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House Considers Amendment 4 Implementation

February 14th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Lawmakers are still debating how to register more than a million newly eligible voters following the passage of Amendment 4.

Two House Committees heard from prosecutors, elections supervisors, clerks of courts and state agency heads Thursday, to learn what issues need to be addressed.

Amendment Four automatically restores the voting rights of all felons in the state who have completed their sentence, excluding those convicted of murder or sex crimes.

It’s considered the largest expansion of voting rights since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

While qualified felons began registering January 8th, lawmakers say some basic questions need answers, like what is murder and what is a sex crime?

“Felony sexual offenses I can tell you there is a wide array of offenses that people of good faith can differ over about whether they should or should not be included,” said Representative Paul Renner.

While lawmakers believe those questions can be answered relatively quickly, other issues may take more time.

For instance, there is currently no single place a person or agency can go to definitively find out if a person has completed their sentence.

Renner says creating one could streamline the roll out of amendment 4.

“Where someone can walk out of prison or walk out of their probation office when their sentence is complete and have that certificate and everybody sees that across all the agencies that are involved… I think is where we want to go,” said Renner.

Clemency attorney Reggie Garcia says a more urgent issue is defining what constitutes a completed sentence.

“I think where the ambiguity comes is whether there’s unpaid restitution or court costs,” said Garcia.

Prosecutors say until lawmakers clear up the ambiguity surrounding Amendment 4, they have no intention of prosecuting people who mistakenly think they qualify and register to vote.

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Parkland: One Year Later

February 14th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

The first anniversary of the Parkland massacre was marked with a moment of silence at the State Capitol, where one anguished father continues to push lawmakers to make schools safer.

The bell tolled 17 times, once for each parkland victim.

Out of deference to the families, Florida’s political leadership was silent.

Inside, well wishers paid their respects to Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow died in the shooting.

The anguished father says the one year anniversary is no different than any other day since her death.

“For today to be any different, it’s not. Every day is the same pain from when you wake up to when you go to sleep,” said Pollack.

He applauds the Governor’s call for a grand jury investigation.

“That’s going to lead to show multitudes of incompetence in the Broward School district,” said Pollack.

Last year lawmakers mandated Fortify Florida, a school related incident reporting app.

Since it went live, 278 tips have been called in.
This year’s legislation will require the Fortify Florida app be installed on every school device students use.
“I fight the people who are just gonna focus on gun control,” said Pollack.

Pollack also supports arming teachers, which was the number one recommendation of the School Safety Commission.

“You know, those are the same people who don’t want to arm the right people at schools. I fight them,” said Pollack.

Asked if he believes his daughter would still be alive if teachers had been armed, he responded, “One hundred percent.”

Flags at the Capitol were at half staff Thursday.

The Governor proclaimed February 14th as Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Remembrance Day, and the Capitol will remain lit with Orange lights through Sunday night to honor Parkland’s victims.

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Momentum Shifting to Arm Teachers

February 13th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

On the first anniversary of the deadly school shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglass High School in Parkland, momentum is building for allowing teachers to be armed.

688 trained school personnel have qualified to carry guns under the guardian program.  It was passed in the wake of the deadly valentines day shooting last year. They are protecting students in 25 of Flordia’s 67 counties. Dennis Baxley says lessons were learned in Parkland.

“That first three minutes of exposure when something is becoming an incident, if you don’t act right then, if you haven’t empower somebody there, then it could get worse, much worse. A massacre” fears Baxley.

Lawmakers excluded classroom teachers from being guardians after pressure from then Governor Rick Scott, but Scott is gone and the 15 member commission set up after the shooting has voted to arm teachers. 

“Signify by raising your hand.” The vote was 14-1, but the lone no vote later voted to accept the entire report. 

Senate President Bill Galvano says the commission is working exactly as intended.

“And that commission had a diverse makeup, including families of victims, and law enforcement. And a lot of folks changed their views on the guardian program going into it.”

Right now, a sheriff must first offer the guardian program, and then it’s up to the school board to accept. But a proposed change would flip that. If a school board wants to have armed teachers, the sheriff would have to make it happen.

The guardian legislation is likely to be among the first bills to make it to the Senate floor when lawmakers meet next month.

The Guardian legislation was approved by the Senate Education Committee on a 5-3 party line vote. Florida Democrats, who oppose arming teachers, are using the anniversary to highlight more than a dozen bills, including universal background checks and banning assault style rifles.

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Violence in Minority Communities Overlooked

February 13th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

State Representative Shevrin Jones says violence in minority black and brown communities has been overlooked in the rush to make schools safer after the Parkland massacre. Jones is asking the Governor to set up a commission, much like what was set up after the school shooting to study the problem. He says the violence in their neighborhoods is having a traumatic effect on the kids who live there.

