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40 Victims of the Dozier School For Boys Find Final Resting Place

March 16th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The remains of 40 boys who died of suspected abuse at the Dozier School for Boys in Mariana were reinterred in what will likely be their final resting place Saturday afternoon.

For more than ten years a group of survivors of the Dozier School for Boys, known as the White House Boys, have been fighting to expose abuses that plagued the school for more than 100 years.

Now the last of more than 50 unidentified boys unearthed at the school in 2015

have been reinterred in a Tallahassee Cemetery; far away from the grounds where they suffered unspeakable horrors.

“This is it. This is the most important part of it all,” said Jerry Cooper, President of the White House Boys.

For many of the White House Boys, the burial was another step towards finding peace.

“I’ve gotten closer. Not 100%, but I’m there. I’m getting closer,” said James “Harley” DeNyke, who attended the school from 1964 to 1966.

“We’ve got 40 in the ground now that we don’t have to worry about anymore,” said Pastor Johnny Lee Gaddy, who spent five years at Dozier from 1967 to 1971.

“[I] Very easily could have been one of these kids, but god spared me. I’m a survivor and I wish they had been too,” said Cooper.

Each grave is marked with a number, in case any future attempts to identify the remains are successful families can be notified.

“These boys are gone, but they will never ever ever be forgotten,” said Cooper.

Even as the final casket was lowered into the ground, survivors know their work isn’t finished.

Plans for a possible memorial at the State Capitol are in the works.

Many also believe there could be more than 100 boys still at Dozier, that have not been discovered.

The State Legislature issued an official apology for the atrocities committed at the Dozier School for Boys in 2017.

As part of the agreement, the state has covered the cost for the reentering the remains found at the school.

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Smokable Marijuana Only the First Step Towards Affordability

March 15th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

 

The bill allowing patients to smoke medical marijuana is on the Governor’s desk, but patient access and affordability are still major issues plaguing the industry. 

Some lawmakers believe the entire distribution system needs to be changed.

Patients will be able to smoke their medical marijuana, once the Governor signs the bill and agencies develop and implement rules…Likely by July first. 

But State Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith says there’s still more work to be done.

“There’s sick patients out there right now who have not enrolled in the legal medical cannabis process or program. They are still buying cannabis on the street illegally because the legal way is too expensive,” said Smith.

Part of the cost patients face includes doctors visits every 210 days, plus $75 license renewals every year.

Loosening the burden on patients is one possibility, but Jeff Sharkey with the Medical Marijuana business association says the best solution is to create more completion in the market place.

“Insurance companies don’t offer a copay assistance with the doctor visitation, with the medicine itself,” said Sharkey.

Availability is limited due to a lack of licensed growers, only 14 in the state. 

By law they have to control every aspect of the process from seed to sale, but doing away with the vertically integrated system would allow for more businesses to compete .

“If you want to be a retailer, if you want to be a processor, an extractor you can do that with a cultivator,” said Sharkey.

Lawmakers believe some changes will be made to the marijuana distribution system this year, but they also believe it will be a multi year effort.

There all is also a Legislative push to make it easier for banks to back medical marijuana companies. 

Currently the industry is almost completely cash only.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Smokable Marijuana Only the First Step Towards Affordability

March 15th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The bill allowing patients to smoke medical marijuana is on the Governor’s desk, but patient access and affordability are still major issues plaguing the industry.

Some lawmakers believe the entire distribution system needs to be changed.

Patients will be able to smoke their medical marijuana, once the Governor signs the bill and agencies develop and implement rules…Likely by July first.

But State Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith says there’s still more work to be done.

“There’s sick patients out there right now who have not enrolled in the legal medical cannabis process or program. They are still buying cannabis on the street illegally because the legal way is too expensive,” said Smith.

Part of the cost patients face includes doctors visits every 210 days, plus $75 license renewals every year.

