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Ethics Commission Makes Recommendations to Lawmakers

July 10th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda
The State Commission on Ethics will be asking state lawmakers to ban partners of a board member from representing clients and appearing before that board.
It is one of five recommendations the board is making to state lawmakers.
The board’s legislative committee chairman Matthew Carson says allowing partners to appear before board could lead to corruption.
“Well I mean that’s the argument against allowing it. At the very least it invites dishonesty,”said Carson. “We’re not accusing anybody of doing anything nefarious, but we think that should be the appropriate standard and that should be the standard that’s maintained.”
The panel also wants lawmakers to require most municipal officials to file a more comprehensive financial disclosure form that discloses actual investments and holdings rather than the current form which requires only broad categories.

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Clemency Questions Called Racist

July 9th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda
The constitutionality of Florida’s Clemency process goes before a Federal appellate court later this month, but new concerns about the sensitivity and appropriateness of questions asked at the boards most recent meeting may play into the decision.
There is no written criteria for deciding who gets the right to vote back, the right to carry a gun, or even a pardon.
At the Boards most recent meeting, CFO Jimmy Patronis asked Erwin Jones how many kids he had and to how many different women.
Patronis was appointed to the job last year.
He faces voters for the first time as a statewide candidate in November.
His opponent, former State Senator Jeremy Ring, says the remarks smack of racism
“It’s insensitive, it’s intolerant. It has no place on the Clemency board, but again, I think it also speaks to as to why the Federal judge smacked down the clemency committee,” said CFO candidate Jeremy Ring.
In a statement, Patronis Campaign spokeswoman Katie Strickland defended the line of questioning, saying they centered on a history of domestic violence in the case and making sure kids were getting their support.
After that June meeting, the Attorney General defended Patronis’s questions.
“I think he’s trying to get people to come out of their shell and humanize them,” said Bondi. “I thought those were nice questions like about your family, tell me about this, if you’ve had a tough life.”
There was no decision in Erwin Jone’s case, but the questions are sure to come up when a Federal Appeals court in Atlanta hears oral arguments later this month about the arbitrary way Florida considers who gets their rights back.
Responding to the charge of racism, this afternoon, the Patronis campaign put out another statement showing he has asked at least three white men about their wives, children, and child support.

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Early Education Advocates Say Kindergarten Readiness Test is Flawed

July 9th, 2018 by Jake Stofan
New Kindergarten Readiness Exam results released by the state Department of Education show nearly half of students entering kindergarten are not prepared.
Only 54% of students entering kindergarten in the state passed.
It’s an 18% drop from the last time the test was administered four years ago.
Linda Alexionok with the Children’s Campaign says the test is flawed because it’s taken online, arguing four and five-year old children aren’t developed enough to properly use a computer.
“A developmentally inappropriate tool like a mouse at four-years-old we think is inappropriate,” said Alexionok.
The state is pushing back, arguing children are given tutorials on how to use the computers before taking the test. If they can’t do it successfully, the test stops and they’re given more help.
It’s also important to point out the test was administered on computers when it was given in 2013 and had much higher pass rates, but that test was scrapped for being too easy.
Roy Keister runs Scottsdale Academy.
He is also president of the Florida Association for Child Care Management.
“We saw about a 10 point decrease,” said Keister.
He says the new test focuses too much on literacy and not enough on areas like social development.
“They don’t measure how much the children have gained socially and emotionally while they go through the VPK program,” said Keister.
The issues with the test ultimately have a greater impact on children from lower socioeconomic areas.
“A lot of children in Florida are living in food insecure houses and when you’re food insecure and you’re hungry it has a direct neuroscience impact on your ability to learn,” said Alexionok.
It’s important to point out the test was administered on computers when it was given in 2013 and had much higher pass rates, but that test was scrapped for being too easy.
Even with the large decrease in the pass rates, children who attend pre-k are still about 10% more likely to pass the Kindergarten Readiness Exam.
Preschools could lose state funding if they don’t maintain a 60% pass rate.