“You have children who are looking at homicides on their streets and are going to school with that same visualization in their minds. On a daily basis, especially in the minority community. So they are leaving school  and walking  by the blood on the street that they just saw the night before. That’s trauma, and these are the things that need to be addressed” says Jones.

Jones says the problem has been around long before Parkland, but it was the response that he says was the conversation starter for minority communities.

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Hate Crime Loopholes

February 13th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Jewish lawmakers and the Anti Defamation League say there are gaping holes in the states hate crime laws. They are proposing that crimes against people with disabilities and transgender individuals face tougher sanctions. Rep. Joe Geller says longer sentences for hate crimes may not be a deterrent, but at least they will keep hateful individuals off the streets longer.

“There is some hope that it may have an effect on other members of the public who will see that there can be consequences , but the biggest reason is not deterrence. The biggest reason is to help protect and defend Florida citizens to make sure people who commit this especially heinous acts aren’t going to be back out committing them again too soon” says Geller.

In 2017, Florida reported 145 hate crimes to the FBI. That was a fifty one percent increase over 2016.

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Sean Shaw, Attorney General Candidate, Take Two

February 13th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

More than three point seven million people voted for Democratic Attorney General Candidate Sean Shaw. He championed gun control and worked as a consumer advocate before running. Now he says he’s not going away. Shaw has formed a committee calling itself People over Profits to continue what he started on the campaign.

“We’re still fighting. Just because you lose an election does’t mean you stop believing in in why you ran. And just because I didn’t win an election doesn’t mean those people who voted for and supported me aren’t going to have someone championing these issues. We’re gonna be up here, and that’s what’s this is about” says Shaw.  

Shaw tells us he has no plans to run for another office anytime soon.

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Smokable Medical Marijuana One Step Closer to Reality

February 12th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s could soon be dispensing medical marijuana to patients in pre rolled cigarettes. A House Committee today approved making smokable pot available.  Governor Ron Desantis had called for the change, and As Mike Vasilinda tells  us, lawmakers are following his lead.

Police were the first to object to smokable marijuana. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri spoke for Sheriffs in January 2017. 

“We don’t think there should be smokable marijuana.”

Now the man who authored the ban, State Representative Ray Rodriquez, is changing his tune.

“This PCB would allow the smoking of medical marijuana in the form of a pre-rolled, filtered marijuana cigarette” said Rodriguez before the House Health and Human Services Committee which he chairs.

The push was not without opposition. Tampa mother Ellen Snelling came to tell of her daughters addiction and recovery.

“She started smoking marijuana. She went on to pills. There were long nights when I wondered if I would ever see my beautiful daughter again.”

But North Florida veteran John Goodson, who said he was under the influence as he spoke, was one of several who say smoking pot

saved their lives.

“Ever since I started cannabis, I’ve got off three blood pressure medications. I got off my anxiety medicine” the veteran told the committee.

Allowing smoking passed with just two no votes. One was Jacksonvilles Clay Yarborough.

“I have concerns that long term, this will lead to recreation use. It’s more of a foot in the door” says Yarborough.

And it was very clear that this change wouldn’t be happening but for a new Governor said chair Rodriquez. 

 

“Well, clearly, the bill is because the Governor has called on the legislature to bring a piece a legislation that he can support.”

Governor Ron Desantis has asked for the smokable legislation by mid March. An appeals court has said it will wait for the governor before ruling on a lawsuit that declared the no smoking provision unconstitutional.

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Did one legislator bully another?

February 12th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Rep. Omphroy

A freshman state lawmaker from Broward County has filed a complaint with the House Speaker, accusing another member of bullying, and verbal intimidation. The lawmaker, Anika Omphroy, goes on to say she fears retaliation. The alleged confrontation took place at a Democratic function in Orlando over the weekend. The member she complains about, Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, is openly gay. He says he is stunned by the allegations.

 

Rep. Carlos. G. Smith

“I can have a reasonable conversations with any Democrat, and Republican, about any issue. Even when we disagree, but I also do so in a professional and respectful manner. And the allegations she’s putting forward are simply not true, but I want to hear from her and I want to hear more about why she feels the way that she feels” says Smith.

 The House Speaker has opened a “workplace harassment” investigation. Omphroy did not respond to our inquiries and was not at her office this morning. More than a hundred people were in the room when the incident was said to have occurred. At least one other lawmaker says she saw the interaction and it was not intimidating. 

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Democrats Push Gun Bill Agenda

February 12th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida Democrats say the approaching anniversary of the Parkland School Shooting is a time to promote legislation which they say will curb gun violence. They are proposing more than a dozen bills.  Rep. Margaret Good of Sarasota wants to institute universal background checks on all gun purchases, including those between individuals, which are now exempt.

