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Circuit Judge Strikes Blow to Teachers Unions in Case Against Membership Requirements

August 13th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

As students around the state make their way back into the classrooms, Florida teachers unions are coping with a defeat in their case against a law requiring them to maintain 50 percent membership or else face a recertification process.

The law passed in 2018 law requires teachers unions to undergo a mandatory re-certification vote if they fall below the 50 percent threshold.

Circuit Court Judge Angela Dempsey upheld the requirement at face value in a summary judgement issued Friday.

“We lost round one, but there’s many more to go,” said Tom Brooks, an attorney representing unions in the suit.

Now the case goes to trial where teachers unions hope to prove the law unconstitutionally singles them out.

“The Legislature has passed a statute that has a completely irrational basis,” said Brooks.

The author of the original certification language Rep. Scott Plakon said in 2018, he was concerned teachers unions weren’t meeting the needs of all their members.

“There’s a number of unions in the state that have a very low percentage of the bargaining units that actually pay dues and I would interpret that as they’re not being responsive to their members,” said Plakon.

In the summary judgement, judge Dempsey cited the state’s teacher shortage as justification for the unique requirement, explaining the state has a legitimate interest in keeping teachers satisfied with their representation.

Despite the law having been in effect for a full year, no teachers unions have so far failed to attain 50 percent membership.

Brooks said even prior to the law’s passage there was an existing decertification process, but teachers rarely, if ever, invoked it.

“It hasn’t happened,” said Brooks. “Under this law, not a single employee has to say ‘I don’t want to continue the union’.”

Based on those facts, unions believe the Legislature’s true intent was to hurt unions, not help teachers.

We reached out to the Department of Education for comment, but did not receive a response.

The current Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran was House Speaker when the law was passed in 2018.

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Governor Invokes Rarely Used Power Asking for Justices Opinion

August 12th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Governor Ron SDeSantis is invoking a rarely used  power, asking the state Supreme Court whether the voter approved restoration of voting rights also includes the payment of all fines, fees, and restitution. The request may be an effort to short circuit a federal lawsuit.

In a four page letter, the Governor is asking the Supreme court whether it believes the voter approved amendment restoring a felons right to vote also requires paying all fines, fees, and other financial obligations. 

It’s a question justices themselves asked of sponsor Jon Mills when deciding if the amendment could go on the ballot back in March of 2017..

“All matters. Anything a judge puts in a sentence” Mills told the court.

“So it would also include the full payment of any fines?” Asked Justice Ricky Polston,, to which Mills replied: “Yes sir.”

Clemency attorney Reggie Garcia is quick to point out the implementing law allows felons to ask a judge and state attorney: “To either waive these financial obligations completely, or convert them to community service” says Garcia.

The ACLU and the League of Women Voters are challenging the amendments implementing law in Federal Court. They say in part it violates the 24th amendment which prohibits a poll tax. 

With a Federal lawsuit already filed, some believe the Governor’s letter asking for an opinion is an attempt to get a state court, the Supreme Court, to make a decision before a Federal court rules.

Human Rights Attorney and FSU Law Professor Mark Schlakman thinks having a state court rule on a state constitutional question is a good idea.

“One might surmise that if any entity is to interpret the Florida Constitution as a result of the amendment becoming affective, that that authority should be the Florida Supreme Court” says Schlakman.

The request for the courts opinion is rare. Governors have asked the court for advice just 8 times since 1989.

And the last time the court was asked for an opinion was in 2010 by then Governor Charlie Crist. It had to do with the Governor’s authority to fill vacancies in the judiciary.

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20,000 Books Banned by DOC

August 12th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

 

The Florida Prison system bans more than twenty thousand book titles. Some are banned because of extreme content, others because of certain advertising. But one book titled “How to get our of Prison Early” is also on the forbidden list. Author Reggie Garcia was told its because the book names two inmates specifically. He says the ban is unnecessary.

Sot: Reggie Garcia

Author

“I think, and I don’t say this as a negative, but I think it’s a mid level committee of some librarians and others that aren’t lawyers, and given the first amendment, and I would think we would want to provide information if for nothing else they’ve got all the idle time to entertain inmates, inform them, let them know some things they can do when they get out and train them so they don’t commit new crimes when they get out.”

Garcia says he has asked the Department of Corrections to reconsider the decision to ban his book.

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Study Finds Hospitality Wages Lagging

August 9th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s tourism and hospitality industry employs one point five million people, but as Mike Vasilinda tells us, a new study from Florida State suggests the industry pays the lowest wages in the US economy.

