higher than what the state sets?
In 2016 Miami Beach moved to raise its local minimum wage to more than $5 higher than the state’s.
The move was staunchly opposed by groups like the Florida Retail Federation, which challenged the local ordinance in court.
“I think ultimately it should be up to the individual business. I don’t think the government should be telling a business what to pay their employees,” said James Miller with the Federation.
Miami Beach defended its ability to increase wages citing a 2004 constitutional amendment, but business groups argue a state law passed the year before supersedes the amendment.
“The constitution revision said yes you can adopt a higher minimum wage, but they didn’t at the same time limit the authority of the Legislature to put bounds around a municipality’s authority,” said Samantha Padgett, general council to the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.
So far, the argument has been upheld by a circuit court and an appeals court, but the state Supreme Court will have the final say.
Recently, law professors in the state’s capital and across the country have come out in support of Miami Beach.
Attorney and former FSU President Sandy D’Alemberte has been authorized to file a friend of the court brief on behalf of the city.
“We really need to respect the idea of giving local government power particularly where the constitution clearly intends for local government to have that power,” said D’Alemberte.
Miami Beach is asking the court to rule soon, arguing workers in the city are losing wages, which are scheduled to increase to $11.31 an hour on January 1st.
If ruled lawful by the State Supreme Court Miami Beach’s minimum wage would reach $13.31 by the year 2021.
The policy was enacted under the leadership of defeated Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine during his time as mayor.

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Corporate Tax Experiment Rings True 58 Years Later

September 19th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda
48 years ago, a virtually unknown state Senator became Governor after he showed voters that corporations in Florida were getting a free ride, but not passing the tax savings on to consumers.
Now voters must decide between two widely different taxing philosophies in their choice for Governor.
Republican Gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis has signed a ‘no new tax pledge’.
He says growth will fund the state’s needs.
Democrat Andrew Gillum is calling for a forty percent increase in corporate taxes.
“This is an investment in our future and our state’s economy,” said Gillum.
In 1970, Reubin Askew bought shirts in Miami and Atlanta from the same chain and paid the same for each, even though Georgia had a corporate tax and Florida did not.
We duplicated the same purchases, buying a work shirt in Tallahassee for $8.
Then driving 35 miles north to Thomasville, Georgia where we bought an identical shirt from the same retailer for the same $8.
The corporate tax in Georgia is half a percent higher.
Two shirts, same manufacturer, same retailer.
The shirt from Florida?
Four cents more because of a higher sales tax.
Democrat Andrew Gillum wants to raise Florida’s corporate tax from 5.5% to 7.75%.
The Florida Chamber says such a big increase will have to be passed on to consumers.
“Most likely, right? Because companies are going to pass that cost of doing business in Florida on to consumers, so ironically, while the idea might sound good, it probably hurts the people its intended to help,” said David Hart with the Chamber.
However, shirts in Florida and Georgia would likely remain priced the same, because the higher cost of business would be passed on nationwide.
Raising the corporate tax could have the unintended consequence of funneling more money into private voucher schools.
That’s because corporations can choose to give their tax obligations to support organizations and receive a credit from the state.

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Corporate Tax Hike Just as Controversial as 1970

September 18th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda
Democratic Gubernatorial Nominee is banking on support for an increase in corporate taxes to fund increases in education.
If Gillum wins, it won’t be the first time corporate taxes propelled an unknown candidate to the Governor’s mansion.
Reubin Askew was an obscure state Senator from Pensacola, running for Governor in 1970.
His platform: tax corporations to fund schools.
“Polls were overwhelmingly against it,” said Governor Askew in an interview shot in 2001.
The state’s top political reporter at the time wrote him off.
“She said, Rube, you didn’t have much chance to begin with. Now you’ve got none,” said Askew.
But then Askew’s discovered that buying a work shirt at Sears in Miami cost the same in Georgia.
“Sears paid Georgia to sell those shirts. Five hundred thousand dollars a year to sell those shirts. And people got indigent,” said Askew.
Now Democrat Andrew Gillum is proposing raising the corporate tax
“Not one Floridian will pay a dime more under our plan. Not one,” said Gillum.
Like in 1970, any new revenue from a higher corporate income tax, would go to fund public schools.
Businesses fiercely opposed Askew in 1970.
They are doing the same today.
“We’d be the highest in the entire southeast,” said David Hart with the Florida Chamber of Commerce. “And we’d even have higher taxes on our companies than New York.”
But Gillum says just like the shirts in 1970.
Big corporations don’t change their prices from state to state.
“The truth is that the corporate tax rate in the state of Georgia is higher than that of the state of Florida, and the 99 cent menu is the same in both our states,” said Gillum.
GOP lawmakers are already saying no, but that could change if Gillum gets elected.
Gillum is counting on Democratic gains in the state House and Senate to help him pass the corporate tax increase.