Loosening the burden on patients is one possibility, but Jeff Sharkey with the Medical Marijuana business association says the best solution is to create more completion in the market place.

“Insurance companies don’t offer a copay assistance with the doctor visitation, with the medicine itself,” said Sharkey.

Availability is limited due to a lack of licensed growers, only 14 in the state.

By law they have to control every aspect of the process from seed to sale, but doing away with the vertically integrated system would allow for more businesses to compete .

“If you want to be a retailer, if you want to be a processor, an extractor you can do that with a cultivator,” said Sharkey.

Lawmakers believe some changes will be made to the marijuana distribution system this year, but they also believe it will be a multi year effort.

There all is also a Legislative push to make it easier for banks to back medical marijuana companies.

Currently the industry is almost completely cash only.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Visit Florida Budget Battle Heating Up

March 14th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Florida’s lead tourism agency could lose $75 million in state funding in if lawmakers don’t reauthorize the program, which appears possible.

Funding for Visit Florida is shaping up to become a contentious issue between the House and Senate.

“When we have issues come up like Mathew, Michael and Irma as well as red tide, they make sure that people know that we are open for business,” said State Senator Joe Gruters, who is sponsoring legislation to continue funding the program.

In the bill’s final Senate committee hearing Thursday, State Senators from areas hit by natural disasters said the program is important.

“Visit Florida has been there in all of the best times, but most specifically in all of the worst times,” said Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto.

Visit Florida is no stranger to controversy.

Questionable spending decisions like paying Miami rapper Pit Bull $1 million to appear in an ad have led some to question whether the state is getting a return on its investment.

While the Senate is already prepared to take Visit Florida funding to the chamber floor, the House hasn’t scheduled it for a single hearing.

House Speaker Jose Oliva doesn’t intend to change that.

“We need to fund Visit Florida until it expires and beyond that we haven’t had any intention,” said Oliva.

Visit Florida CEO Dana Young argues Florida gets $2 back in tax revenue generated by tourists for every dollar spent on the program.

“If the budget were cut to zero there would be a hole in the budget next year, rough numbers of $160 million out of general revenue,” said Young.

With less money that could mean cuts somewhere else.
Governor Ron DeSantis requested $75 million for Visit Florida in his proposed budget.

He says he’s confident the legislature will work out a deal to keep the advertisements flowing.

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Florida Lawmakers Again Debating When Life Begins

March 14th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

The question of when human life begins is a debate returning to the State Capitol.

Legislation prohibiting abortions after a fetal heart beat could be detected, which is usually around six weeks, could be a test case for newly appointed justices on the Florida Supreme Court.

In a 1989 Florida’s Supreme Court upheld a teenager’s right to her own body, saying a fetus was a specialized set of cells.

It remains law today, but now state lawmakers are trying to test the court and its three newly appointed members with a bill prohibiting abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected.

“When there’s a heartbeat, there is life. It’s always been the symbol of the presence of life,” said Senate sponsor Dennis Baxley.

Asked if six weeks was enough time for a woman to act if she wanted an abortion, the sponsor suggested she might have to face the consequences.

“There was an intentional act. A decision made,” said Baxley.

Pro Choice activists gathered quickly to protest a press conference held by bill sponsors Thursday.

“At that point of a woman’s pregnancy she might not even know that she is pregnant yet,” said Representative Anna Eskamani.

House Sponsor Mike Hill believes, if passed, the legislation will be challenged before the Supreme Court of Florida.

“I believe that they’ll make a decision at that time that I hope will celebrate life,” said Hill.

Despite the new conservative leaning on the court, pro choice activists say that the legislation being proposed is unconstitutional, and they think the court will agree.

“Absolutely there is concern, but at the end of the day Florida’s state constitution continues to have a strong right to privacy that I know Floridians across this state support,” said Eskamani.

So far the fetal heartbeat has not received a hearing, but contentious legislation is often saved for late in the session, which ends in May.

