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DCF Seeks Help From Lawmakers to Address Children Who Refuse Placement

October 18th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The Department of Children and Families is asking lawmakers to help them with a pressing issue: What to do with children in the foster care system who refuse placement.

One idea would be to place the children in secure facilities to ensure they get the services they need, but the idea is receiving pushback.

An investigation by WFLA found foster care children were sleeping in cars and offices in a Tampa facility.

They had refused placement.

“Twenty to 30 children sleeping in an office building. It’s completely unacceptable,” said DCF Secretary Chad Poppell.

Poppell said the issue isn’t isolated.

“This is a problem that’s all over the state,” said Poppell.

Victoria Zepp with the Florida Coalition for Children estimates there a few dozen children in the foster care system who have refused to accept placement and services.

She said often they come from the worst situations.

“The trauma runs deep,” said Zepp.

A controversial idea endorsed by Poppell would be to put the kids in secure facilities where services can be administered, which some have likened to prisons.

Poppell said it’s a mischaracterization.

“This is not a detention facility, but it is a secured facility where you can get treatment,” said Poppell.

Zepp warns it’s a fine line.

“At what point clinically do you force a child to be able to have an intervention that will truly save their life?” Said Zepp.

The Florida Coalition for Children is endorsing increased wrap around services for the most vulnerable kids in the foster care system.

One goal floated by DCF is to refocus the agency to prevent kids from entering the system on the front end.

Whatever the strategy, Poppell said one thing is clear.

“We’re not serving these children well and I’m not doing my job if I don’t look for other alternatives,” said Zepp.

On a positive note, community based care programs are hopeful that Senator Wilton Simpson, who has been designated as the next Senate President, has vowed to make the foster care system one of his top priorities.

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Parkland Families Advocating for Senate to Uphold Former Broward County Sheriff’s Suspension

October 18th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

A historic trial at the State Capitol next week will decide whether the sheriff in charge during the parkland shootings in South Florida gets his job back.

The possible reinstatement has become so emotional that at least one death threat has been made.

The family of Meadow Pollack, one of 17 killed in the Parkland massacre, were making the rounds meeting with Senators who will ultimately vote to re-instate or uphold the suspension of former Broward Sheriff Scott Israel.

State Senator Tom Lee said it was a difficult meeting.

“And they are pretty passionate about seeing Sheriff Israel removed from office. But I found them to be very respectful,” said Lee.

Passionate indeed.

A number, if not all of the Parkland families will be represented in Tallahassee next week.

Andrew Pollack said they are all in unison that Israel not be re-instated.

“He put failed policies in place. Deputies may go in rather than shall. Forty-five calls to the killers house without any type of protocols. Eight of his deputies failed to enter the building. He failed to follow up on a tip this kid was going to be a shooter. He command center failed. A captain resigned. A lutenient resigned,” said Andrew Pollack.

Special Master Dudley Goodlet recommended Israel be re-instated.

The Department pf Law Enforcement is investigating a threat against his life.

The Senate has confirmed a threat against his life is being investigated.

Extra security will be in place in the Capitol on Monday.

The Florida Sheriff’s Association isn’t taking a position.

Republican Sheriffs outnumber Democrats three to one.

Full blown Senate trials like the one that will begin Monday for Scott Israel are few and far between.

“History is watching the Senate just like Scott Israel is, and we will be reviewed how we handle this moment in history,” said Lee.

Since 1968, the Florida Senate has upheld three of every five gubernatorial suspensions of an elected official.

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Tallahassee Prepares for Nestor

October 18th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Residents in the state’s capital and across the panhandle are preparing for potential impacts of tropical storm Nestor currently headed for the Northern gulf coast.

Citizens living in areas prone to floods began filling up sand bags this morning.

“I’m assuming there’s going to be a lot of water with it and we’re in an area in the Killearn area where we do get a lot water especially in our front yard. [We’re] concerned about our garage and all of our entrances,” said Tallahassee resident Glenn Hunter.

