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Hands Free in School and Work Zones Starts October 1st

September 19th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

In less than two weeks, the second part of the state’s new texting and driving law will kick in, making school zones a hands free area.

Similar to the initial texting ban there will be a buffer period as police issue warnings, not tickets, to offenders.

Since Florida’s new texting while driving law allowing officers to pull distracted drivers over for texting took effect on July 1st, only 542 tickets have been written.

But the sponsor of the legislation Representative Jackie Toledo told us the slow rollout was by design.

“We did give them discretion to either ticket or not ticket and educate and warn,” said Toledo.

Lieutenant Derrick Rahming with the Florida Highway Patrol said the agency’s intent is to give drivers warnings until the start of the new year.

“To educate the person, not just to give them a fine or anything like that, but they want to make sure that they’re educated and they understand what the law actually is,” said Rahming.

Now, starting on October 1st, a second portion of the law kicks in.

It makes all school and active construction zones completely handsfree.

Penalties for the hands free portion of the law begin on January 1st.

Offenders can face a $60 fine and three points added to their license.

It’s a harsher penalty than the $30 dollars for texting while driving.

“Because there are children around in those areas. There are active workers and construction workers. So really the areas that are most vulnerable,” said Toledo.

Some like Demetrius Branca, who’s son was killed by a distracted driver, believe the new law is only a first step towards a completely hands free law.

“Making the school zones hands free is a great step. Making the work zones hands free is a great step, but we all deserve hands free,” said Branca.

Lawmakers don’t expect fully handsfree legislation to get serious consideration until 2021.

Toledo said it will give them time to examine how effective the current law is at curbing auto accidents.

In addition to the 542 texting tickets, FHP has issued 438 warnings.

The agency expects the number of tickets to increase significantly when full enforcement takes effect January 1st.

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Mental Health Spending in Schools Could See and Increase Next Year

September 19th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

The Florida Department of Education is asking lawmakers to increase funding for mental health services, bringing the total up to $100 million in the coming year, but even with the $25 million increase, the state will still staff counselors below the nationally recommended average.

Jacob Oliva is the K-12 Chancellor.

“We’re close to between one to four hundred to five hundred. Which is a decrease over the last couple of years. We’ve added almost five to six hundred school counselors statewide,” said Oliva.

The recommendation is winning rave reviews from lawmakers.

“I think that’s a key, number one, to keeping our kids out of trouble. But number two, trying to determine those problems before they occur,” said Rep. Ralph Massullo.

House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Chris Latvala of Clearwater called the increase a big step forward.

“And when you are a school psychologist and you have two or three schools that you cover, it’s hard to find those kids that have the severe issues,” said Latvala.

The PTA is also on board with more counselors, but they would like to see is the ratio of counselors to students listed on schools’ report cards for parents.

“I don’t know that parents realize the disparity,” said Angie Gallo with the Florida PTA.

DOE is also asking for $200,000 to cover increased liability insurance costs as a result of having armed teachers in some counties.

“And hopefully, they’ll never need it,” said Latvala.

The ask comes as a former guardian, a non teacher in Pinellas County, was charged with pawning his gun and bullet proof vest multiple times for gas money.

He was charged with five counts of False Verification of Ownership.

DOE is also asking for $8 million to provide instant communication with police and other first responders for schools statewide.

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9/11 First Responder Flies Flag at State Capitol

September 19th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The last firefighter found alive in the ruins of the twin towers has embarked on a global journey that led him to Florida’s State Capitol Thursday morning.

Retired New York Fire Department Lieutenant Joe Torrillo founded The Star Spangled Banner Project.

He takes a 50 lb American flag dubbed ‘the Patriot Flag’ to historic US monuments, State Capitols and American battle fields domestic and abroad in honor of 9/11 victims, first responders and American veterans.

He said the project is all about unity.

“Because the life that we enjoy came at a huge expense by so many Americans before us. So Mitch and I want to make our country the re-united states of America. Bring people together, resurrect patriotism and put new glory into old glory and that’s really what it’s about,” said Torrillo.

The Florida State Capitol is 38th state Capitol the Patriot Flag has visited.

The flag’s next stop is Baton Rouge Louisiana.

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Dems Urge Attorney General to Rescind Opposition of Assault Weapons Ban Amendment

September 18th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Florida Democrats are demanding Attorney General Ashley Moody drop her fight against the proposed constitutional amendment to ban assault weapons.

She believes it misleads voters.

“The way that they have phrased this language, it would ban virtually every firearm,” said Moody at a press conference in August.

The amendment would ban any weapon with the capability of carrying more than ten rounds with the exception of hand guns.

“Guns like the gun my grandfather gave my father and his brother when they were nine and ten 60 years ago,” said Moody.