A second bill raising concerns for pro choice activists would require parents to be provide consent for a minors abortion.

Current law only requires parents be notified.

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Felony Theft Threshold Legislation Watered Down By Senate

March 14th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

A comprehensive criminal justice reform bill got unanimous approval from a Senate committee this morning, but was slightly watered down.

A provision in the bill would have raised Florida’s felony theft threshold from $300 to $1500. It was reduced to $750.

Senator Jeff Brandes who has been the driving force behind the proposal says it was a compromise that had to be made.

“So my goal is that we will move beyond this issue and take on some of the really hard issues of the legislative process,” said Brandes. “How do we move a prison population from 96,000 to something more manageable? How do I adequately fund prison systems? How do I put more educators in the prison systems?”

Florida currently has the second lowest felony theft threshold in the country. Raising it to $750 would bring the state closer inline with the rest of the nation.

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New Report Highlights Benefits of Investing in State Colleges

March 14th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

For every dollar spent on state colleges, Florida increases it’s gross domestic product by between 10 and $15.

That’s according to a new report, highlighting the importance of investing in the state college system conducted by Florida TaxWatch.

The report also says the state’s current investment in the state college system produces 10,000 jobs annually.

“It’s a continued opportunity to have the Florida college system really show how well they’ve been training our residents in the State of Florida. And really what a fantastic bang for the buck if you will, that our employers, that the State of Florida, that our emergency personnel are receiving as a result of the training within our Florida college system,” said Rep. Tobin Overdorf.

Governor Ron DeSantis has set a goal of making Florida number one in the nation for an educated work force holding an associates degree or higher. Currently Florida ranks 24th.

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Plight of Young Black Women Highlighted at State Capitol

March 14th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

About 50 African American teens and young adults cheered each other and spoke about the problems they face but white girls don’t have to contend with.

The goal was to empower the young women to run for office or succeed in other endeavors.

State Representative Fentrice Driskell spoke about the disparities faced by black girls.

“Did you know that black girls are sixteen percent of girls in schools? But forty-two percent of girls receiving corporal punishment. Forty two percent of girls expelled with or without educational services. Forty five percent of girls with at least one out of school suspension. And thirty one percent of girls referred to law enforcement. We are thirty four percent of girls arrested on campus. This is out of proportion. This is unfair,” said Representative Fentrice Driskell.

The representative said she faced the same obstacles, but was able to attend Harvard after a public school education.

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Clemency Hearings Adopt New Tone Under Governor DeSantis

March 13th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

The State Clemency Board held its first full meeting Wednesday under Governor Ron Desantis.

Instead of adopting new rules about how the voter approved Amendment four will be implemented, the board is leaving the decision to state lawmakers.

Richard Wershe, also known as White Boy Rick, was 14 when he became an FBI informant.

He served 30 yers in Michigan on a drug charge, then got sent to a Florida prison in the witness protection program.

“And then he turned around an engaged in criminal conduct and that’s why he’s in a Flordia prison, correct,” Governor DeSantis asked during Wershe’s hearing.

Despite support from two FBI agents, The Governor didn’t offer a pardon.

“We’ll take the Case under consideration,” said DeSantis.

But Carlos Degado got his rights back after impregnating a 15 year old girl when he was 19.

“I’m her today to ask for mercy,” Degado said.

The daughter of that encounter was by his side when he was issued granted clemency.

“It’s a relief. It’s a relieve. Am I surprised, absolutely,” said Degado.

John Butcher had gotten an unfavorable recommendation from staff, but got his rights back.

“A new governor with a better attitude with about some things,” said Butcher.

The effects of Amendment Four are already being felt here.

There were about 30 fewer cases than normal.

Lawmakers could decide amendment four not only restores voting rights, but also the right to serve on a jury, run for office, or even have a gun.

“I think we should have a discussion about restoring, restoring a variety of rights,” said State Senator Jeff Brandes.

And if lawmakers don’t act, Ag Commissioner Nikki Fried says the clemency Board will fill the void.