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Trial Canceled for Greyhound Amendment Suit

July 6th, 2018 by Jake Stofan
A Circuit Judge has canceled a July trial over the ballot language in Amendment 13, which would ban greyhound racing in the state.
The Florida Greyhound Association says the ballot summary is misleading.
It’s asking for it be removed from the ballot.

Circuit Court Judge Karen Gievers has decided to forego a trial and instead make her decision based on legal arguments alone.

The Amendment was placed on the ballot by the constitution revision commission.

“You can lie to the CRC, you can even lie to the media,” said Jack Cory with the Florida Greyhound Association. “You cannot lie to the court under oath without severe consequences. So we’re very comfortable with where the judge’s ruling was.”

The group Committee to Protect Dogs helped push the amendment through the CRC earlier this year.

It’s been barred from testifying in the case, but is hoping the state will succeed in keeping the amendment on the ballot.

“There’s no question with what the facts are in this case so it’s a legal argument that’s going to be made by both sides and the judge is going to make a decision,” said Len Collins with the Committee to Protect Dogs So this is what we expected and this is relatively typical in this circumstance.”

Regardless of how the circuit court rules, both sides are gearing up for a heated legal battle, that will likely end up in the State Supreme Court.

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Anti-Racing Advocates Call Attention to Greyhound Hauling

July 6th, 2018 by Jake Stofan
Four months before voters decide whether to end greyhound racing in Florida, a group supporting the ban is pointing to repots of eight dogs who died while being transported, but dog breeders say their track record speaks for itself.
Litter-mates Butternut and Chickasaw were two years old when they died after getting loose from their trainer and running a lap around the Orange Park Dog Track.
Both dogs died shortly after being transported from morning school at Orange Park to the local kennel facility about 20 minutes away.
“This is a part of the industry that most people don’t know, the hauling aspect,” said Kate MacFall with Protect Dogs- Yes on 13. “That many are hauled long distances just to race.”
Six other dogs in the state died during or after being transported over the the last five years.
The deaths occurred while the dogs were being transported to five of the states 12 dog tracks.
In each and every death, investigators found no violations of rules or state law and the cases were closed.
The industry also points to the fact an estimated 2.5 million greyhounds were successfully transported statewide in 2017 alone.
“We probably have a better safety transportation record than Greyhound Bus Lines or than a school system or than a nursing home does,” said Jack Cory with the Florida Greyhound Association. “So all of the allegations by political activists are just that. They’re mirrors and they’re smoke and they’re political activists.”
But Anti-racing advocates say the conditions on those rides can be hot and cramped.
“Some have air-conditioning some don’t, but it’s just an interesting aspect and just one more reason why this industry is antiquated and not kind to the dogs, “ said MacFall.
Both sides agree one death is too many.
“Athletes die. Athletes get hurt. Athletes have heart attacks after a strenuous football game or a baseball game,” said Cory. “It happens. It’s unfortunate.”
Without detailed causes of death on the dogs who died in we may never know whether it was simply their time, or a direct result of conditions on the haulers.
The constitutional amendment needs 60% approval to pass.

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Appeals Court Blocks Smoking of Medical Marijuana