The storm is a grim reminder that many are still trying to recover from Hurricane Michael.

17,000 insurance claims remain open from that storm.

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Florida Prisons Facing Crisis

October 17th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Violence and contraband in state prisons is going unchecked by underpaid and overworked corrections officers.

Prison reformers warn if lawmakers don’t turn the situation around soon, they may never get the chance again.

Three officers including a Captain were arrested and fired this summer after an inmate captured a video on a contraband cellphone showing a violent assault.

Cheryl Weimar is suing in federal court after an alleged beating by officers that turned her into a quadriplegic.

At least two dozen correctional officers have been fired, some arrested, this year for violating Department policy or breaking the law.

State Senate Jeff Brandes said the prison system in in crisis.

“They’re struggling in a variety of different metrics. Officer and inmate violence is up, inmate to inmate violence is up. Contraband is up almost five hundred percent in the Department of Corrections in the last ten years,” said Brandes.

The violence is blamed on inexperience and 12 hour shifts, which are the norm for officers.

Officers start at $33,500.

So this week, the Department of Corrections asked for an additional $90 million to reduce work hours.

“The negative impact to the agency is undeniable,” said DOC Secretary Mark Inch.

Inch is the 7th Secretary in nine years.

“They’ve basically been rudderless,” said Brandes.

Experts believe staffing up and regaining control of the prisons won’t solve the problems by itself.

They argue lowering the inmate population would make the biggest impact..

To reduce pressure on the system, Democrats are calling for reducing sentences, from 85 to 65 percent, for non violent offenders behind bars.

“Equating to the release of over ten thousand people,” said bill sponsor Rep. Diane Hart.

It is an idea Brandes, a Republican, embraces.

“It’s really one of the only solutions that’s truly viable,” said Brandes.

Brandes has given the department until the end of the year to come up with a master plan, but whether lawmakers embrace it is another question.

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House Lawmakers Crunch Numbers on Teacher Pay Rise

October 17th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

House lawmakers took their first look into raising teacher salaries in Florida Thursday.

Teacher pay raises have been one of the biggest asks from the state’s largest teachers union for years.

“Put something into salary. Something people can rely on. Something that allows them to buy a house,” said Martin Powell with the Florida Education Association.

Finally in September, the union was met with good news from Governor Ron DeSantis.

“We are going to do something significant on teacher recruitment and compensation,” said DeSantis.

The Governor is asking lawmakers to increase starting salaries for teachers to $47,500 a year.

Florida currently ranks 26th in the nation for starting teacher pay.

Under the Governor’s proposal Florida would move up to number two.

The House subcommittee took a deep dive into the current state of teacher compensation.

The average Florida teacher makes just over $48,500 a year, with the highest average pay in Monroe County at nearly $60,000.

Gadsden County has the lowest average pay at just shy of $38,500.

Chair Chris Latvala made one thing clear.

“Everything is on the table so to speak,” said Latvala.

Members of the committee seemed to favor an across the board pay raise over just raising starting salary.

“I met a teacher recently who has been teaching for 15 years… and is making $48,000 a year. So she would be making $500 more than a brand new teacher,” said Latvala.

Finding money for an pay increase will be challenging.

Hurricane costs and fear of an economic slow down have lowered revenue projections by $867 million over the next two years.

“We have to make sure that the money is there and we’re going to do everything that we can to find it,” said Latvala.

The chairman sent committee members home with a homework assignment: Find a way to repurpose $520 million to make the pay raise possible.

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Lawmakers Continue Marijuana Hearings

October 16th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

With two amendments circulating that could legalize marijuana, state lawmakers got two presentations Wednesday.

One on what happened in Colorado and the other on the Florida’s medical marijuana industry.

Legalization in Colorado appears to have been more successful than Florida’s efforts with medical marijuana.

Andrew Freedman oversaw Colorado’s marijuana legalization.

