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Legislation Aims to Reduce Human Trafficking in Florida

February 22nd, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Human trafficking reportedly generates $32 billion dollars a year worldwide.

The crime is particularly prevalent in Florida.

Earlier this year, Tallahassee mother Celeste Chambers was found guilty and faces life in prison for trafficking her now 18-year-old daughter since she was only two years old.

In the first 6 months of 2018, there were 367 reported cases of human trafficking, giving Florida the third highest number in the nation.

A Legislative push led by Senator Lauren Book to address trafficking in the state is moving, but also faces opposition from some victim advocates.

“We can and we must do more,” said Book.

Book’s bill would create a registry for people who solicit prostitution and those who profit from selling others for sex.

Corporal Alan Wilkett is part of the Tampa Bay Regional Human Trafficking Task Force.

He says registries in other states have reduced the demand for prostitution.

“And reducing demand is critical in order to bring down human trafficking,” said Wilkett.

However, a group representing consensual sex workers says the punishment is too harsh.

“Creating another tool that puts people’s names on a list, just creates another barrier for them once they pay their debt to society,” said Jill McCracken with the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP).

Christine Hanavan, also with SWOP, argues the Legislation doesn’t allow victims to decide when they’re ready to come forward.

That’s because the bill requires law enforcement and hotel workers undergo training to identify and report trafficking victims.

“A victim could be placed in greater danger by making a report against their will,” said Hanavan.

The hotel industry says the goal isn’t to take power away from victims.

Samantha Padgett with the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association argues it’s a way for the industry to fight back against traffickers.

“We look at this as prevention rather than just helping something after it’s already happened,” said Padgett.

The Legislation would require all hotel workers to receive training within six months of being hired, or by the start of 2021, which ever comes first.

Senator Book was receptive to the concerns brought up in the bill’s most recent committee stop, suggesting the Legislation might see some changes moving forward.

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Significant Issues Persist With Medical Marijuana Rollout

February 21st, 2019 by Jake Stofan

State senators got an earful today on the business of medical marijuana.

There are significant concerns over a lack of research, licenses and in-state growers.

It’s been nearly two year’s since lawmakers passed the law implementing medical marijuana.

Of the 185,000 active patients four out of ten are prescribed medical marijuana for chronic pain.

One out of five prescriptions are written for patients suffering from PTSD.

21 growers licenses should have been issued by now, but only 14 actually have.

Cannabis advocates say that’s hurting patients.

“Is the patient getting access to the best possible products for the best possible price? And until this program is fully evolved the answer to that is no,” said Jodi James with the Florida Cannabis Action Network.

Only four of the licenses are still held by Florida companies, most have been sold.

Growers licenses have sold for as much as $80 million, yet three license holders haven’t dispensed a single product.

“It’s largely out of state companies that are doing this,” said Senator Jeff Brandes. “There’s product shortages, there’s problems, there’s companies that aren’t growing, they’re hoarding their licenses. It’s not about patients. We need to make this about patients and wee need to make it about research.”

However there are problems on the research end as well.

No funding has reached Moffitt cancer center for eight proposed studies and Federal laws make any clinical trials nearly impossible.

“This board will not and is not able to do any sort of studies on any sort of product that is grown here in the state of Florida,” said Jamie Wilson Moffitt Cancer Center.

It’s not clear what if any legislative fixes may be proposed.

Some think the department of health could address the problems through rule making, but doh has mostly dragged its feet throughout implementation.

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New Bill Would Exempt Recordings of Mass Shootings from Public Records

February 21st, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Balancing the rights of victims and their families involved in mass shootings and the public’s right to know proved a difficult task for lawmakers Thursday afternoon in the state Capitol.

Photos, video, and audio leading up to, during, or after a mass killing of three or more would be exempt from public records under new legislation.

“First of all, the potential commercialization of it getting into the wrong hands, but there is also some concern about this video and photographic evidence being used to train people to do similar acts,” said Senator Tom Lee.

The Southern Poverty Law says four words in the bill, all acts or events, would have kept video of cops hiding, not engaging, at Parkland from public view.

“It might show the perpetrator entering and how they got in. It might show the footage afterwards which would show how he or she got out. It shows what law enforcement response was,” said Scott McCoy with the SPLC.

“It was the ability to access those records, and then the reporting on them, that made a difference,” said Barbara Petersen with the First Amendment Foundation.

As it’s written, the legislation wouldn’t protect the victims from a shooting at a yoga studio in the State’s Capital City, because only two died.

“I say why not two? Why not one? My State Attorney in Jacksonville has brought a case where there’s this one person that was killed and bad people want pictures of a little girl who was murdered. And that’s wrong,” said Senator Aaron Bean.

So far, compromise has proved elusive, yet both sides say they are sympathetic to the other.