July 5th, 2018 by Jake Stofan
A state appellate court has put out the fire under the push for smokeable medical marijuana.
Smoking will not be allowed as John Morgan’s ‘No Smoke is a Joke’ case makes its way through the courts.
John Morgan scored his first victory in his battle to allow smokable medical marijuana in circuit court in May.
”It makes my life a lot more bearable,” said Plaintiff Kathy Jordan from the stand. Jordan suffers from ALS and says smoking is the best method for her treatment.
He had hopped to take the case straight to the Supreme Court arguing the wait could cause his plaintiff Kathy Jordan irreparable harm.
“I think that the Supreme Court would be more likely to hear this case, to take this case on an expedited fashion because of Kathy’s health,” Morgan told reporters in May.
An appellate court blocked his request to expedite the trial and on Tuesday the same court also blocked the circuit court’s decision to allow smokable pot as the case moves through the courts.
The three judge panel argued Morgan hasn’t proven he stands a chance at winning the case in the long run.
It also said continuing to block smokable marijuana would not  cause irreparable harm.
“I mean you’d have to ask Kathy Jordan,” said Jeff Sharkey with the Medical Marijuana Business Association. “The court suggested there was no irreparable damage should this stay be lifted or stopped. So I think she would disagree with that.”
The ruling impacts patients and growers  who are stuck in limbo as they try to prepare for a potential change in the products they can offer.
“I mean it has an impact on the business, it has an impact on patients and of course what doctors are recommending. So until that’s resolved it’s going to be difficult,” said Sharkey.
Advocates say the continued effort to block patients’ access to smokable pot only creates momentum for a likely 2020 ballot initiative to the legalize recreational marijuana.
The appellate court has not set a date to officially hear the case. A final ruling will likely come from the State Supreme Court.

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Florida Vets Not Seeking Benefits

July 3rd, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda
Tens of millions of dollars in benefits for Florida veterans are going unclaimed because the vets either don’t know they are eligible, or have had a bad experience with the troubled Veterans Administration, but the state is stepping up efforts to get vets to claim what’s rightfully theirs.
Larry Ware was born on the fourth of July.
“I had a traumatic brain injury and I was in a coma for six months,” said Ware.
Larry spends most days at an adult day care center, paid for almost entirely by the Federal government.
“Before I came, I was sitting home, taking my meds. Going to sleep. Sitting in the chair, talking to the TV,” said Ware.
Unlike Larry, one in three vets in Florida aren’t claiming their benefits.
The result is a lot of open slots in this adult day care and others.
Sot: Norman Pasley with Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare says of 35 openings for veterans at the facility, only 8 are occupied.
Now the state is launching a program to get more vets using what is already theirs
“We keep them healthier and if we keep them in their home environment which is very suportive, I mean they are comfortable in a home environment, and that’s what we really want to do,” said Col. Glen Sutphin, Executive Director of the State Department of Veterans Affairs.
The state says the good thing about veterans claiming their benefits is that it brings money into the state economy, but it doesn’t cost the state a cent.
85-year-old Henry Barnes Jr. spends 5 days a week at Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare. He says if he was’t there, he’d be doing his honey do list for his wife of more than 60 years.
“You know how it is..are you married?” Barnes joked.
Any money the state saves by not taking care of vets like Larry and Henry, is money it can use helping other families who aren’t entitled to veterans benefits.
The state’s message to veterans: You are NOT alone! If you need help, call the Florida Veterans support line at 1-844-MyFLVet or 2-1-1.

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Keeping the Environment in Mind on the 4th

July 3rd, 2018 by Jake Stofan
Audubon Florida is hoping to encourage amateur fireworks gurus to think twice before lighting off their patriotic displays, especially on the beaches.
“Most people don’t realize that there are actually birds raising their chicks and young right now,” said Audubon Florida President, Julie Wraithmell. “So on those beaches we have birds that have eggs and small chicks.”
The loud booms can scare away nesting birds, leaving their eggs exposed to predators
“Wildlife doesn’t have your couch and a thunder jacket to bring them comfort and it can cause abandonment of entire colonies,” said Wraithmell.
Environmentalists are particularly concerned with the big fireworks.
They say smaller pyrotechnics like sparklers and fountains are generally fine so long as you pick up the mess.
July 4th is actually the time of year in Florida where we get the highest influx of litter,” said Aliki Moncrief with Florida Conservation Voters.
As far as the big guns are concerned, environmentalists suggest leaving it to the professionals.
“Go to that official fireworks display,” said Wraithmell. “Spend time with your community at a place where you can safely enjoy the fireworks for both people and wildlife.“
If you’re feeling particularly green Florida Conservation Voters says there are plenty of opportunities to do your part to reduce some of the impact.
“Folks can kind of do their own little litter clean up project or they can try to find one in their communities,” said Moncrief. “There’s lots of day after events going on.”
Audubon says volunteer ‘bird stewards’ will be on the beaches chaperoning bird colonies throughout the week, protecting the nests and educating beach goers.
If the environmental concerns aren’t enough to make you reconsider your ocean view pyrotechnic show, keep in mind that it is in fact illegal to shoot fireworks on Florida beaches.