Now Democrats and gun advocates are firing back.

They argue the amendment doesn’t go as far as Moody claims.

“This isn’t an attempt to raid people of their second amendment [rights],” said Rep. Cindy Polo. “This is an attempt to save lives and to take some sort of action, because it seems that we don’t even take one step forward.”

The decision to block the amendment or allow it to go before voters will ultimately be made by the state Supreme Court.

Its only role is to decide if the amendment is misleading or contains multiple subjects.

Moody said policy aside, it’s her constitutional duty to fight the amendment.

“To tell you whether or not we believe it meets that statutory definition of clarity and if it’s going to mislead the voters we have to communicate that to the court,” said Moody.

But Democrats assert the ballot language speaks for itself.

“There’s very specific language on this and I think Attorney General Moody is attempting to be misleading when she talks about that the language is misleading, because it is not,” said Terrie Rizzo, Chair of the Florida Democratic Party.

With or without Supreme Court approval, the ballot initiative still has more than 600,000 additional signatures it needs to gather before it would be eligible for the 2020 ballot.
The constitutional amendment would also require anyone currently in possession of a banned fire arm to register the gun with the state.

There’s disagreement over whether the guns could be passed down after the original owner passes away.

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New Legislation Would Set Goal for 100 Percent Renewable Energy by 2050

September 18th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Environmentalists in the state Capitol are heralding a new day when it comes to discussing a changing climate.

The environmental community sees the election of new leaders as a giant step forward for the states environmental future.

On the day he took office, Governor Ron DeSantis made it clear he would start cleaning up the state’s waters.

“It doesn’t just drive tourism. It affects property values. It anchors many local economies,” said DeSantis in January.

On Tuesday, Rep. Chris Sprowls, the man designated to lead the Florida House after 2020 made it clear the environment was a top priority.

“We’ve need to stop being afraid of using words like climate change and sea level rise,” said Sprowls.

Environmentalists argue the state was set back a decade when Governor Rick Scott who would respond, ‘I’m not a scientist,’ when asked about climate change.

Now a band of Democrats want the state to set the goal of Florida using one hundred percent renewable energy before 2050.

They believe they are going to get a hearing.

“And now is the time for bold action, and part of that action has to be setting goals,” said Rep. Ben Diamond.

Even the sponsors agree that getting the state to be 100 percent carbon neutral in just over 30 years is very ambitious but the Florida Conservation voters said it is the goal that matters.

“We need ambitious legislation right now because we are so far behind and this crisis is so dire,” said Jonathan Webber with FCV. “You can set any marker you want. We just need progress. I think a hundred percent by 2050 is a reasonable thing to do. If we can people on the moon in ten years we can get to renewable energy by 2050.”

Since taking office, the Governor has created two new posts, Chief Science Officer and Chief Resiliency Officer.

As another sign of the change, the Governor spent a half a day when he was in Israel earlier this year meeting with water quality experts.

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Florida Chamber Bashes Florida Legal Climate

September 18th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Before each legislative session, the Florida Chamber and others decry the state of the legal system in Florida, prodding lawmakers to fix it.

Wednesday, they pointed to an unscientific survey of 1,300 corporate lawyers who rank Florida the fifth worse legal system in the country.

Fl Chamber Mark Wilson said Floridians pay higher costs for things such as toothpaste and insurance because of lawsuits.

“Here’s what matters. There are 21.6 million people in Florida right now who are paying a $4,442 lawsuit tax at the family level because we’re artificially making it more expensive to live here,” said Wilson.

We reached out to the Florida Justice Association for a reaction.

We have not heard back.

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Florida Lawmakers Hopeful for LGBT Rights in 2020

September 18th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

One of the bills with the most co-sponsors didn’t even get a hearing during the 2019 session, but a bipartisan group of lawmakers hopes 2020 will be their year.

The Florida Competitive Workforce Act would expand housing and employment protections to LGBT individuals in Florida.

Supporters like Senator Sponsor Darryl Rouson said the idea has support from nearly seven out of ten Floridians and is backed by 11 Fortune 500 companies in the state.

“As lawmakers of Florida we owe it to all Floridians to send a message of inclusion and fairness and it’s about equity. It’s about respect. It’s about dignity for the human being. Today Florida is one of 30 states without an anti-discrimination law that would protect the LGBT people in employment, housing and public accommodations,” said Rouson.

Currently only about 60 percent of the state’s 21 million residents live in areas that have passed local equal employment ordinances that cover LGBT individuals.

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Florida’s Hemp Program on the Fast Track

September 17th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

State lawmakers got a briefing Tuesday morning on Florida’s hemp rollout.

Everything from a bureaucratic standpoint is moving quickly, but some caution there will likely be a learning curb before the program is in full swing.