Since 2014 there have been just over 100 fatal accidents in which marijuana was in the system, but accident rates have not increased.

“Colorado had 11 deaths per 100,000 of population. The national average that year was 11.6 deaths,” said Freedman.

And contrary to other reports, underage use did not skyrocket in Colorado.

“There was a surprisingly significant decrease post commercialization in Colorado,” said Freedman.

And when it comes to vaping illnesses, he said the problem was not with legal vendors.

“Most of it is coming out of the black market, which has been thought that there is a quality control issue black market vaping products,” said Freedman.

Lawmakers were told there was nothing nefarious about fewer than 100 doctors making the most medical marijuana recommendations.

The two biggest problems are cost and the availability of physicians.

“There are patients who live in counties that don’t have a dispensary. Or patients who don’t live in counties with a qualifying physician,” said Executive Director of the Florida Board of Medicine Claudia Kemp.

And Florida NORML told lawmakers high costs were driving patients back into the black market or cheaper alternatives.

“It so much easier to go and get a five or ten dollar prescription. So you’ve seen an increase in opioid overdose deaths with every county in Florida with that has a restrictive policy for medical marijuana,” said Villar.

The result has been 25 percent of the state’s medical marijuana approved patients leaving the system.

Colorado received more than $250 million last year in tax revenue from marijuana.

The money was used to build and repair schools.

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Lawmakers Seek Parking Protections for Law Enforcement

October 16th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Legislation unveiled Wednesday would prohibit home owners associations from banning law enforcement officers from parking their marked or unmarked cars in their driveway.

The legislation is a result of a Clearwater officer being told she could not park her patrol car in the driveway because it was considered a commercial vehicle.

State Senator Ed Hopper who represents Clearwater filed the bill.

“And I’ve had so many phone calls from other associations like, We want to have a marked cruiser in our community because it is a deterrent to bad things that bad people do. So, we’re going to try our best to correct this inequity, and make sure that any law enforcement officer in a marked or unmarked law enforcement vehicle has the right and privilege to park their vehicle in the driveway,” said Hooper.

Several years ago, lawmakers waded into a homeowners association dispute after the association tried to ban the flying of the American flag.

Sponsors equated that incident to the prohibition of police cars.

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Lawmakers Looking to Reduce Hurricane Insurance Payment Delays

October 16th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Lawmakers are trying get to the bottom of why many insurance claims for Hurricane Michael took moths to close and why more than 17,000 remain open a year after the storm.

Policy holders are asking for stricter punishments for insurers who delay payment.

To this day one out of ten insurance claims from Hurricane Michael remain open.

Ann and Randy Seglers’ Panama City home suffered catastrophic damage.

“It rained in our entire house. Singles were blown off and there was no protection,” sad Ann.

A year later, they’re still living in a camper on their property waiting on their insurance company to pay.

“We’re just in limbo,” said Randy.

Attorney Chip Merlin represents the Seglers and others like them.

Of the more than 1,700 complaints received by the Department of Financial Services concerning Hurricane Michael claims, more than half deal with claim handling delays.

Merlin blames insurance companies for dragging out the claims process and delaying payment.

“There’s no penalty right now for insurance companies that are delaying it and we’ve got to have more teeth in our laws so that they’re being held accountable,” said Merlin.

Lawmakers are listening to policy holder advocates like Merlin and also from insurers to try to find solutions.

“When there’s claim delay it hurts the entire community and that’s what’s going on in Panama City Florida,” said Merlin.

While many policy holders have had to seek help from attorneys to close their claims, insurance companies argue excessive litigation is the biggest problem.

Five percent of Michael claims are in litigation.

“What’s happening in Hurricane Michael litigated claims is a gold rush,” said Locke Burt with Security First Insurance.

But policy holder advocates shoot back, arguing if insurers paid on time there wouldn’t be a problem.

“Far from a gold rush, this is a crying shame,” said Property Insurance Claims Attorney Amy Boggs.