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Vets Helping Vets Going Statewide

July 2nd, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda
More than 10,000 veterans reached out for help in a two year pilot run by the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay that has vets helping other vets get through their troubles.
The project was so successful, it’s being expanded statewide.
Retired Army Staff Sergeant Luke Murphy came home from Iraq missing his right leg, his left leg severely injured.
After a year in the hospital, he says he had a decision to make.
“Honestly, it was a choice,” said Murphy. “Do you wanna live like this, or do you want to give up?”
Murphy wrote ‘Blasted by Adversity’ recounting what he went through.
“I wasn’t comfortable talking to psychologists or folks that hadn’t been through what I’d been through,” said Murphy. “I found just going on a hunting or fishing trip with other amputees was the most rewarding thing for me.”
Now the state is expanding a pilot begun in Tampa Bay to crisis centers statewide.
It will eventually link veterans like Murphy with those who are struggling.
“They have survivor guilt,” said Florida Veterans Affairs Secretary Col. Glen Sutphin. “How, why’d I get home? hun? How come my friends didn’t get home? What was the del here? If they are taking care of helping veterans, then every time they save a veteran who says I’m finished, I’m done with life, If they save them, it takes back. It gives something back to that survivors guilt.”
The program is being expanded in two phases, the first will offer counseling.
The second will actually offer veteran to veteran counseling.
So far in 2018, 15,000 vets have called the statewide line.
“He spent a good two hours on the phone with us,” said Big Bend Call Center CoordinatorCarrie Tyree. “At the end of the call, we had connected him with his immediate need, which was food.”
The number one need for vets in crisis? Behavioral health.
Expanding vet to vet counseling statewide will cost the state just over $1 million.

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Teacher Unions File Suit Over New Membership Requirements

July 2nd, 2018 by Jake Stofan
Just one day after this year’s omnibus education bill became law teacher unions around the state have filed suit to stop it.
HB 7055 was signed in March.
It’s requirement that teacher’s unions maintain 50% membership or face decertification took effect Sunday.
“Nobody should be forced to be led when a majority of the people that you’re leading don’t want to be there,” House Speaker Richard Corcoran said back in March.
Unions filed suit Monday.
Attorney Ron Meyer represents the Florida Education Association along with local unions and teachers.
“This lawsuit is specifically targeted in all four counts at this kind of crazy decertification effort that’s been imposed upon only teacher unions in an effort to silence them,” said Meyer.
The lawsuit argues the requirement violates teachers’ right to collectively bargain and unconstitutionally places a burden on teachers that isn’t placed on other public employees.
“This was an effort by the leadership of the House of Representatives and the Florida Legislature to punish teachers and only teachers statewide,” said Meyer.
13 local teachers unions in the state currently have a membership of below 50% including the Leon Classroom Teachers Association.
“Our goal is to be at 55% by the end of May and if not higher,” said Union President Scott Maser.
If the unions don’t get up to 50% before their recertification date, they’ll have to hold an election to decide if it can continue representing local teachers.
“If we don’t get the 50% there’s a tough task ahead of us right now,” said Maser.
Unions will have to meet the 50% goal every year if they don’t want to undergo the costly and time consuming recertification process.
No court date has been set for the case.
Attorneys representing unions say a resolution is likely months away.