“And I think that anytime we have disenfranchised people, from our society, that only hurts us more. And adding more than just voting to automatic restoration will mean the board can spend its time on the most deserving,” said Fried.

Unlike the previous board, no cases were denied.

Instead, cases without a favorable outcome were taken under advisement, which means they can be considered at any time in the future.

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Hundreds of Criminal Justice Reformers Take to State Capitol

March 13th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Reforming sentencing laws and helping former inmates find a job was the goal of about 250 people demonstrating at the state Capitol Wednesday.

Lawmakers are exploring ways to keep people out of prison in an effort to cut costs.

For the second day in a row hundreds rallied at the state capitol demanding criminal justice reform.

“Currently there are almost 100,000 people in prison. We are locking up too many people for far far too long. We’ve got to fix that,” said Shalini Goel Agarwal with the SPLC Action Fund.

Audrey Hudgins’ son has been one of those inmates for 22 years and will remain in prison for the rest of his life.

“My son and our family are still living this daily nightmare,” said Hudgins.

He got the mandatory minimum sentence for armed robbery, even though no one was hurt.

“And there was nothing the judge could do about it. Her hands were tied,” said Hudgins.

It’s stories like Hudgins’ that have advocates like Judy Thompson calling for parole to come back to the state.

“We all change over time. There’s no assessment in place to determine whether or not we can be an asset to the outer society,” said Thompson.

Some Justice reforms are already gaining traction this year, including a bill that would raise the felony theft threshold from $300 to $1,500.

Bill sponsor, Senator Jeff Brandes says the need for reform goes beyond the emotional argument. There’s a financial crisis at the Department of Corrections.

“Our prisons are literally at the breaking point financially, facility wise. Our guards, our wardens are begging for more resources,” said Brandes.

Dozens of States have already taken some of the steps being proposed here in Florida and haven’t crime rates increase.

Other changes reformers are pushing include ending the practice of suspending drivers licenses for non driving offenses and preventing felony convictions from preventing former inmates from getting licensed in certain trades.

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Hillsborough Day Celebrated at State Capitol

March 13th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Pirates, exotic animals and other staples of the Tampa area filled the court yard at the State Capitol this afternoon in celebration of Hillsborough Day.

Florida’s First Lady Casey DeSantis even made an impromptu appearance with her daughter Madison and grabbed a free cuban sandwich.

Tampa’s newly elected State Senator Janet Cruz says the annual celebration of the Treasure Coast is a chance to put the spotlight on some of the issues facing the area.
“How about transportation? You know, we all have to take a serious look at, we all have to work towards moving people. From the downtown area to USF to Orlando. So I think that’s our initiative. And some storm water that drains well in hurricanes and our preparedness,” said Cruz. “There’s so much to work for here.”

Improving the state’s transportation infrastructure, including the expansion of the Sun Coast Parkway, is at the top of Senate President Bill Galvano’s agenda this legislative session.

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Is Attempted Murder Considered Murder?

March 13th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Amendment 4 automatically restored voting rights to felons who have completed their sentence, unless they’d been convicted of a sex crime or murder.

As lawmakers start defining what exact crimes are covered by those categories, St Petersburg State Senator Jeff Brandes has said he wants include attempted murder.

While not included in the amendment’s language, Brandes says it all comes down to intent.

“I challenge somebody to come before our committee and explain to me how somebody could beat a child to the point that they are almost dead and were changed and convicted of attempted murder, a child, and we should be running to restore their rights back,” said Brandes.

Those excluded from automatic restoration under Amendment 4 can still petition the Board of Executive Clemency for their civil rights back.

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Smokable Medical Marijuana Legislation Heads to Governor’s Desk

March 13th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Legislation that would allow for medical marijuana patients to smoke their medicine cleared the Florida House this afternoon and is now headed to the Governors desk.