Dr. Tarik Dogru’s first job was as a busboy in Turkey. He’s spent much of the last two years of studying more than a decades worth of national wage data. His conclusion: Hospitality pay checks aren’t keeping pace with the rest of the economy.

“When overall wages in the economy goes up by one percent, or one dollar, the hospitality wages only go up by point eight, or eighty-one cents”, says Dogru.

 

The PhD researcher says paying less in the short run makes for bigger profits. “But in the long run it makes it difficult for them to retain and attract people.”

What the study doesn’t take into account is tipping. That’s because keeping track of tips is near impossible. In cities like New York, Chicago, or Seattle attempts to phase out tipping have failed.

“So it’s a great place to start” says Jerry Parrish, the Chief Economist for the Florida Chamber. Parrish says hospitality jobs pay better in Florida than most other states.

“In leisure and hospitality, Florida workers make eighteen hundred dollars more than the 

Average worker in the US, and they don’t pay state income tax here.”

Q:”So its a good job here?”

“It some cases they certainly are. Even more importantly is often its a path to a good job.” 

And the one thing the researcher and economist agree upon. Hospitality jobs are usually temporary and just like the PhD researcher, often a first job. 

The Chambers Chief economist also says two out of five people who start in hospitality end up with jobs making six figures, in part because of the people skills they learn.

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“Substantial Assistance” Agreement could lead to more Indictments

August 8th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

UPDATE: WASTE PRO PROVIDED THE FOLLOWING STATEMENT ON FRIDAY, AUGUST 9, 2019:

STATEMENT FROM WASTE PRO

Friday, August 9, 2019

“From the beginning of the Maddox investigation, Waste Pro has cooperated fully with the prosecution and law enforcement authorities involved. The company has not been accused of or charged with any wrongdoing. Linking us, or confusing us, with any other business that has been named, or to imply or say otherwise would be inaccurate and slanderous. “

Sara BradySpokesperson, Waste Pro

Governor Ron DeSantis is expected to officially remove a Tallahassee City Commissioner after pleading guilty to three counts of public corruption, But a yet to be made public agreement calls on the former Mayor and Commissioner and a long time lobbyist to offer substantial assistance making future cases.

Moments after disgraced former Mayor and city Commissioner Scott Maddox plead guilty to three charges of public corruption, the US Attorney Larry Keefe announced he was stepping up his game.

“We would  not be establishing this public trust unit, if we not pursuing all sorts of leads  in all sorts of places that I simply can’t share with you, said Keefe.”

The plea agreement signed by Maddox and long time lobbyist Paige Carter Smith references a sealed agreement about future cooperation. Maddox’s lawyer Stephen Dobson would say nothing.

“I’m not making any comments about that.”

But Erwin Jackson, the property owner who took corruption charges to the city commission nearly a decade ago says its going to get ugly before it gets better.

“Anyone who has had dealings with Scott in the last 20 years, including a few people down in Miami probably aren’t going to be sleeping very well because he’s coming after them says Jackson.”

Jackson expects six to eight more indictments. The current investigation began in 2015, but insides say they don’t expect it to take that long for the next shoe to drop.

In the meantime, newly elected City Commissioner Jeremy Matlow wants the cities contracts with at least two companies at the center of the bribery allegations voided.

“You’re not going to keep those contracts if that’s how you got them” says Matlow.  “So if they are currently being paid, they need to be cancelled and we need to start over.”

And while the indictments reference Tallahassee business dealings, both Maddox and Carter Smith had business dealings statewide, which means prosecutors could cast a wide net.

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CFO Honored for Hurricane Michael Claims Work

August 8th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida Taxwatch today honored Florida CFO Jimmy Patronis for his efforts to help Hurricane Michael victims settle with their insurance companies. More than one hundred forty seven thousand claims were filed. Nearly twenty-one thousand claims remain open. The CFO says he will hold what he calls an insurance village in Panama City on August 16th and 17th to push for settling more claims.

“You know, these are the complicated claims” says CFO, Patronis, so please come out. Sometimes you may have a difficult representative, a pa (public adjuster) that maybe feels like the negotiation process needs to go a little further. But I want closure for our citizens claims, so maybe this Insurance Village will put more pressure on all parties to come to conclusion.”

One factor in the unresolved claims is that many insurance companies came in with low ball estimates that resulted in lawsuits.

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Red Flags and Threat Assessments

August 7th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida is considered by some to be the best model in the nation when it comes to red flag laws.