The legislation does allow a court to order records be made public, but in the Parkland case, media outlets spent a hundred thousand dollars in legal fees, something experts say could not be sustained for multiple cases.

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Smokable Marijuana Headed to Chamber Floors

February 21st, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Lawmakers appear to be on track to pass Legislation that would allow smokable medical marijuana by the Governor’s mid-March deadline.

After clearing a House Committee Thursday, both the House and Senate bills are on their way to the chamber floors.

The House version prohibits smoking for anyone under the age of 18, while the Senate bill allows for the option if the patient is terminal and smoking is recommended by two doctors as the most effective treatment.

Senate Sponsor Jeff Brandes threatened to withdraw his bill early on because of an amendment that would have severely restricted access, but now says the bill closer reflects the will of the voters.

“I think it’s roughly where I’m comfortable with the bill as it stands today. I mean I’d like to add some more flexibility for those under 18 to have a pathway to access, but for the most part I’m comfortable and would be willing to stand in front of the Senate and represent that this is a good product,” said Senator Jeff Brandes.

The House bill also requires smokable medical marijuana only be dispensed in the form of pre-rolled cigarettes.

The Senate version doesn’t include that restriction.

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Local Control at Issue in Proposed School Board Term Limit Amendment

February 20th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

A proposal to put term limits on local school boards is moving forward in the state Capitol, but not without controversy and concern.

Momentum is building to give local residents a say on whether they want term limits in their individual counties.

State lawmakers have been limited to 8 years in office since term limits took effect after the 1992 election.

Now some say what’s good enough for them, is good for school board members as well.

“I’m not even sure Florida’s beautiful beaches wold poll as high as term limits do,” said House Sponsor Rep. Anthony Sabatini.

A new poll released in the committee shows term limits widely popular with the general public, with 70 plus percent approval even in rural counties.

Even with those numbers, a rift started developing in the committee.

“Shouldn’t local citizens should decide for themselves, at that county by county level if they
Want to establish localized place based term limits,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani.

One by one, a half dozen members said they wanted to let local communities decide if their school boards members should face 8 year limits.

“I don’t believe voters in one part of the state should be able to change the basic structure of local government in another part of the state,” said Rich Templin with the Florida AFLCIO.

The legislation cleared its second committee with no changes, at least for the time being.

The first year term limits kicked in, there were 63 new members elected to the Florida House.

That’s more than half the membership.

Senate President Bill Galvano was first elected after term limits kicked in.

He says they are a mixed bag for lawmakers.

“I don’t believe that because of term limits, our system here in Tallahassee is by any means broken,” said Galvano.

If term limits eventually apply to school boards, either statewide or county by county, they would be the only local officials with such a limit.

While statewide term limits for school board members moved forward, a big fight over the county by county vote is expected at its next committee meeting.

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DeSantis Criticizes New York for Losing Amazon

February 20th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Governor Ron DeSantis gave a keynote speech to the Florida Economics Club in the State Capitol Wednesday.

He promised Florida would remain a low tax state while he’s Governor, and criticized New York for losing Amazon, not over taxes, but what he called a hostile political climate.

“I think that this hostility to companies like Amazon, a-lot of the financial institutions are consistently demagogue. And I just think they are paying a price for doing that companies,” said DeSantis. “What I can say on behalf of Florida for companies like Amazon, we welcome you to come to Florida.”

DeSantis didn’t take questions afterward, so it is unclear if he is actively seeking to bring Amazon to the state after they decided not to build a new headquarters in New York.

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Pro-Choice Advocates Worried by Looming Parental Consent Bill

February 20th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Planned parenthood says it expects lawmakers to introduce legislation requiring minors to have parental consent for an abortion.

Right now, only parental notification is required.

The group says lawmakers want to test whether or not a new Supreme Court would approve the requirement.

Kimberly Scott with Planned Parenthood says seven out of ten teens would go to their parents, but she says there are strong reasons why the other three can’t.

“Unfortunately for those three, there is a very, very particular reason,” said Scott. “Whether it is a sexual assault, whether it is incense, reasons why they do not approach their parents in this situation. So, and as a minor , you are already limited with resources, right. You don’t have transportation.lack of financial support.”

Courts have previously ruled the state’s encompassing privacy amendment protects minors’ right to seek abortions.

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Florida’s Best and Bravest Law Enforcement Honored at Capitol

February 20th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Florida’s top law enforcement officers were honored Wednesday morning for their bravery and courage.

Nine officers from eight agencies were recognized.

Nominees for the 2018 Florida Law Enforcement Officer of the Year broke major cases, took down mass shooters, were shot and one was even killed in the line of duty.

“It’s important for us as a community, as a state to remember how dangerous this job is,” said Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody.

The top award went to Miami Deputy Manuel Gonzalez, who was shot six times during an encounter with a dangerous criminal, but still managed to apprehend his attacker.

