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Michael’s Angels Rally For Hurricane Relief at Florida Capitol

April 17th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

After six months without a federal disaster relief bill following hurricane Michael, a panhandle based group known as Michael’s Angels has taken matters in their own hands.

Over 150 panhandle residents brought their voices and their blue tarps to the Capitol today for their rally Rally in Tally.

The non-partisan, non-profit group of women are calling on legislators for hurricane Michael relief funding from both Congress and the state Legislature.

Lawmakers like Senator Bill Montford, Florida’s CFO Jimmy Patronis and Attorney General Ashley Moody lent their voices to the cause.

“Our people in north Florida, especially children, are suffering because of the gridlock in Washington. It’s wrong. Its unAmerican. People need to start doing their job in Washington,” said Montford.

The women now have their eyes set on rallying in the nation’s Capitol.

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City and County Commissioners Decry Preemption Efforts

April 17th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Cities and counties are fighting back against at least thirty bills that would pre-empt regulation of scooters, vacation home rentals and much more to the state.

City and county commissioners today cried foul, saying lawmakers are talking out of both sides of their mouths.

“I find it highly ironic that the same Florida Legislature that continuously rails agains the Federal Government and says Federal Government stop imposing things on us, stop unfunded mandates, stop telling us what to do, then turns around and does the exact same thing to local governments,” said Broward County Commissioner Steve Geller.

Several speakers blamed the move to take power away from local governments on special interest contributors who find it easier to influence lawmakers than local officials.

Both the House and Senate bills could come up and be on the Governor’s desk as early as next week.

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Arming Teachers Stays in School Safety Bill As Senate Prepares to Vote

April 17th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The Florida Senate gave tentative approval to legislation that would expand the state’s school safety program, including a measure that would allow classroom teachers to carry a gun on campus.

Democrats attempted to tag on more than two dozen amendments, one of which would have removed the language that would allow for teachers to be armed, but it failed, facing heavy opposition from Republican lawmakers like Senator Dennis Baxley.

“The mere presence of the message that says someone already here is prepared to act if something goes wrong, that’s the power. It”s not having everybody armed. No educator is being asked to be armed,” said Baxley.

But Senator Perry Thurston who sponsored the amendment hopes Republicans will have a change of heart before the bill comes to a final vote.

“I think that we raised enough issues where the teachers will be concerned about it. Being targeted for the weapons, not getting any additional compensation for this. I just think it’s unnecessary, the current system is working,” said Thurston.

The legislation will likely come up for a final vote early next week.

The House has also not taken a vote on the bill.

It was temporarily postponed two weeks ago.

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House Speaker Relents on Firefighter Cancer Benefits

April 16th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida firefighters won a major victory at the State Capitol Tuesday.

They have been fighting for years to include cancer coverage as part of their benefits, but have been rebuffed over who would pay for the coverage.

Now, the Speaker of the House, who has been blocking the bill, has had a change of heart.

It was political pressure like a handful of firefighters gathering petitions outside the Capitol, calling for the House to hear the bill that seemed to have done the trick.

“Because firefighters are fourteen percent more likely to come down with cancers, and there’s a long list of them,” said South Walton Firefighter Bob Wells.

The legislation firefighter are advocating for would provide $25,000 to cancer stricken first responders to pay for out of pocket expenses such as room and travel for cancer treatments.

“All the things we’re finding our for all these years that were hazardous to us, I mean it’s just been coming out in the last few years,” said South Walton Firefighter Dan Corcoran. “We’ve made changes, we’ve made the job as safe as you can make the job, but we’re still exposed to carcigians and the guys who’ve been on the job for any amount of time are already exposed.”

The legislation has more than 80 house cosponsors, but one main opponent.

House Speaker Jose Oliva.

“If we can get this one the floor, we feel really good about our chances,” said Corcoran.

The Speaker has objected to forcing the costs on local governments.

He was accused of political retribution over a past election, but the accusations gave the Speaker pause.

By mid afternoon Tuesday, he had a change of heart.

“I think its moved too far past the original debate and its best to just let it go,” said Oliva.

Over the last five years, the legislature has spent five million dollars trying to figure out how to keep firefighters from getting cancer.

The protections they want cost about $5 million a year.

Sponsors say firefighters today are less likely to get a cancer because they’ve adopted best practices they didn’t know about even five years ago, but anyone who fought fires 10 or 15 years ago could still come down with the disease.