The laws allow a judge to take away a person’s guns for up to a year if they have made credible threats.

Between March of last year when the state passed red flag legislation and August 5th, 1,707 people have had their weapons taken temporarily by a court.

“It’s working extremely well,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri

Gualtieri, who is also President of the Florida Sheriff’s Association, is a big supporter of the law.

“And, there’s no doubt in my mind that the we have prevented violence because of it,” said Gualtieri.

Governor Ron DeSantis likes the policy as well, but thinks when it comes to mass shootings, threat assessments identifying politically motivated and other threats, could be more effective.

“And you have some people who are just crazy and there’s no clear motivation. So I think you have to be familiar with all those kinds of threats and have the warning signs identified and do something about it,” said DeSantis.

Research by the Department of Law Enforcement shows that most mass shooters displayed four or five markers that should have been identified in a threat assessment.

“Get the right people in the room, sharing the right information, you can see a person that’s on this pathway, and hopefully intercept that person,” said FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen.

On August 1st, the State launched a threat assessment portal for schools and law enforcement to share information.

That information is confidential.

Under the same law passed after the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglass, every school in the state must have a threat assessment team in place when the school year begins later this month.

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Governor Declares August 7th ‘Florida Purple Heart Day’

August 7th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Governor Ron DeSantis proclaimed August 7th as Flordia Purple Heart Day.

The Governor announced the proclamation as he took part in the unveiling of a purple granite monument at the National Cemetary outside the state capital to honor past, present and future purple heart recipients.

World War II veteran Major John Haynes is one of the men who made the monument a reality.

“And we hope that that this monument that we have installed here on these hallowed grounds here today will be a reminder to all American citizens of the very steep costs, not only monetary, but in blood that our veterans have paid for our freedom,” said Haynes.

The Governor is a former Navy JAG officer who served in Iraq and earned a Bronze star.

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World-Renowned Fashion Designer Eyeing Florida Hemp

August 7th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Top-tier fashion designer Naeem Khan has his eye on Florida hemp.

His work sells for thousands of dollars and has been worn by high-profile figures including Michelle Obama.

“Fashion is one of the largest polluters in the world,” said Khan.

We caught up with Khan in-between meetings with state officials.

He’s hoping to cultivate hemp in Florida for its fiber, which he plans to use as a greener alternative to other clothing materials.

“Hemp can save the planet. You don’t need pesticides, you don’t need fertilizer. It takes the least amount of water,” said Khan.

But it’s not entirely clear what problems hemp might face or cause in Florida.

Success in hemp for entrepreneurs like Khan relies in part on research being conducted by Florida Universities.

Florida A&M University just planted its first hemp crop.

“This is pretty big for us to actually get something in the ground,” said Dr. Charles Weatherford.

Dr. Weatherford is in charge of FMAU’s hemp research project.

“When you bring a new plant in like this and you grow it in a major way there’s all sorts of possible problems,” said Weatherford. “We want to try to study those possibilities and eliminate them if possible.”

While research is just gearing up, Khan already has high hopes for hemp’s impact on the sunshine state.

“There is a huge opportunity of Florida being the forefront for fashion manufacturing and fashion designers to be here,” said Khan. “Now with hemp we could also build a new industry.”

Dr. Weatherford said the university hopes to have hemp growing in six to eight locations around the state by the end of October.

FAMU is also teaming up with small farmers who will help cultivate the hemp crop.

The university plans to allow the farmers to sell the crop for profit so it can study the market demand for hemp.

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Former Tallahassee Mayor and Lobbyist Face 45 Years in Prison in Corruption Case

August 6th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

A former Tallahassee Mayor and city lobbyist are facing a maximum of 45 years in a Federal prison after pleading guilty to three counts in a case stemming from an FBI probe into City Hall that had implications in last year’s Governor’s race.

Three-time statewide candidate, former Tallahassee Mayor and City Commissioner Scott Maddox and lobbyist Paige Carter Smith were silent as they entered the federal courthouse.

The two faced 47 counts stemming from an FBI probe that began in 2015.

They emerged after pleading guilty to mail, wire, and tax fraud in a pay to play scheme, where at least two companies, including an unnamed ride share company, paid for Maddox’s vote during his time on the city commission.

Maddox declined to comment, but his attorney Stephen Dobson said his client was ready to accept responsibility.

“He wants to move on for his life, his family’s life and Tallahassee and he hopes Tallahassee heals,” said Dobson.