When hemp first became legal law enforcement didn’t know how to distinguish it from illegal marijuana.

Florida’s Cannabis Director Holly Bell said many law enforcement agencies have have obtained cheap test kits that can tell the difference on the spot.

“It really helps that on-the-road officer still have what he needs to do his job,” said Bell.

The kit is just one of many promising steps forward lawmakers heard as part of the hemp update from the Department of Agriculture.

“I feel like we’re very much on track. We’ve been working very hard and things are moving along well,” said Bell.

The first licenses for roughly 3,000 interested growers are expected to start being issued at the start of 2020.

Planting will likely start soon after.

Florida’s Cannabis Director predicts the first crop in 2020 will be several million dollars, but she expects that number to reach the hundreds of million, if not billions with in just a few years.

FAMU and UF researchers explained the first year may be difficult because there are still many unknowns regarding best practices for growing hemp in Florida’s environment.

Some of those risks involve a lack of certified pesticides for hemp and a lack of knowledge of what strains grow best where in the state.

“I am a little bit concerned about growers getting out ahead of what we know on the science in Florida,” said Dean of Research at UF Robert Gilbert. “We can’t make recommendations on one year of data.”

An experienced hemp farmer, Scott Burgett with Green Earth Cannaceuticals also warned January freezes and shorter days could yield a poor crop if farmers start too soon.

“You end up with a four or five inch plant that you paid $3 for that’s worth about 60 cents,” said Burgett.

Even with the expected challenges, lawmakers said they don’t believe it will slow the growth of hemp in Florida.

Florida is still awaiting certification from the USDA for its hemp program, but Florida’s Cannabis Director said other states have already begun cultivating and Florida will likely be able to begin with or without Federal approval.

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Top Florida Officials Take on Teen Vaping Epidemic

September 17th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s Lt. Governor, Attorney General, and Education Commissioner began strategizing Tuesday to reduce teen use of vaping pens.

Attorney General Ashley Moody said she has found a lack of education among both parents and children.

“You know, we’ve been widely successful in increasing awareness among teens about combustible cigarettes and the dangers associated with that. Now we’ve got to just get out in from of this vaping,” said Moody.

“The Department of Health and our Agency are developing a three hour course, so that when you have moment when a child is caught or found and is going to be suspended because of it we have this intervention of this three hour course that can hopefully give them the education so they can recognize that what we’re dealing with is deadly stuff,” said Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran.

Legislation to raise the age for purchasing vaping equipment from 18 to 21 failed in the 2019 legislative session.

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Chris Sprowls Designated as Next Florida Speaker

September 17th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Flordia House republicans designated Pinellas County Republican Chris Sprowls as the next Speaker of the Florida House on Tuesday.

Sprowls will take over after the 2020 election.

He told us to expect more of the same conservatism that has come from the House in recent years.

“We’ve done more to dramatically expand choice in K-12 education over the last several years than maybe the last 25. We’re going to continue to build on that. We’re gonna bring down health care barriers. We’re going to expand access to the health care marketplace. We’re going to continue to build on innovation and technology.And we’re going to continue to make Florida the best place to live in the nation,” said Sprowls.

While Sprowls will lead the House, another Tampa Bay Area legislator, State Senator Wilton Simpson is in line to be the President of the Florida Senate in 2020.

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Bill Filed to Share School Guardian Money

September 17th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

More than $40 million remains unspent from a fund created by lawmakers to pay for the costs or arming teachers and school guardians.

A day after a three hour hearing on school safety, legislation was been filed by State Senator Janet Cruz to shift the money to other school safety measures.

“I’m just simply saying that if its sitting there not being used and if counties don’t want to arm teachers or train people to use guns, then perhaps we can use it to harden schools and make schools safer,” said Cruz.

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ACHA Says Nearly All Nursing Home are In Compliance with Generator Requirement

September 17th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Agency for Health Care Secretary Mary Mayhew told state senators on Tuesday that there was confusion about which nursing homes and assisted living facilities were in compliance with a law requiring generators or evacuation plans as Hurricane Dorian approached.

Mayhew said virtually every home in Florida is in compliance.

“Today, ninety eight percent of all assisted living facilities have generators. Nearly eighty percent of nursing homes have either a permanent generator on site or a temporary generator. And the only reason it is temporary is because it may lack permitting,” said Mayhew.

Legislation requiring generators was enacted after 14 people died in a South Flordia nursing home in 2017.

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Hurricane Michael Not Forgotten by Florida Lawmakers

September 16th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

As lawmakers return to the state Capitol for the first round of committee weeks, one of the most pressing issues is hurricane recovery, especially from Hurricane Michael.

Effects from the storm, which hit nearly a year ago, are still ravaging the panhandle.