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FSU Toutes Highest Four Year Graduation Rate in State History

June 29th, 2018 by Jake Stofan
Florida State University is boasting the highest graduation rate in state history. Seven out of ten students finish within four years.
The success was highlighted at the Board of Governor’s meeting, Tuesday.
“We’re proud of our progress and we don’t take it for granted and we certainly are not going to let our foot off the gas,” said FSU President John Thrasher.
Students we spoke with say graduating in fours years helps them in the long run.
“We definitely will have like less student loans and stuff,” said FSU freshman Tiffany Weidner.
“You get more experience than someone who wouldn’t graduate in four year,” said another freshman at Florida State, Brendan Ledesma. “You get more experience in the actual workforce.”
The graduation rate is up 3% over last year and almost 20% since 2005.
FSU says the steady increase is the result of a targeted approach, including what’s called the ‘Take 15 Initiative’, which encourages students to take 15 credit hours a semester.
“It really helps them focus and it helps them do better because they have to manage their time and be smart about the work that they’re doing,” said Dean of Undergraduate Studies Karen Laughlin.
The increasing student success at FSU has also made it a popular choice for students applying for college.
A record 51,000 students applied for the 2018 Summer and Fall semesters.
But the university will have to turn away about nine out of ten applicants.
President Thrasher says the high level of interest has its own challenges
“We don’t want to cut folks out that really have an opportunity to come here and so we’re enhancing our opportunity in our CARE program, which goes out and tries to solicit kids that probably may be on the margin,” said Thrasher.
FSU is currently ranked the 33rd best public university in the country.
Leadership hopes to break into the top 25 within the next three years.
FSU announced it will be getting $98.7 million in performance funding this week.
That money will go towards helping the university reach its goals.

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Judge Says Committee to Protect Dogs Can’t Fully Participate in Upcoming Case

June 29th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda
A group supporting a ban on Greyhound racing lost a bid in court Friday to fully participate in a July trial.
Greyhound breeders are arguing the ballot language voters will see on Amendment 13 in November is misleading.
The state says it isn’t.
But the two agree on one thing: The Committee to Protect Dogs shouldn’t be allowed to fully participate in next month’s trial.
“It would open the door of intervention by any number of groups or persons,” said Major Harding, an attorney representing breeders.
In an odd parring, the opponents sat together at the plaintiffs table in court, while the Committee to Protect Dogs sat at the opposing counsel’s table.
It argued they were responsible for the amendment getting on the ballot, and they should be allowed to defend the language during trial.
“It is a major set back if we don’t get this on the ballot and if we don’t get it voted on,” said Stephen Turner with the Committee to Protect Dogs.
The Greyhound Association’s lawyers and the State said the matter is simply a question of law. What does the language say and it shouldn’t be opened to emotional arguments.
“The defendants intend vigorously to defend the ballot language,” said Jason Pratt, an attorney representing the Secretary of State.
The judge sided with the state and greyhound breeders.
Despite losing their argument here in court today the folks hoping to ban greyhound racing aren’t upset.
“That’s fine. As long as it gets appealed, it’s fine. She made a very judicious ruling,” said Turner.
The case goes to trial July 26th. A ruling is expected that day.
Under the ruling, the Committee to Protect Dogs would only be allowed to appeal an adverse ruling if the state chose not to do so.

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New Restrictions on Opioid Prescriptions Take Effect Sunday

June 28th, 2018 by Jake Stofan

This weekend marks the start of major changes to the way Florida doctors can prescribe opioid medications.

More than 15 million prescriptions for opioids were given to Florida patients between 2016 and 2017.
The Centers for Disease Control has found a direct correlation between an opioid  prescription being written for a lengthy period of time and the chances someone will become addicted.
“The whole thrust is like, pay attention to the patients so that we can make sure that that person doesn’t go down that pathway to addiction,” said Mark Fontaine with the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association.
A new law taking effect on July 1st will limit doctors to prescribing a three day supply, with the option of up to seven days if deemed medically necessary.
Patients with cancer, terminal illnesses and traumatic injures are expect from the restrictions altogether.
The new law also requires doctors to now check each patients prescription history in the Prescription Drug Monitoring Database before writing a script, which may take some getting used to for medical professionals.
“There will be a learning curve for a lot of healthcare practitioners that were not checking the prescription drug monitoring database prior to the law being implemented,” said Joe Anne Hart with the Florida Dental Association.
The law also expands the prescription data base across state lines to prevent doctor shopping.
“Like here in Tallahassee you could run up to Georgia and get a doctor there,” said Fontaine. “You could run to Valdosta and get a doctor and now we’ll be able to check that.”
The new law will require ongoing education for best practices for physicians who prescribe opioids.
Getting up to speed will be important, because the new law also raises the criminal penalty for irresponsibly prescribing opioids, increasing potential prison time from five to 15 years.
The new law will also make more than $52 million in state and federal funds available for drug treatment programs and resources.