The bill puts tight restrictions on access to smokable cannabis for those under 18, requiring the patient to be suffering from a terminal condition and have authorization from their parents and two doctors.

The final vote on the House Floor was 110 in favor and eleven opposed.

Bill Sponsor Rep. Ray Rodrigues told members the final product was better than if the Legislature had chosen to do nothing, and let the Governor drop the state’s appeal of a court ruling that found the ban on smokable unconstitutional.

“If the judicial order is put into effect then we will have smoking of medical marijuana without any of the guidelines that we have placed. And while I don’t think either situation is good I think the situation that results from the passage of this bill is better than the passage that would result if we were not to pass this bill,” said Rodrigues.

The Governor is expected to sign the bill into law quickly.

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Governor’s Plane Ride With Billionaire Highlights Need for State Plane

March 12th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Governor Ron DeSantis is defending a trip to New York on a billionaires jet.

The trip points out the need for the Governor to have access to a reliable state owned plant.

The Governor traveled from Tallahassee to New York on a jet owned by Jeffery Soffer, a South Florida billionaire with businesses regulated by the state.

The trip was paid for by the Republican Party.

How much is unknown.

“It’s all legal, ethical. No issues there,” said DeSantis. “We we able to get up to New York first thing in the morning. Did a whole bunch of great meetings. And then end up back late that same night.”

While the trip was paid for, critics say it gave the billionaire hotel and casino owner too much time with the Governor.

“I don’t think it’s going to effect anything,” said DeSantis. “You know, I’ve known Jeffrey before this, so it is what it is.”

Florida’s previous Governor sold the state’s planes and traveled on his own jet.

DeSantis says the plane he’s been using could not have made the New York trip.

“That’s not going to get to New York. It would need two refueling’s. It’s actually being repaired a lot lately as well,” said DeSantis.

Florida’s House Speaker has called for a new plane.

DeSantis says it’s not up to him to make that call.

“So I’ve just stayed out of it because I don’t want to be a judge in my own cause, and stuff, so for me to be prattling on,” said DeSantis.

The House Budget Chairman Travis Cummings says a new plane could be on the way.

“I think we recognize, without him being put in a position to a We recognize the need,” said Cummings.

A new plane would take away the need to travel with people who have a vested interest in having the Governor captive.

The plane being used by the Governor was bought from Federal surplus and had to make an emergency lands just days after the Governor took office in January.

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Hundreds Urge Lawmakers to Fully Implement Amendment 4

March 12th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Newly enfranchised felons who have completed their sentences rallied at the state Capitol Tuesday morning.

They came to remind lawmakers of their newfound civic voices and bring their issues to the table.

With the passage of Amendment 4 an estimated 1.4 million felons who have completed their sentence earned the right to vote back.

Arthur White from Tampa is one of them.

“I have an opinion again. I count again,” said White.

He’s among hundreds of newly enfranchised Floridians who came from all over the state to meet with lawmakers.

They want legislators to think of them as returning citizens, not former criminals.

“This year our voices count. And it is up to each and every one of us to stand up and fight to change the policies that create barriers to reentry,” said Jessica Younts, Vice President of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.

FRRC estimates more than 1,000 new voters have registered as a result of Amendment 4.

They expect that number to exponentially rise after they launch their full fledged registration campaign.

Amendment 4 author Desmond Meade says more than anything, the goal is to make sure no newly eligible voter is prevented from registering.

“We believe that every elected official in Tallahassee, and they should, be celebrating American citizens having the right to vote and exercising that right to vote,” said Meade.

One sticking point in early legislative discussions, is what does or does not constitute a completion of sentence.

Neil Volz with FRRC believes once a person is released and has paid any fines or restitution ordered by a judge, a person becomes eligible.

“And we believe that going beyond that would disenfranchise people from voting,” said Volz.

Other issues the new voter base wants lawmakers to consider include raising the felony theft threshold and breaking down barriers that prevent felons from getting a job after they’re released.

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