Florida’s Consumer Advocate and the Chief Financial Officer are working on a consumer protection package to hopefully speed up payments after a storm.

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Lawmakers Propose Cost Protections for Breast Cancer Screenings

October 16th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Each week 264 men and women are diagnosed with breast cancer in Florida.

52 will lose their lives to the disease, but specialists agree the best way to increase survival rates is early detection.

For many specialized screenings come at a high cost, but Senator Lori Berman, a breast cancer survivor, has filed a bill that would prevent insurers from over charging.

“Presently when an individual has a mammogram and follow up treatment is advised insurers can charge unlimited amounts for the follow up. The high cost can result in individuals delaying or even canceling potentially life saving diagnostic treatment,” said Berman.

The bill would require any follow up screening after an initial mammogram cost no more than the deductible paid for the mammogram.

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Lawmakers Hear Case Against Legal Marijuana

October 15th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Members of a House committee heard from a Harvard scientist about the potential pitfalls of legalizing recreational marijuana in Florida.

The scientist argued the social costs might outweigh any economic benefits.

House majority leader Ray Rodrigues has long raised concerns over the use of marijuana.

“High THC that’s being smoked on a daily basis is harmful,” said Rodrigues in a committee meeting in April of 2019.

Now, in the Committee he chairs he’s bringing scientists to give lawmakers a glimpse into some of the data that he says is often left out of the legalization debate.

Dr. Bertha Madras, a Harvard Professor of Psychobiology expressed concerns over rising THC content in modern cannabis and increased rates of depression, psychosis, schizophrenia, suicide and other substance abuse among marijuana users.

“It is the most self-delusional drug of all,” said Madras. “People are not aware of what’s happening to them as they use heavily, as they use more and more, as it erodes their sense of wellbeing.”

Another concern raised by the Harvard Professor debt with recent vaping illnesses across the US.

She said 75 percent of cases were related to THC vaporizers, not nicotine.

“I urge this state to be thoughtful and diligent before launching yet another massive human experiment,” said Madras.

Advocates push back, attributing many of the issues marijuana users experience to social stigma.

“Normalization, it’ll help all around with families, with family relations, with just everything in general,” said Melissa Villar with NORML Florida.

The presentations are strictly to educate lawmakers, who may find themselves in a position of developing regulations around legal marijuana whether they like it or not.

Three citizen initiatives for legalization are gathering signatures for the 2020 ballot.

“And it’s important we’re equipped with facts that we can then share with our constituents,” said Rep. Rodrigues.

Testimony from a former Colorado Marijuana official and the Florida Board of Health will be heard Wednesday.

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Lawmakers Give First Approval to Internet Sales Tax Collection

October 15th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida is losing $700 million a year it is already owed on internet sales.

State lawmakers took the first step to begin collecting the money, passing the bill through its first committee Tuesday, but there are concerns over who will benefit from the collections.

A 2018 US Supreme Court decision cleared the way for states to start collecting taxes from vendors who make internet sales made into their state.

43 of 45 states with a sales tax jumped on the idea.

“Only us and Missouri. We are falling behind the times and its not fair for anyone in our state,” said Senator Joe Grutuers who is sponsoring the Senate bill.

In Florida the payment remains voluntary.

Purchasers must fill out a form and submit a check.

Fewer than 5,000 forms are filed each year.

Retail giant Walmart urged support for the measure.

So did the Florida Conservation Voters.

“We many unmet needs in terms of conservation initiatives, protecting our precious water quality,” said Lindsey Cross with FCV.

Earlier this year it was the Governor who killed the idea because he thought it looked too much like a tax increase, but sponsors have been working on him ever since.

The sponsor and business groups would like to see the $700 million that would be collected go to tax reductions on business rents.

“And I thing we should continue working on eliminating the commercial rent tax,” said Gruters.

The cash is enough to pay for a teacher raises pushed by the Governor, but the AFL-CIO is worried the people who pay the tax won’t benefit.