The two face a maximum of 45 years in prison and $750,000 in fines, but they could receive a lighter sentence if they cooperate with the Federal Government.

“We hope that these defendants will now come forward, fully accept their responsibility and cooperate,” said US Attorney of Florida’s Norther District Lawrence Keefe.

For local property owner Erwin Jackson, who has long sought to expose corruption in the capital city, the prospect of a lighter sentence is upsetting.

“So far what we’ve heard is that crime does pay, white collar crime does pay,” said Jackson.

Federal prosecutors declined to say if more indictments may be on the way for other city officials or companies that may have offered bribes for votes.

The probe into City Hall was used as political fodder against former Tallahassee Mayor and Gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum.

Earlier this year the FBI subpoenaed records from Gillum’s Gubernatorial campaign, although Gillum hasn’t been directly named in the Maddox case.

There’s also a third defendant facing nine counts, JT Burnett, a local Tallahassee businessman who is set to go to trial in November.

Maddox and Carter Smith are scheduled to be sentenced on November 19th.

While the other charges in the case were dropped, the judge said facts relating to those charges could influence the sentence he imposes.

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Legislation Would Require 50 Percent Women Representation to Pass Abortion Restrictions

August 5th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Should a Legislature mostly made up of men be allowed to restrict access to abortion? 
A Democratic state lawmaker doesn’t think so and has filed legislation for the upcoming session would put the question before voters.
Seven states passed laws banning nearly all abortion procedures in just 2019 alone.
Kimberly Scott with Planned parenthood said it’s oftentimes men who make the decision to restrict abortion access.
“We see overwhelmingly men file legislation that would impact women’s’ health,” said Scott.
The bill filed by State Senator Lauren Book proposes a controversial safeguard to prevent new abortion restrictions in Florida. 
It would put a constitutional amendment before voters that would prohibit either chamber of the Legislature from passing any new restrictions on abortion access, unless women make up at least half of the members.
“Making sure that there is true representation for those that are voting on this legislation that will be the most impacted is so critical,” said Scott.
Women make up only 30 percent of the Florida Legislature. 
To get to 50 percent, eight female senators and 24 female representatives would have to be elected.
Ingrid Delgado with the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops said while abortion disproportionately affects women, it doesn’t only affect women.
“Abortion affects society including the fathers, the grandparents and the siblings of aborted children,” said Delgado.
Delgado said the proposed amendment would impose a standard on abortion legislation that doesn’t exist for any other issue.
“We don’t require similar legislation for the majority of Gun owners or veterans or the elderly or children or racial minorities before passing legislation that affects those communities,” said Delgado.
 
The legislation faces an uphill battle in the Republican-held Legislature, which in recent years has seen momentum grow in favor of harsher abortion restrictions not fewer.
 
But Scott said while the Legislature may be in favor of tougher abortion restrictions, Florida voters have rejected them. 
In 2012 a proposed constitutional amendment that would have prohibited tax dollars from being spent on abortions failed when put before voters.

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Sales Tax Holiday Expected to Save Floridians $50 Million

August 2nd, 2019 by Jake Stofan
Florida families are expected to save upwards of $50 million over the next five days during this year’s back to school sales tax holiday.
The projected savings are nearly $20 million over last year.
Families buying supplies for children in grade school are expected to save $700 on average this year and families shopping for college students are anticipated to save $1,000.
James Miller with the Florida Retail Federation says the increased savings are primarily due to the inclusion of bigger budget items like technology products up to $1,000.
Also because this year’s holiday is five days, instead of three like in years past.
“Both numbers are very encouraging and shows once again how strong Florida’s economy is. It’ shows that people have a lot of money in their pocket to spend,” said Miller. “They’re feeling good about their job, feeling good about their financial situation and I think it means good things for retailers this year.”
The sales tax holiday ends Tuesday, August 6th.

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American Cancer Society Ranks Florida Among the Worst in the Nation for Prevention