“Overall with my recovery process, I feel great. It’s been a little over a year already since my incident and I’m happy to be here,” said Gonzalez.

Among seven other nominees was Highway Patrol trooper Nicholas Dolan, who in February of 2017, stopped a potential mass shooter in Citrus County.

The encounter was captured on dash cam.

Also Deputy Jesus Madrigal, who arrested the Fort Lauderdale airport shooter with a lightening fast response.

“It was a total of only 86 seconds,” said Moody.

Nominee, Lieutenant Debra Clayton was killed in the line of duty.

Her son and husband accepted the award on her behalf.

“You know when they walk out the door you never know if they’re going to come back or not. So you know you just gotta stay prayed up and keep your faith,” said Debra’s husband, Seth Clayton.

Lt. Clayton is one of nearly 1,600 law enforcement officers who’ve died in the line of duty nationwide in the past decade.

A moment of silence was held at the ceremony in honor of 11 Florida law enforcement officers who lost their lives in the line of duty in 2018.

Nationwide, 150 officers lost their lives last year.

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Florida First Step Act Could Bring Major Criminal Justice Reforms

February 19th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Criminal Justice advocates are pushing a sweeping reform package aimed at reducing criminal sentences and helping rehabilitate prisoners instead of simply punishing them.

The Florida First Step act is modeled after a recently passed Federal law.

Florida prisons house nearly 100,000 inmates, costing taxpayers $2.6 billion a year.

Most inmates will be released within 5 years.

“That’s 85,000 people back out on the streets,” said Senator Keith Perry. “Are they going to be good citizens or are they going to recidivate?”

The problem, criminal justice reformers say, is that Florida’s system focuses more on punishment, not rehabilitation.

To shift the focus, some lawmakers are pushing the Florida First Step Act.

Among many changes, it would give judges discretion to divert from mandatory minimum sentences in non violent drug offenses and offer up to 60 days off sentences if they learn a trade of get an education.

“These are best practices from around the country that Florida would now be implementing and I think that’s all very positive,” said bill sponsor Senator Jeff Brandes.

A similar reform for federal prisons passed at the end of last year.

It’s the reason Matthew Charles, who was sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 35 years for possession crack cocaine, is a free man today.

The Federal First step act  allowed judges to consider Charles’ behavior and efforts to change when deciding whether to release him early.

“Something was done on my behalf, but there’s thousands or hundreds of thousands of others, that nothing is being done on their behalf because they don’t have that voice,” said Charles.

However, Governor Ron DeSantis, who voted for the Federal law as a Congressman, is hesitant to support the initiative on the state level.

“The character of the crimes are a lot different. I mean, the Federal tends to be drug trafficking, there’s a lot of white collar [crimes],” said DeSantis. “The state you have a lot more just violent crimes.”

Similar reforms have failed in year’s past, but supporters hope the passage of the National First Step Act will give the legislation the push it needs.

The Florida First Step Act hasn’t been put on the agenda for any committees as of now.

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Drug Sentence Reforms Clear First Committee Stops

February 19th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Two bills aimed at reforming sentencing for certain drug offenses passed their first Senate committee stop this morning.

The first would change the way a sentence is determined for possession of pills by basing thresholds on the number of pills instead of their weight.

The second bill would give immunity from prosecution to those who report drug overdoses.

Sponsor Senator Jeff Brandes says the two reforms are one of the first steps in a larger push for criminal justice reform.

“Whether it be the bill that moves from weights and looks at actual dosage units or the Good Samaritan Act, which allows people to be free of prosecution if they’re acting in good faith to help somebody who is a friend who is experiencing an overdose, that to me is another step in the right direction as we move towards criminal justice reform,” said Brandes.

Brandes is also sponsoring a number of other criminal justice reforms this session, including the Florida First Step Act.

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Governor Wants Space Force to Come to Florida

February 19th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Tuesday was space day at the state Capitol and Governor Ron DeSantis used the occasion to call on the President to locate the command center for his proposed Space Force in Florida.

“I think we have obviously facilities, such as Cape Canaveral, where that would be a natural fit. I think that will be very good for the state of Flordia, but I also think given our history in space, given all the resources that are now in Florida, I think it would make a lot of strategic sense to do that,” said DeSantis.

As a precedent, Florida is already home to the Army’s Central and Southern command centers.

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Governor Defends Teacher Bonuses Over Pay Raise

February 19th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Governor Ron DeSantis defended his proposal to offer bonuses to high performing teachers Tuesday afternoon.

The Governor’s plan would offer $9,000 bonuses to as many as 45,000 teachers in the state.

The state’s largest teachers union argues the money would be better spent on raising teacher pay overall.

DeSantis says the bonuses guarantee teachers will actually see the money.