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Group Advocates for Confederate Statues and Against Abortions

April 16th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

A group of conservative lawmakers called on the full legislature to protect confederate monuments in the state Tuesday morning.

State Representative Anthony Sabatini, a Republican from Lake County, calls the dismantling of monuments an attempt to whitewash history.

“We need people to come up here and prevent those many people who believe in political correctness and want to whitewash American history, and they want to destroy American history. But we don’t need to do that. We need to take these pieces of American history and remember them. To learn from them,” said Sabatini.

Legislation to protect Confederate monuments has not gotten a hearing this year.

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Tobacco 21 Facing Unlikely Opponents

April 16th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Legislation that would raise the age to purchase cigarettes and e cigarettes is now ready for a vote on the House floor, but the bill is still facing opposition from cannabis advocates, Libertarian lawmakers and even some health advocates.

With one out of five teens in Florida vaping, lawmakers say the issue is now an epidemic.

“Just when you thought that smoking was on the decline, the tobacco companies came up with a product that targets our youth, with e-cigarettes, vaping and Juuls with cotton candy flavors,” said Rep. Jackie Toledo.

To tackle the issue legislation moving in both chambers would raise the age to purchase tobacco products and e-cigarettes to 21.

The House version would also require medical marijuana patients under the age of 21 get a recommendation from a pediatrician to smoke their medicine.

Cannabis patients say it would severely limit access.

“Are there enough pediatricians to serve all the minors in Florida? How far will patients have to travel? Will they overcharge due to the high demand,” said Tanya Bailey with Vets for Buds.

Health advocates take issue with a carve out for tobacco and vaping for active duty military members under 21 included in both bills.

“Cancer doesn’t discriminate based on your military record,” said Rivers Buford with the American Heart Association.

Some lawmakers who lean Libertarian oppose the age increase outright, saying it’s an infringement on civil liberties.

“At some juncture people are an adult and in Florida that age is 18. We should treat people like adults,” said Senator Jeff Brandes.

With some Republicans in opposition, bipartisan support will likely be needed.

House sponsors say there’s time to make changes.

“I think the military exemption for example will be open to change,” said Toledo.

Sponsors say that might also include changing the pediatrician recommendation for smokable medical marijuana to that of a regular doctor.

So far 11 states have passed some version of the Tobacco 21 Act.

If Florida lawmakers are able to come to an agreement, Florida would become the 12th.

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Presidential Hopeful Sen. Amy Klobuchar Meets With Florida Dems

April 16th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

 

Minnesota Senator and Democratic Presidential hopeful Amy Klobuchar met with Florida Democrats Tuesday afternoon to discuss key issues facing the state.

Senator Klobuchar says she discussed Amendment 4 implementation, healthcare, hurricane relief, Venezuela and climate change in during meeting.

When asked how she plans to take Florida in 2020 if she wins the Democratic nomination she pointed to her ability to commitment across the isle.

“I just think it’s a very important state in the General Election and if all we focus on in this very competitive primary, if all we’re focusing on is our own side then we can’t win. So you’ve got to reach out to independent voters and you have to reach out to moderate Republicans,” said Klobuchar. “That is how I’ve won in a purple state. There’s a reason the President was in Minnesota yesterday.”

Klobuchar is one of 18 Democrats running for President.

Other big name candidates include Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Texas Congressman Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

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Florida First Step Act Clears Major Hurdle

April 16th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

A sweeping criminal justice reform package has cleared its second Senate committee.

The Florida First Step Act as it’s called, would allow for non violent prisoners to serve only 65% of their sentence if they participate in educational or work related programs in prison.

The bill increases the felony theft threshold from $300 to $1,000.

It also removes barriers for certain professional licenses for former inmates and allows for judges to divert away from mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses.

Senate sponsor Jeff Brandes says it will help address the growing crisis in Florida’s corrections system.

“We’re trying to tell a story with this legislation that we’ve got to focus on diversion on the front end, we’ve got to help people transition back into society on the back end, but in order to do that we’ve got to fix the middle. And that middle is looking at the criminal punishment code, looking at downward departures, allowing judges to actually be judges and not simply tabulators,” said Brandes. “This really is focusing on a variety of different areas that we think are problematic in the existing system and trying to build bold reforms to move forward.”

The House and Senate bills have some key differences, but Brandes says he’s confident some version of the legislation will pass this year.

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Congressman Says Panhandle Has Been Forgotten

April 16th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

A Senate committee was told that Florida’s Forgotten coast has really been forgotten when it comes to Hurricane Michael.