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Budget Surplus or Money Shuffle

September 18th, 2018 by Jake Stofan

Florida’s economy is booming, that means the state will have more money to spend next year, but economic watch dogs aren’t so optimistic.

Unemployment is down, job growth is above the national average and the population is growing, but the best news as far as lawmakers are concerned is that the state will have $223 million extra to spend next year.

“So things are really moving in the right direction. Florida’s on a roll,” said Senator Rob Bradley.

The projected surplus is a huge increase over a $1.1 billion budget shortfall that had been predicted last year, but Florida TaxWatch President Dominic Calabro says in order for the surplus to exist, $392 million has to come out of trust funds designated to fund programs like affordable housing.

“When you have money that you set aside for a mortgage and you say no I don’t want that, I’m going to use that money to buy beer, to buy wine, to buy party supplies. You’re not meeting your mortgage obligation,” said Calabro.

Lawmakers have swept trust funds for years and their attitude  doesn’t seem to be changing.

“Trust funds are revenues,” Senator Bradley told reporters during the Joint Legislative Budget Commission meeting last Friday.

Some like Karen Woodall with the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy accept that the state will have more money, but don’t believe it’s enough to cover unmet needs in areas like education, affordable housing and healthcare.

“44 to 45% of households in Florida are struggling to make ends meet. So good news that there’s more revenue than they thought they’d have; incorrect to call it a surplus and think that it should be plowed back in to meeting needs,” said Woodall.

Historically, lawmakers have used surpluses to justify tax cuts.

There are plenty of uncertainties that could have major impacts on revenue projections  including three constitutional amendments on the November ballot dealing with taxes and the possibility of Democrats taking the House or Senate, or even the Governor’s Mansion.

Despite the surplus projected for next year, a budget shortfall of $48 million is projected for the following year.

Three years from now the state could see a short fall of nearly half a billion dollars.

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Red Tide Appears in the Panhandle

September 17th, 2018 by Jake Stofan
Beach goers in Panama City Beach were greeted by a grizzly sight this weekend.
Thousands of dead fish spanning the coastline… The killer? Red tide.
While red tides this far north are less common than in the south, FSU Oceanographer Dr. Jeff Chanton says it’s nothing new.
“The red tide organism was first observed here in the 1500’s by the Spanish explorers,” said Chanton.
The blooms are caused by high nutrient levels in the water.
While they can occur naturally, scientists believe the length and severity of the outbreaks have increased due to human use of fertilizers.
Southwest Florida has been experiencing red tide since last October.
“The fish of the Gulf of Mexico suffer terribly because of this. Sea birds suffer because of this. It’s a very disturbing thing,” said Chanton.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said it’s investigating whether the red tide in south Florida spread north, or if the outbreak in the panhandle is a separate, unrelated incident.
Jonathan Webber with Florida Conservation Voters says whether or not the outbreaks are connected, the worsening situation calls for action from the state.
“In Florida, our economy is our environment. You know it’s directly related and things go bad on the coast or where ever it may be, I mean that gets around and it affects how much money our state is able to make,” said Webber.
Researchers at University of South Florida predict the red tide outbreak to move east along the panhandle.
The FWC will be releasing an updated red tide report Wednesday.
You can get the latest updates on red tide and blue green algae conditions throughout the state by going to www.myfwc.com.
To report fish kills to the FWC call, 1-800-636-0511.