August 2nd, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Florida is among the worst in the nation when it comes to preventing cancer, receiving subpar scores in all eight categories measured in a new report by the American Cancer Society (ACS).
“130,000 people this year in Florida alone are going to be diagnosed with cancer,” said Matt Jordan with the ACS.
Jordan said tobacco policy hurt Florida the worst in the report.
“It’s the main cause of cancer,” said Jordan. “We want to make sure that we’re preventing people from using it and those that are using it we want to help them quit.”
Low taxes on cigarettes and subpar funding for tobacco prevention both earned the state poor grades.
“We gave around, 70 or $71 million this year. The CDC recommends that we spend about twice what we’re spending right now,” said Jordan.
Poor tobacco policy may be a reflection of the old adage ‘money talks’.
Tobacco companies contributed about $3 million to Florida politicians during the 2018 election cycle alone.
However, Laura Corbin, Bureau Chief for Tobacco Free Florida said the agency has achieved success despite the low funding, helping more than 212,000 Floridians kick the habit since its creation.
“And we’ve reduced youth rates by 75 percent since 2006,” said Corbin.
Florida’s rejection of Medicaid expansion, which could have provided health insurance to 850,000 also hurt the state’s score.
Jordan said expanding the program would go a long way to improve cancer treatment and prevention.
“Sometimes a lot of people that don’t have insurance many not always have the incentive to go get screened,” said Jordan.
Another area Florida received poor score on the American Center Society’ report was tanning bed policy.
The state currently sets no restriction on how old you must be to use a tanning bed.
There are some signs of hope for Florida though.
Legislative pushes to raise the age to purchase tobacco to 21 have gained traction in recent years.
There’s also proposed constitutional amendment to expand Medicaid, which has collected nearly 80,000 signatures.

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New Deal for State Plane Raises Old Concerns

August 2nd, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida is about to spend just over $15 million on a new jet for the Governor.
Former Governor Rick Scott, who left for the US Senate, sold the state’s planes shortly after he was sworn in.
The new purchase is raising old fears.

The miss-use of state airplanes helped Scott get elected.

As a candidate Scott repeatedly ran ads against his opponents, criticizing their use of the fleet for campaign purposes and personal matters.
Scott ordered two state planes sold days after he was sworn in.
“It’s a campaign promise I made and I’m going to live up to them,” said Scott in 2011.
Since taking office in January, Governor Ron DeSantis has been traveling on a refurbished King Air, similar to the one the state sold.
It’s had to make at least one emergency landing.
“Air things dropped from the ceiling,” said DeSantis, recalling the event at a press conference in January.
Now the state has awarded a $15.5 million bid to Textron Aviation.
The Cessna Latitude is being purchased by the Department of Law Enforcement.
DeSantis’ communications director Helen Ferre said FDLE has strict guidelines for protecting and transporting the Governor.
However, Ben Wilcox with Integrity Florida said he worries old habits could return without a strict new policy.
“I think they should establish strict rules that delineate how the plane will be used. So, not for personal business, not for campaign business, but for public business, legitimate public business,” said Wilcox.
In addition to an initial payment of $1.3 million for the plane, the state has also budgeted $3.8 million to operate it.
Negotiations with the planes maker are still underway.
Bid specifications call for the new jet to seat nine, come with WIFI, and even a seat belt in the lavatory.
Once final, the plane has to be delivered within 60 days.
A reminder: Rick Scott was a multimillionaire with his own jet.
Ron DeSantis has a net-worth of $283,000 and no plane.

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Feds Will Consider Allowing Canadian Drug Imports to Florida

August 1st, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

For the first time in history, the US government is looking allow states to import lower cost prescription drugs.

The federal law allowing drug imports has been around since 2003, but Florida could be one of the first to see the benefits.

Importing cheaper prescription drugs to Florida was one of the most hotly contested fights of the 2019 legislative session.

Drug companies and their associations spent more than $6 million dollars on television trying to defeat the state legislation allowing the imports this past Spring.

The Governor pushed back against claims that importing drugs from Canadian would have a higher chance of being counterfeit.

“The safety is going to be there, and if not there, then we wouldn’t want to do it,” said DeSantis.

Cheaper imports require federal approval, which has never been given before, but Florida’s Governor had the ear of the President.

“I talked to the President personally about this. He believes you can save a lot of money with Canada drugs,” said DeSantis.

The Federal Government said Wednesday it would begin the process, with the President tweeting the plan would make the Governor happy.

“It is very encouraging news,” said retiree Charlie Benz, who advocated for the legislation. “And my friends. I’m seeing the high cost of drugs impact their qualities of life. They used to visit their grand kids three or four times a year. Now they can only visit them once or twice.”

Even though Florida pharmacies would be able to apply to import foreign drugs to sell to customers, the association that represents the industry said it still has concerns.

“We are not convinced that all of the safety, the safety factors are in place,” said Michael Jackson with the Florida Pharmacy Association.

While cheaper prices may be on their way it could take months to develop rules, then fight legal challenges.

Still this is the first time since 2003 the Federal Government has said it would put an importation plan in motion.

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