Former Congressman Steve Southerland, who chairs Stand Up for North Florida says Thanksgiving and Christmas followed by the Super Bowl has limited coverage of the plight of many who are still suffering from the storm.

“People in my county, citizens an hour and a half from where you sit today are still living in tents. tents. I burn a cord of firewood every year in Panama City. It gets cold there. Temperatures in the high twenties, but people with children still living in tents. It’s difficult to watch,” said Southerland.

The Legislature does have one point six billion in the budget for hurricane relieve, but most it will go to cities and counties to cover loans for debris removal and overtime for first responders.

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DeSantis Encourages Universities to Adopt Free Speech Gold Standard

April 15th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Governor Ron DeSantis is urging all of the state’s 12 Universities and 28 Community and State Colleges to adopt “The Chicago Statement” which is considered the premier policy for protecting free speech on campuses.

The Governor also wants to focus on civics education as part of the solution.

A Gallup survey of 3,000 college students found that one in three believes that it’s okay some of the time to shout down offensive speakers.

Philosophy major Ellie MacGill believes in free speech, but agrees it ’s also okay to drown out offensive speech.

“It’s their free speech too, right,” said MacGill.

Now, Governor Ron DeSantis has asked all of the states colleges to sign what is know as the Chicago Statement.

It’s considered the gold standard for free speech guidelines.

“The University’s role is to really expose people to ideas with which they may disagree. You know, I think we’re showing that Florida welcomes debate. The cure for an idea that you disagree with is to point out why that idea is wrong,” said DeSantis.

Asked how students should respond to speakers like white supremacist Richard Spencer’s visit to the University of Florida, the Governor says don’t go.

“If they give a speech and only eight people show up, that is really the worst, because they really feed off trying to gin people up,” said DeSantis.

FSU President John Thrasher says colleges and Universities learned a lot from the University of Florida’s handling of the Spencer visit.

“What this does is say to anybody that this is a campus that is open anybody to debate ideas,” said Thrasher.

The Governor says part of the problem is a lack of civics education, particularly for high school students.

In 2018 state lawmakers outlawed corralling students in free speech zones on campuses.

Under the 2018 law, someone who believes a college has not protected their right to free speech can file a lawsuit for damages.

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Workers Call for $15 Minimum Wage

April 15th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

A group of minimum wage workers called on state lawmakers to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour this morning at the state Capitol.

The group estimates more than 3 million Floridians would be impacted by the wage increase.

State Senator Victor Torres says that translates to increased economic activity.

“We know if we workers earn a fair wage they rely on less government funded programs and can afford to spend more money on local business,” said Torres.

Opponents of raising the minimum wage argue it could would result in companies offering fewer positions to cut costs.

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Bikers Rally at the State Capitol

April 15th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Florida is the deadliest state for motorcycle riders.

In 2017 alone, 515 bikers were killed in accidents across the state.

The motorcycle community was at the state Capitol Monday, calling for more safety programs and stiffer penalties for those who hit bikers.

As more than 100 bikers approached the Capitol, the silence in the court yard was replaced by screaming engines.

Then the tolling of bells, as the names of bikers killed in the last year were read aloud.

Yvonne Waldron’s son was among the names called.

“The man who killed him only got a $70 ticket,” said Waldron.

Bikers with ABATE Florida, come each year for the ceremony and to bring their message to lawmakers.

Stiffer penalties for those who hit and kill bikers has been a Legislative ask for years, but the bill has never gotten a hearing.

“They need to lose their license,” said Waldron. “It needs to be more punishment than just take your ticket and go on your happy way.”

In addition to stiffer penalties, also bikers want more money for motorcycle safety campaigns.

A tax collected on motorcycle registrations is supposed to be spent on safety programs, but ABATE President Doc Reichenbach says last year, the state spent only $400,000 out of the $1.5 million in the trust fund on safety.

“The money that’s ours, that went into the trust fund designated only for motorcycles is now being used for anything they want. If they want to have a donut party, they can use our money,” said Reichenbach.

ABATE Florida says a lawsuit could be on the horizon if lawmakers don’t fully fund motorcycle safety programs for 2019.

Some bikers at the rally also expressed support for Legislation making its way through the House and Senate this year, that would make distracted driving a primary offense.

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Democrats Push For Working Class Tax Breaks

April 15th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida Democrats continue to push for tax breaks for working people, arguing the poor need a break more than rich Floridians.

Their idea to give a tax rebate based on the amount people receive in the Federal Earned Income Credit has fallen on deaf ears from the Republican leadership.