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New Report Suggests Charter Schools Come at a Heavy Cost to Taxpayers

September 17th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda
One in ten students in Florida now attends a charter school.
State records show that 373 charter schools have closed since 1998.
A year long study by Integrity Florida raises questions about how corporations profit from charter schools.
The report says lax regulation and oversight is common.
It also found corporate headquarters over-billing for rent and supplies.
“At it’s worst, these hidden costs represent a corporate, for profit, taxpayer scam that looks more like corporate welfare than public education,” said Ben Wilcox with Integrity Florida.
Proposed reforms include requiring for-profit schools to report their expenses and profits, the posting of annual grades, audits and reports on the web, and giving local school districts greater contractual oversight, which is now virtually non-existent.

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Governor Hit With Public Records Suit

September 14th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda
Governor Rick Scott is appealing a judges order that he turn over three months of his detailed schedule, and now he’s been hit with another lawsuit alleging he has been slow to turn over public records.
The Aids Healthcare Foundation is appealing the award of a multimillion dollar contract for aids care to someone else.
It’s also suing the Governor for records, including emails between the office and a list of health care lobbyists of rival vendors.
“Virtually every other governmental entity  provides if not all, at least some of the records within that five day period. I think its telling that we didn’t even get one document from the Governor’s office,” said Attorney Ryan Andrews representing the foundation.
Most days, Rick Scott’s schedule is blank, but often there is much more to the governors movement.
Andrews got a judge to order the Governor to release the details of his schedule for a three month period.
The Governor is appealing.
Suing the governor over public records is nothing new for this law firm.
In 2015, Ryan’s father Steve sued the governor over different public records.
He discovered Rick Scott was doing state business through two private email accounts, and won a $700,000 judgement.
This is what the Sr. Andrews told us.
“One of the most important rights the citizens of Florida have protected by the Florida Constitution is the right to public records. In any form. Private emails. Cell phones,” said Andrews.
In response to the latest suits, Scotts office called the latest lawsuit, “Nothing more than a publicity stunt and a desperate attempt on behalf of a vendor who is upset that the state will be contracting with another service provider.”
Andrews is also asking for legal fees in this case.
The outcome of the Aids Healthcare Foundation bid challenge could rest on the public records requested, and because of that, their delivery is required to be expedited.

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Lawmakers Ignore Governor’s Request to Reallocate School Safety Funds

September 14th, 2018 by Jake Stofan
A special commission of state lawmakers is ignoring the Governor’s calls to redirect unused funds for arming school staff to other school safety needs.
When Governor Rick Scott signed the school safety legislation passed in the wake of the Parkland shooting it included $67 million for training and arming school staff excluding teachers, but he did so with an expectation.
“I want to work with them [the Legislature] to move those dollars over for more law enforcement,” said Scott.
Scott made his initial request for the Legislature to free up $58 million in unused guardian program funds for other school safety needs in late August.
Last Friday Scott got his response in a letter from incoming Senate President Bill Galvano.
It was a hard no.
Galvano said the program needed time to grow.
The Governor had hoped the Joint Legislative Budget Commission would redirect the funds in their meeting Friday morning.
Democrats on the commission who had spoken in support of the Governor’s position joined by phone but sat silent.
The topic never even came up.
Afterwards the incoming Senate President defended his decision to keep the funds in place.
“We’re going to continue to keep monitoring it,” said Galvano. “We can revisit later and it may be that we come back at some point and say, okay here’s where we are with these funds. Now we have X left, let’s look at school hardening for example.”
The Florida School Boards Association told us in August that it supported redirecting the guardian program funds.
It says it’s now neutral on the issue saying there is no consensus among individual districts.
The State Board of Education decided this morning to ask for more funding for the Guardian Program in its 2019 budget request.