“After the Parkland shooting, I researched policies to prevent gun violence, and found that ninety-six percent Floridians support requiring background checks with virtually every gun purchase. I also learned that in states that require background checks, there are fewer instances of gun related crimes” Says Good. 

Others bills include an assault rifle ban, red flag legislation allowing family members to tell a judge someone in their family is dangerous and should have their guns taken away. They also oppose, as does the Florida PTA, a plan to arm teachers.

“Eighty seven percent of mass shooters sowed signs of crisis.Seventy eight percent revealed their plans ahead of time. And yet Florida still falls at the bottom of mental health funding. We need to do better. And we must not, and should not, take the easy way out by arming our teachers” says Daniella Thomas of the Florida PTA

Most of the ideas were rejected by the Legislature’s GOP majority last year.

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Finding the Truth in Assignment of Benefits

February 11th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

A Florida Senate committee is expected to approve major changes to a state law allowing homeowners to sign over their rights to third party contractors. The practice is being blamed for doubling the number of lawsuits against Insurace companies, and people who remediate water damage are at the center of the dispute.

In response to the public records request, Citizens has declined to provide individual claims data, citing privacy concerns. It has yet to respond with a general picture of settlements before and after a law suit has been filed.  

Dozens of small business owners who specialize in restoring water damaged homes have been walking the Capitol with a proverbial target on their back.

Josh Reynolds, who owns WrightWay Emergency Services in Nokomis is the President of the Restoration Assn. of FL.  He says the target is on their backs for a reason.

“You know, we fight the insurance companies.. we just don’t accept what they are willing to pay” says Reynolds.

Josh and like companies are being blamed for driving up insurance costs. Citizens alone says lawsuits filed by third party vendors are responsible for an average two hundred forty-four dollar rate hike coming this year.

“Some of them call it a scam” says State Senator Doug Broxson. He says it’s only going to get worse.”

“Are the people of Florida willing to pay, potentially double their premium in ten years if you don’t fix this?” Asks Broxson.

Broxson’s bill would allow homeowners who sue to collect their attorney’s fees, but not third party contractors.

But if your roof gets blown off, lawyers like Margaret Gardner say no one’s going to fix it if they aren’t guaranteed getting paid.

“If you can’t get your roof replaced, every time it rains, even with tarping, eventually you’re going to get more water intrusion“ she says.

Fighting back, the contractors have asked for detailed information about more than a quarter million Citizens claims paid over the last five years. They think it will tell a story of Citizens being penny wise and pound foolish.

“And I think afterwards you’ll see that most contractors are able to recover between seventy and one hundred percent of their bills after litigation” says Josh Reynolds.

The restoration specialists admit that they’ve got a few bad actors in their business, and  their solution is to create a system of licensing …license them, which they say will drive the bad guys out.

There’s just one problem. The theme of this legislature is less regulation, not more.”

In response to the public records request, Citizens has declined to provide individual claims data, citing privacy concerns. It has yet to respond with a general picture of settlements before and after a law suit has been filed.  

And late Monday, The Florida Supreme Court agreed to hear an assignment of benefits case arising out of Port St. Joe. 

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State Senate Takes First Step in Fulfilling DeSantis Promise on Sanctuary Cities

February 11th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Governor Ron Desantis campaigned against allowing cities and counties to buck federal immigration authorities, and ending the practice was a theme of his inaugural address.

“We will stand for the rule of law. We will not allow sanctuary cities” DeSantis said shortly after being sworn in.
Late this afternoon, lawmakers may take the first step in fulfilling that promise. Right now only 27 Florida counties cooperate with federal authorities when it comes to people here illegally. Legislation being heard by the Flordia Senate Judiciary committee would require all 67 counties to notify the feds when they arrest someone here illegally says sponsor Joe Gruters.
“It’s trying to do what’s right for all of Florida, in trying to put bad guys away and make sure there is cooperation across the board. We’re not, this is not an immigration la. This is not to punish people. This is to try to follow the law as it exists,” says the Sarasota State Senator.
Under the bill, local authorities would have to hold someone for 48 hours, enough time
Says the sponsor, to allow the feds to pick the individual up.

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Bill Aims to Clarify Florida Hemp Laws

February 8th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The Federal government legalized hemp in its Farm Bill passed in December, but here in Florida hemp cultivation and some of its byproducts like CBD remain in a legal grey area.

Gabe Suarez owns Natural Life an expanding chain of CBD dispensaries in Florida.

“It’s tremendous the amount of benefits it [CBD] has,” said Suarez.