Sarah Harness grew up poor and says the income tax return her family go fed them for the summer.

“Whenever we got a tax rebate, that would be how we paid for the things we needed. There was times when we would not have any food in the house until the taxes came around. And we would spend six or seven hundred dollars on the cheapest, most unhealthy food so we could make it through summer. This is the reality for many Americans, and its absolutely upsetting,” said Harness.

29 other states have some form of tax rebates for the poor.

Under Flordia Democrats’ plan, individuals would receive an amount equal to ten percent of their federal tax credit.

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Rural Hospitals Struggling to Survive

April 12th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Six months after Hurricane Michael, hospitals in rural parts of the panhandle are still struggling to stay open, but a proposed one point two million dollar cut to the rural panhandle hospitals budgets are adding insult to injury.

Hurricane Michael closed all but the emergency room at this 25 bed hospital in rural Calhoun county. Ester Stoltzfus is the hospital’s Quality risk manager. She pointed to a closed off portion of the hospital.

“So much damage, that is permanently closed off she told us.”

Electricians were at work here Friday, and sandbags still hold down the buildings temporary roof. Instead of 25 beds right now, only ten are usable.

“We feel like we’ve been forgotten” says Mark Plummer, the Hospital’s Board Chairman.

“We’ve been lost in the shuffle” says board member Tim Revell. 

Now, this and other hospitals are facing a double whammy, a proposed three percent cut in Medicaid reimbursements. 

Monica Corbett of the Florida Hospital Association says the cuts will hurt those who need help the most. “Those are funds that are used to care for people who are low income, disabled, the elderly, children” Corbett told us. 

The cuts could be the difference of this and other rural hospitals staying open or closing their doors.

“You know, our income has been reduced. We’re having to borrow money to keep operations going. And if they cut us even more, it’s just going to cripple us more than we are even now” Board Chair Plummer told us.

Unable to accept more than 10 patients, the overflow is being forced into bigger city hospitals, which face the same cuts.

“We’re sending them to Marianna, Tallahassee, Panama City” says Board member Revell.

The Hospital association is pushing back, running television and digital ads with the theme “cuts don’t heal” and using sound bites from the states political leaders, including the Speaker of the House. 

“I’ve seen the devastation. It’s obviously very important to all members in the chamber” says House Speaker Jose Oliva in the spot. 

And despite promises that the hurricane torn part of the state won’t be forgotten, that’s what many people here believe has happened.

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Additional 27 Suspected Graves Identified at Dozier School for Boys

April 11th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

A new discovery at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna has found evidence of 27 previously unknown graves, that may belong to former students.

The Governor has been made aware of the find and has offered to work with local officials going forward.

The Dozier School for Boys in Mariana Florida has a dark, hundred year history of suspected physical and sexual abuse of students.

Art Kimbrough has been intimately involved in the Dozier story.

“I was around both sides. I call it the entire spectrum of emotions as it related to it,” said Kimbrough, who formerly served as the CEO of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce.

The remains of more than 50 young boys who attended the school were unearthed in 2015, prompting the Legislature to issue a formal apology, but new findings suggest the Dozier grounds may still contain secrets.

“Wow, I think was my first comment,” said Kimbrough. “This is heavy.”

A recent ground penetrating radar scan of the school grounds has identified as many as 27 potential grave sites that have yet to be exhumed.

“We thought that all the graves had been identified,” said Senator Darryl Rouson, who sponsored the Senate’s apology in 2017. “Obviously they haven’t.”

The 27 suspected graves were discovered during a pollution clean up on the Dozier property in late March.

They’re located less than 200 years away from an area known as Boot Hill, where seven former students and staff members were reburied earlier this year.

The Governor has acknowledged the findings and offered support to county officials moving forward.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever quite put this behind us, but I do know the state is in a posture to do what we need to do in order to rectify or try to clean up this situation,” said Representative Tracie Davis, who sponsored the House’s Dozier apology.

It was only three weeks ago the final remains from the 2015 excavation were reinterred in a Tallahassee cemetery.

This report is the first evidence that supports former Dozier students’ assertions that more bodies are yet to be discovered.

However, Kimbrough says there’s still research that needs to be conducted to confirm the suspected graves.

“They’re going to have to exhume them. They’re going to have to anthropologically examine everything that’s happened,” said Kimbrough.

It’s not clear what the path forward will look like, former students of Dozier hope the discovery will result in a full excavation of the school grounds.

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