“I’m not necessarily opposed to doing that, in terms of higher salaries. Different districts have done it different ways, but that ultimately is a decision that is negotiated collectively,” said DeSantis. “Our bonus program doesn’t involve that and it goes basically straight from the state to the teacher and I think that’s a good way to do it.”

The Governor’s plan would allocate $423 million for bonuses under the state’s Best and Brightest Program.

It would also remove college entrance test scores from being a factor in determining whether teachers qualify for the bonus.

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PBA Responds to “Not Our Governor” Billboards With Message of Its Own

February 19th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Governor Ron DeSantis has been in office just over a month and is getting generally high marks from both political insiders and the general public.

However, a civil rights group has been protesting the Governor since the day he was sworn in, which has prompted a police union to stick up for the governor.

Two billboards critical of Ron DeSantis, sponsored by the Dream Defenders, popped up in the state Capitol shortly after he took office.

Both depict the Governor as a puppet of corporations.

We emailed the Dream Defenders with questions about the billboards, but they didn’t respond, but they did have plenty to say when they watched the inauguration.

“Ron DeSantis has made it very clear that he is deeply in bed with some of the corporations that are harming people in this state,” said Rachael Gilmer, a member of the Dream Defenders.

The anti-DeSantis billboards didn’t sit well with Florida’s Police Benevolent Association.

“Governor DeSantis has come in and he’s been a really good Governor across the board for everyone,” said Matt Puckett with the Florida PBA. “We saw the billboard that said he’s not our Governor, and well, he’s everybody’s Governor, and we wanted to make that known.”

During the 2018 election, The Dream Defenders pushed candidates to sign what they called freedom papers, which also irked the law enforcement group.

“Law enforcement shouldn’t exist. Prisons shouldn’t exist,” said Puckett. “So we took offense to that,”

We sent pictures of both billboards to the Governor’s Press Office.

Their response: The Governor will always come down on the side of law enforcement.

We caught up with Lt. Governor Jeannette Nunez.

She hadn’t seen the Dream Defenders bill boards.

“You know, I think Ron DeSantis has shown he’s the Governor for all Floridians and if people want to take out ads, that’s their preoperative, but we’re not worried about nonsense like that,” said Nunez. “We’re worried about leading the state of Florida in the right direction, which is what we are doing.”

Until the middle of March, the Governor is likely to see this billboard on his ride home each night.

The Dream Defenders did endorse Andrew Gillum, who fell about 33,000 votes shy of winning against now Governor DeSantis.

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New Lawmakers, New Menu for Capitol Restaurant

February 19th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

A restaurant in the shadow of the Capitol has a power menu, with items named after those who govern.

FSU President John Thrasher has a power-bowl salad, several state senators have burgers, as does the Lt. Governor.

The tradition takes place almost every election, but once you are out of office, so goes your name from the menu.

Lt. Governor Jeannette Nunez told us she not had planned to stay in office.

“But that didn’t happen. You know when the governor called me and asked me to join him on the ticket. Here I am and now I have a sandwich named after me, so I guess that’s one of the perks of deciding to come on board with Governor DeSantis,” said Nunez.

“Everybody wants the event for life, the item for life. When you don’t get reelected, or term out, bam. You’re done, so, thank you for being here,” said Andrews Restaurant owner Andy Reiss.

The menu was inspired by a New York deli that names dishes after Broadway plays and actors.

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NRA Wants to Give New Ag Commissioner a Chance

February 18th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

After 291 people were improperly issued concealed carry licenses by a previous administration, Florida’s new Commissioner of Agriculture vowed to fix the program.

While the NRA initially opposed the new commissioner, the organization now wants to give her a chance.

Both the NRA and Fried are toning down their support for moving the concealed carry licensing program out of the Department of Agriculture.

In a newsletter former NRA President Marion Hammer said the program should stay put, but called on Fried to focus on fixing quote ‘real problems’ with the program, warning 1.9 million license holders will be watching.

“There’s nothing wrong with saying that you’re going to fix things that are wrong and we suspect that she’s going to do that. Trying to fix imaginary problems though, that’s another thing,” said Hammer.

Hammer says one problem that should be addressed to improve concealed carry permitting is an issue where people with out of state arrests are blocked from acquiring a permit, even in some cases where they were never convicted of a crime.

After Fried took office, Hammer had suggested moving the licensing program to the Chief Financial Officer, while Fried supported moving it to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

“It’s irresponsible to just pick it up and move it to another department just because it’s a Democrat that’s been elected,” Fried said in January.

Commissioner Fried now says her main priority is to look at recommendations from an internal report and a separate inspector general’s report concerning the licensing program.

The NRA is also supportive of Fried picking Stephen Hurm to head the Division of Licensing.

Hurm is the husband of gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham.

“We don’t expect to see any abuse of power out of him, nor would we expect that he would allow any,” said Hammer.

While both Fried and Hammer have toned down the rhetoric, Hammer says the two have not been in direct communication.

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