The Federal Farm bill passed in December authorized states to begin cultivating hemp and regulating its byproducts like CBD, but Florida’s laws are vague went it comes to hemp, which has led to law enforcement raiding some stores like Natural Life’s Tallahassee location.

“We’ve had other stores in other cities and other counties hassle free with no issues operating like it’s any other business,” said Suarez. “So it’s very inconsistent.”

While Suarez says he tests all of his products for quality, Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried says the absence regulations in the state have led to some products containing harmful chemicals.

Some cases are more extreme.

“They call it ‘spicing’. Where they’re taking the hemp and adding all this hallucinogenic activity to it and the consumer’s going and buying this,” said Fried.

A bill filed for the 2019 Legislative session aims to set a regulatory framework for hemp cultivation and CBD quality control in Florida.

“We want products to be fresh from Florida, manufactured here, used here and shipped elsewhere so people will realize the products we produce in Florida are high quality,” said House Sponsor Rep. Ralph Massullo.

Massullo says the cultivation of hemp could be a cash cow for Florida farmers.

The bill also would require CBD products be independently tested and have a stamp of approval from the FDA.

CBD suppliers like Suarez, who are already going the extra mile to ensure quality, say it’s a win-win proposition.

“Force everybody else to take the initiative that we’re taking into providing a safe and quality product that is what it says it is at the end of the day,” said Suarez.

If the bill becomes law, companies that don’t comply with the new standards will be barred from the industry for five years.

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Florida Lawmaker Responds to Blackface Photos

February 7th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Newly elected Lake County State Representative Anthony Sabatini is under fire for appearing in black face 14-years ago when he was in high school.

Florida Democrats have called for his resignation, but the freshman representative is refusing, saying there was nothing mean-spirited or racial about it.

He and his best friend were just switching places for the day.

“Me and one of my best friends, to this day, who happens to be black, we thought it would be a funny prank if we dressed as each other, so I brought my clothing and he brought his. And he wore my clothes and I wore his, and the whole class everybody laughed. Of course, at that time, without realizing it, I did something that now is kinda outrageous, and you can’t do, I darkened my skin. He was totally okay with it and nobody took it seriously,” said Sabatini.

Sabatini says most media reports are taking the picture out of context.

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Coalition Kicks off First Ever Florida Economic Development Week

February 7th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

A coalition of State Colleges and the Florida Economic Development Council want to educate Floridian’s on the importance of economic development.

State Senator Joe Gruters issued a proclamation declaring February 11th through the 15th Florida Economic Development week.

The campaign will focus on raising the public’s awareness of how economic development contributes to the state’s business climate, job growth and quality of life.
“Economic Development in all its various disciplines is vital to Florida’s competitiveness and prosperity. FEDC and our higher education partners believe that as an engine for progress economic development should be recognized through a dedicated week of emphasis,” said FEDC Chair Crystal Stiles.

The coalition put a high emphasis on using State colleges to train and retain skilled workers in the state.

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Seeking an AOB Solution

February 7th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida has some of the highest insurance rates in the nation and according to the industry they are rising, because of abuses in what is called assignment of benefits, or AOB.

Changing the law could impact how you get your home repaired after it’s been damaged.

After Michael hit Panama City, Jasmin Tolbert told lawmakers that contractors were knocking down her door.

“Trying to get me to sign forms so they could help me,” said Tolbert.

Those contractors wanted her to sign was an assignment of benefits, giving the contractor the right to bill the insurance company directly.

Signing that form has lead to the doubling of lawsuits over the last 5 years.
“The primary driver of abuse is the way attorneys get paid,” said James Lynch with the Insurance Information Institute.

Called one way, most legal fees fall on the insurer.
“The resulting costs are like a hidden tax on consumers,” said Lynch.

One proposed change would continue to protect homeowners in their fights with insurers, but place the potential for paying legal fees on contractors who accept an assignment of benefits.

“And that if you assign you benefits to a third party, that third party does not get the benefit of that one way attorneys fees,” said Florida Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier.

Water restoration companies say the problem is lowball estimates from insurance companies.

“Right now, the insurance companies are paying on average around 20 to 25 percent of what the estimates are,” said Josh Reynolds with Right Way Emergency Services.

Both sides agree that only a small number companies and lawyers are abusing the system.

The restoration people who say they are the good guys, say regulate regulating their industry more would weed out the bad apples.

“They probably don’t have the educational; training, probably don’t have the financial ability to train their people in mold, so absolutely, you get rid of them,” said Foyt Ralston with the Florida Association of Retail Specialists.
Depending on which way lawmakers go, how much you pay for insurance and whether or not you get your home repaired could be at stake.

Without being able to bill insurance companies directly, many contractors won’t risk taking on big jobs without a guarantee of getting paid, or getting paid up front.

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