“If we take $700 million from working families that buy things online and turn around and give it to folks, who quite frankly, don’t need a tax cut, That would be really bad for Florida,” said Rich Templin with the AFL-CIO.

The legislation contains an exemption for out of state retailers.

If they sell less than one hundred products or have sales less than $200,000 annually, they do not have to collect Florida sales tax.

As lawmakers sort things out, buyers should beware.

The Department of Revenue has audited some people who failed to report small internet purchases, which is a first for the tax collectors.

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Sigfredo Garcia Spared Death Penalty

October 15th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

A jury recommended and a judge in the state capital has imposed a life sentence on Sigfredo Garcia, the man convicted of killing FSU law professor Dan Markel in a murder for hire plot.

Garcia’s lawyer, Saam Zangeneh said his defense was hampered because Garcia would not take the stand to implicate the mother of his two children, who was tried with him.

“Her Lawyer said it was Sigfredo to Charlie. We could have easily said Katie to Charlie and Sigfredo had nothing to do with this, and Luis. We could have made that argument. I think it would have been a stronger argument for us to make, but we were instructed not to make that argument,” said Zangeneh.

And after the sentencing, Ruth Markel, the mother of the slain law professor broke her silence to reporters.

“We respect the process. There’s a lot more work to be done, and we are looking forward and hoping it will be done soon. We want to thank all of the law enforcement, the state attorneys office,” said Markel.

The case against the mother of Garcia’s children, Katherine Magbanua, ended in a mistrial.

A new trial date could be set later this month.

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VisitFlorida Fighting For Funding Once Again

October 15th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

VisitFlorida, the state’s primary tourism agency is again asking lawmakers for funding.

Last year the agency took at $26 million cut, resulting in a 42 percent reduction in staff.

The funding cut has also made it more difficult for the agency to respond to negative press from storms and other natural disasters that take a toll on the state’s image as a top vacation destination.

“If VisitFlorida is not here to be the voice saying Florida is open for business, just because Dorian’s off the coast doesn’t mean you shouldn’t come to the panhandle or Tampa Bay, then no one is going to have that message. And that science is going to be detrimental to our Florida economy,” said VisitFlorida CEO Dana Young.

With the agencies’ funding set to expire on June 30th, VisitFlorida is hoping to have its funding reauthorized for eight years, but it may depend on what deal can be cut with the House Speaker, who has been critical of the agency in the past.

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Wilton Simpson Designated as Next Senate President

October 15th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

A Pasco County egg farmer, Wilton Simpson, was designated to lead the State Senate after the 2020 election by his fellow GOP Senators Tuesday.

Simpson is one of the state capital’s low key lawmakers who likes to get things done without taking the credit.

A framed quote from gangster Al Capone hangs on his office wall, warning people not to mistake his kindness for weakness.

“And don’t mistake my kindness for weakness. That was the part that I would l would always say to folks, because People would say, you know, you’re so nice, how are you going to be a legislator because you have to be mean or sometimes. You have to be tough sometimes. So I would tell them, don’t mistake my kindness for weakness,” said Simpson.

Simpson wants to revamp foster care in Florida and promises more of the same when it comes to being business friendly.

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Democrats Aim to Reduce Prison Population

October 15th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Democrats in the state house want to give non violent offenders behind bars more gain time for good behavior.

Their goal is to reduce the prison population and avoid building more prisons and relieve the shortage of correctional officers.

Rep Diane Hart of Tampa is a co sponsor.

She has visited more than two dozen prisons and found most to be in disrepair.

“House bill 189 will reduce the state correctional population by 11 percent, equating to the release of over 10,000 people. By passing this legislation, we will save the state over one billion dollars over the next five years,” said Hart.

The gain time initiative would reduce the time non violent offenders spend in prison from 85 percent of their sentence, down to 65 percent.

It would apply retroactively to anyone now in prison.

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