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Committee to Decide Future Home of Confederate Statute

June 28th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda
Florida is getting closer to replacing the statue of a Confederate General who has represented the state in the U-S Capitol since 1922, but a committee meeting in the state Capitol must first decide where the confederate general  will be relocated.
Florida sent Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith to the US Capitol’s statuary hall in 1922. Born in St. Augustine, he barely lived in the state. His claim to fame was that he commanded the last confederate force to surrender.
“And then fled the country after the Confederacy lost the Civil War,” said U.S. Representative Cathy Castor when we spoke with her last July.
Castor has been pushing for Smith’s removal since she was sent to Washington in 2006.
“General Kirby Smith is not an appropriate depiction of the great people of the state of Florida,” said Castor.
This year, lawmakers voted to replace Smith with Mary McLeod Bethune.
Die hard supporters of General Smith want him moved here to the Capitol Plaza, or inside the Capitol, but that’s not going to happen.
That’s because no agency or state official has suggested that’s a good idea.
“I know there are people on both sides of the issue that have very strong feelings,” said Towson Fraser with the Florida Arts Council.
Shortly after these picture were taken Fraser took his family to the Capitol and Smith had been moved.
“And was told he’s in an inaccessible area and you’re not allowed to go look at him,” said Fraser. “So it seems to me anyway that no matter where we put him here in Florida, he’s going to be in a more accessible publicly available place.”
Finding a suitable new home for the General is one of the requirements for replacing a statute in statuary hall.
At least three other states have replaced statues in the US Capitol since it was permitted in 2000.
Florida’s other statute is of John Gorrie, who is credited with inventing the first ice machine, making him the father of air conditioning.

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Water Wars

June 27th, 2018 by Jake Stofan
The U-S Supreme Court gave Florida a partial victory today in its decades long battle for water with the state of Georgia.
In Eastpoint, Florida on the shore of Apalachicola Bay, fresh water kept from flowing by the state of Georgia has devastated the fishing industry.
Oyster boats remain docked along the shore.
It once produced 90% of the oysters consumed in Florida, and 10% of the nation’s supply.
But six years ago the bay collapsed.
A  water starved Georgia turned off the spigot at Lake Lanier, so it could send the water to Atlanta.
“We need that freshwater to support the bay. It’s the lifeblood of the bay,” said Georgia Ackerman with Apalachicola Riverkeeper. “The nutrients that come down the river support not only the estuary of Apalachicola Bay, but fresh water continues down the west coast of Florida taking care of a very important commercial fishing industry.”
With less fresh water flowing, the bay has become more salty, bringing more predators.
Shannon Hartsfield represents the Franklin County Seafood Worker’s Association.
“Our salinity is staying so high in the bay its ridiculous,” said Hartsfield.
The case now goes back to a special master, where Florida will have to prove that it has been hurt more than Georgia will be hurt in the future it f it has less water.
With the oyster industry already devastated,, those who work the bay say this decision is likely too little too late.
“We have very few oysters to reproduce, and once thats gone, it’s over with,” said Hartsfield. “There’s no opportunity for jobs here. There’s no industry here for a job. So, there’s no hope here.”
Without a flow of freshwater into the bay and then into the gulf, the entire gulf fishery could be doomed.
Only a few dozen people oyster in the bay, down from more than 100 when drought forced Georgia to begin taking more water around 2010.

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