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Jimmy Ryce’s Legacy Helping to Train Rescue Bloodhounds 22 Years Later

September 13th, 2018 by Jake Stofan
Each year the Florida Missing Children’s Day ceremony honors a bloodhound team for recovering a child, but a little known four day event following the ceremony pits bloodhounds and handlers from around the country against each other.
9-year-old Jimmy Ryce was abducted then murdered just about a mile away from his family’s home in 1995.
“Mrs. Ryce believed that if there had been a bloodhound on scene, that Jimmy’s life may have been saved,” said Steve Feaster, Lead Trainer of the Bloodhound Scent Tracking School at the Pat Thomas Law Enforcement Academy.
A year later the family began the Jimmy Ryce Foundation.
It breeds, trains and donates bloodhounds to law enforcement across the country.
This year, 19 bloodhounds and their handlers participate in a training course held at the Pat Thomas Law Enforcement Academy outside of the state’s capital.
More than half of the K-9’s are Ryce dogs.
Deputy T.K. Graves started her career in Manatee county soon after the Ryce tragedy.
She and her Ryce dog ‘Nellie’ now track down missing persons in Michigan.
“It’s just been a wonderful opportunity to bring that up to Michigan and be part of a team and share what these bloodhounds can do and share the Jimmy Ryce tragedy and what good can come out of that,” said Graves.
While some of the handlers were directly inspired to begin their work with bloodhounds after the murder of Jimmy’ Ryce, others have reasons that hit even closer to home.
Teresa Cummings is the trailing coordinator for the North Carolina K-9 Emergency Response Team.
“When my son was 23 months old, he went missing in the wilderness for two days,” said Cummings.
Her son was thankfully found alive, but like the Ryce family, she felt a tracking dog would have brought her son home sooner.
“We had a happy ending, which we always try to,” said Cummings. “And that’s our goal, is to bring them back alive, but we at least want to bring them back one way or the other.”
The teams from North Carolina say they’ve already been activated to help with the response to Hurricane Florence.
The training program is in its 12th year.
Last year’s class was canceled due to hurricane Irma.

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Gillum Says Scott Won’t Appoint Three New Justices

September 13th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda
Three of the State’s seven Supreme Court justices are being forced to retire on January 8th.
It’s the same day a new governor takes office.
When Governor Rick Scott named a new justice in December 2016, we asked who would appoint those three new judges.
“Well, I’ll appoint three more Justices the morning I finish my term,” said Scott.
Scott’s answer sparked a lawsuit by the League of Women Voters.
“We have an official press conference by the Governor where he is asserting his right,” said League of Women Voters Attorney, John Mills in November of 2017.
In the end, the justices decided since there was no vacancy and no one being appointed, there was nothing to decide.
Now the Governor is reigniting the controversy, calling for recommendations to fill the three seats.
Applicants have until October 8th to apply, but the idea isn’t sitting well with Democratic nominee Andrew Gillum.
“Our read of the Constitution is pretty clear,” said Gillum. “The next Governor of the State of Florida will make the next three appointments to the Supreme Court.”
Gillum says he will seek clarity from the high court the day after the election.
“It certainly could be a constitutional crisis,” said Human Rights Attorney Mark Schlakman.
Schlakman says the court punted on a decision last year, but the debate could soon be brought back into the courtroom.
“Arguably, by way of the Governor initiating a process, that might be enough in the way of Gubernatorial action to revisit the matter,” said Schlakman.
The Nominating Commission has 60 days to submit between three and six names for each vacancy.

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Gillum Supporters Tout the Mayor’s Record in Tallahassee

September 13th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda
About two dozen Tallahassee activists came out to support Democratic Gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum.
They sought to draw a contrast to the current Governor and Gillum by holding the event outside the Governors mansion.
Former City Commissioner Dot Inman Jonson says Gillum won’t pander to special interests.
“It is time to end the two decades of gerrymandered GOP control of Florida by election a governor who put the interests of Florida’s nearly 22 million residents first,” said Johnson.
“He defends Florida sanctuary cities and will help promote a more diverse and welcoming Florida for our immigrant community,” said Lakey Love with the Campaign for Prison Reform.
Gillum has served on the Tallahassee city commission since 2003. While he holds the title of Mayor, it is mostly a ceremonial title.
Rick Scott has offered to let the Governor-Elect interview the nominees for the positions, but he hasn’t said they will have a say in who gets appointed.
The court must have five justices to decide cases.

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