In many ways the panhandle has lived up to its nickname, ‘The Forgotten Coast’.

A survey conducted this summer found one out of three Floridians aren’t even aware the storm hit in 2018.

“We can’t afford to forget,” said Senator Bill Montford.

Montford represents multiple counties that continue to feel Michael’s impacts.

“Now that the Federal Government has acted we’ve got to see where the state can fill in. To fill in some holes, if you will. Housing, ag, just jobs themselves. So we do have a roll, the state does,” said Montford.

The state is forecasting it will have $800 million less over the next two years than previously expected.

However, Senate Budget Chair Rob Bradley said a tight budget won’t prevent the Legislature from addressing the needs in the panhandle.

“That storm may have been forgotten in other parts of the country, but it is front and center on our minds,” said Bradley.

It’s not only dollars that lawmakers have to offer to the panhandle.

Legislators also are looking at ways to speed up insurance claims and prevent contractors from over charging for storm repairs.

Senator George Gainer from Panama City said delayed insurance payments contributed to Bay county losing almost 20 percent of its population after the storm.

“A claim ought to be up or down within a year. A year’s a long time to wait and it’s very expensive trying to find a place you can live in the meantime,” said Gainer.

In addition, Senator Gainer said he hopes to introduce legislation that could improve cell phone communications after a storm hits.

Senators we spoke with also emphasized the need to help the timber industry, which took a huge hit during Michael.

While lawmakers are committed to continuing support for the panhandle this upcoming legislative session, it will likely be decades before the area is fully recovered.

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Senators Begin Hearings on Mass Violence

September 16th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

For the first time ever, a Florida Senate committee is delving into the causes of mass violence.

The hearing began with testimony from FSU researchers.

“And the years with the most mass shootings are 1980, 1992, 1993, and 2016,” said Dr. Jillian Turanovic with the FSU College of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

While mass violence is not increasing dramatically, despite public opinion to the contrary, hate crimes are exploding.

“The internet can act as an echo chamber where they just hear louder and hateful versions of their own hateful viewpoints,” said Dr. Brendon Lantz.

And the Department of Law Enforcement said horrific crimes are in many cases preventable.

“More than half communicated their intentions to harm a specific target to at least one third part and ofter times these revelations included their specific plans,” said FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen.

Moms Demand Action delivered 807 letters to the committee chair Tom Lee.

Most ask for better background checks.

“I think its the most doable, I think its the most effective,” said Kate Kile with MDA. “I think you can look to the states that have these laws and you can look at the reduction in homicides and reductions in aggregated assaults.”

No votes were taken, indeed no bills were before the committee.

Rather, the hearing was the beginning of a conversation about what might be done to stop random mass violence.

“We should get to the bottom of why this individual was not thinking the right way at the time, and make sure that when folks are having these episodes of not thinking right, not seeing things clearly, that we are able to de-escalate them as quickly as possible,” said Dr. Jay Reeve with the Apalachee Center, a mental health and substance abuse center in Tallahassee.

And Lee said the job now is to sort out what ideas can muster enough votes to become law.

Senators made clear that legislation to ban assault rifles, which account for about 25 percent of mass murders, is dead on arrival this year.

A petition is currently being circulated to put the ban before voters in 2020.

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Attorney General Still Negotiating Florida’s Take of Purdue Settlement

September 13th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Florida, along with nearly two dozen other states and thousands of cities and counties, is on the verge of scoring a major victory in the fight against the opioid crisis.
Earlier this year the Florida Legislature passed a law allowing the Attorney General access to information in the prescription drug monitoring database to aid the lawsuit, but Attorney General Ashley Moody says it hasn’t been easy to get to this point.
“If I could liken it to landing a 757 on a postage stamp,” said Moody.
A tentative settlement has been reached with one of the nation’s largest opioid manufacturers, Purdue Pharma, known for the now-infamous opioid drug Oxycontin.
The company manufactures about ten percent of the nation’s opioid supply.
The aim of the suit is to hold the company accountable for its roll in the opioid crisis.
“Alleging that this opioid epidemic that kills 17 people a day in Florida is man made and it was the result of actions of those defendants,” said Moody.
The details of the settlement aren’t known, but many sources are reporting it’s likely between $10 and $12 billion.
“We still have many details to iron out. We’re still in those negotiations at this moment, but we’re encouraged by this first step,” said Moody.
Purdue is just one of 12 companies Florida is suing in connection with the opioid crisis, which means this settlement is likely only the beginning.
The other companies include additional manufacturers and distributors Walgreens and CVS.
“And we are still aggressively pursuing the remaining 11 defendants in this case,” said Moody.
It’s still unclear exactly how much Florida is expected to receive from Purdue.

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