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Judge Rejects Florida Law That Put Republicans First on Ballots

November 18th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

A federal court ruling could change up the order candidates appear on the ballot.

Republicans have been listed first for the last two decades because they’ve controlled the Governor’s Mansion, but Democrats argued it’s put them at a disadvantage because of something called the primacy effect, which is the tendency for people to choose something that appears first.

Former Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho said appearing first has a measurable advantage.

“When you have a law that gives one party a one and a half to five percent advantage in every election at some point you have to say that’s not fair,” said Sancho.

Evan Power, who serves as the Chair of Chairs for the Republican Party of Florida, believes the advantage is exaggerated.

“When it was enacted by Democrats, Democrats were winning and then the state was taken over by Republicans. So obviously a five percent effect would never have allowed that to occur,” said Power.

But a Federal Judge has struck down the law, siding with Democrats who filed suit earlier this year.

Power called the ruling partisan.

“It was good policy. It was passed by Democrats 70 years ago and hasn’t posed a problem until now that the Democrats have become very litigious on every election point,” said Power.

The judge didn’t tell the state how to fix the problem.

That falls on the Florida Legislature.

While Sancho said there are many examples of ballot rotation in other states, he doesn’t expect the Republican controlled House and Senate to act any time soon.

“The Republican leadership will essentially do what they have done over the last decade, which is dig their heels in the sand,” said Sancho.

The Governor’s Office has confirmed it will appeal the ruling, which means Republicans will likely still appear first on the ballot in 2020.

The federal judge gave Florida’s Secretary of State three weeks to come up with a new plan, but the state will likely attempt to have the ruling put on hold before then.

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Education Funding at the Center of Governor’s 2020 Budget Proposal

November 18th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Governor Ron DeSantis proposed a modest increase of just 0.4 percent in the overall state budget for the coming year, but Florida schools will get over a billion new dollars under his plan.

School spending would increase $302 for each of the 2.8 million K-12 students.

It would rise to just under $8,000 per student.

“That’s an increase of just over a billion dollars over last year,” said DeSantis.

The bulk of the increase, $602 million is for teacher raises.

“Everybody in Florida will be at a minimum of $47,500, and so that represents 101,000 current teachers that will see a raise,” said DeSantis.

And the Governor repurposes $300 million being spent on teacher bonuses that currently rely on decades old college admission test scores, and replaces it with a program based on performance and school grades.

“You know, if the school reaches a certain threshold, an 85 or better, every teacher gets a bonus. If you’re not at that threshold, but you improve by a certain amount year over year, every teacher gets a bonus,” said DeSantis.

There’s also $100 million for mental health, a $25 million increase over last year, and another $25 million for school safety grants.

The Governor is also asking lawmakers for just under $250 million to keep property taxes for schools from going up based on the increased value of your home.

University funding remains basically flat under the Governor’s proposal, but the plan doesn’t increase tuition.

“This is becoming a really good value, and you can’t say that about too many other aspects of higher education,” said DeSantis.

There are also a modest nearly $12 million increase for Pre K programs.

It’s the first increase in at least six years.

The plan must still be approved by lawmakers, and the reaction from the House Speaker was mixed.

In a statement, Jose Oliva said “While the details of his ambitious teacher-pay program remain obscure-not a small matter, his commitment to responsible spending is crystal clear. A solid base upon which to begin our budget discussions.”

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Big Donors and the Postal Service Driving Recreational Marijuana Initiative

November 15th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

One of three ballot initiatives seeking to legalize recreational marijuana is picking up steam and raking in large amounts of cash.

The Make it Legal Florida amendment is utilizing an innovative approach get the signatures necessary to make it to the 2020 ballot.

More than 120,000 of the 400,000 signatures the campaign has collected are from voters who received petitions through the mail.

Jeff Sharkey with the Medical Marijuana Business Association of Florida said it’s the first time a citizen initiative has seen such success by using the postal service to collect signatures.
“They’re sending out these petitions via mail all over the state. I think they’ve realized it’s critical and necessary in order to make the time frame,” said Sharkey.

Sending all that mail comes with a hefty price tag, but the campaign isn’t short on cash.

Backed by Marijuana Tycoons MedMed and Surterra, the initiative received over $1 million in October alone.

Overall, the campaign has pulled in a total of $2.8 million.

All but $1,000 has been donated by MedMed and Surterra.

In contrast, a competing ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana has banked about 14 times less money, just over $200,000.

“If it goes recreational Florida will be maybe on par with California as the largest state for marijuana sales,” said Sharkey. “There will be a positive return on investment for those who have invested in this.”

But the clock is ticking.

The campaign has to reach 766,200 signatures by February 1st.

“I’m glad that the committee has gotten more donations, but folks need to sign those petitions, send them back, if they want to see this question on the ballot,” said Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith, who has for multiple years attempted to push legalization of recreational marijuana through the Legislature.

But the success of the continuing mail campaign is making it more likely that Floridians will see the amendment on the ballot next November.

In 2016, medical marijuana received 71 percent voter approval.

Recreational would need at least 60 percent to pass.

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March for Our Lives Unveils ‘Peace Plan for a Safer Florida’

November 14th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The gun control movement that was sparked in the wake of the Parkland Shooting was in the State Capitol Thursday, rallying behind multiple gun reforms including legislation that would ban so called assault weapons and high capacity magazines.

NRA and republican opposition remains steadfast.

Dozens of students from across the state came to push for gun reform.

“What do we want? Peace! When do we want it? Now!” students chanted.

The students, part of the March for Our Lives Movement, are backing what they are calling the ‘Peace Plan for a Safer Florida’.

“Here in Florida we lose nearly 3,000 lives due to gun violence each year,” said Alyssa Ackbar with the Tampa chapter of March for Our Lives.

The plan includes universal background checks for gun and ammunition purchases, preventing domestic abusers from owning a firearm and most controversially a ban on assault style weapons and high capacity magazines.

“There is no need for an assault weapon,” said Senate sponsor of the assault weapon ban Gary Farmer.

The legislation has been filed for the past four consecutive years, but has never gotten a hearing.

“The 49 from Pulse, the 17 from Parkland and many many others deserve a hearing to ban military style assault weapons,” said House sponsor Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith.

While it’s unlikely the legislation will be heard during the 2020 session, a constitutional amendment that would ban all semiautomatic weapons capable of carrying more than ten rounds has gun rights groups more concerned.

Former NRA President Marion Hammer plans to fight the amendment when it comes up for review by the State Supreme Court.

“The way it’s worded it would ban essentially every semiautomatic long gun known to man,” said Hammer.

The proposed Ban Assault Weapons Now Amendment still need more than 600,000 signatures before February first, to be eligible for the 2020 ballot.

The State’s Attorney General is also petitioning the State Supreme Court to block the assault weapon ban from the 2020 ballot.

She also believes the amendment would likely ban all semi automatic rifles and shotguns.

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State Senator Vows to Fight for Across the Board Pay for College Athletes

November 13th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Buckling under pressure from California, Florida and other states, the NCAA has agreed to allow student athletes to be paid for use of their image and likeness, but some Florida lawmakers are hoping to take the idea to the next level.
“At the end of the day it’s about fairness,” said Governor Ron DeSantis during the October press conference where he announced support for legislation that would allow college athletes to profit from their image.
But at least one Florida Senator believes the state should push even further.
“The abundant revenues generated from the participation of these athletes should entitle them to direct compensation,” said Senator Randolph Bracy during a press conference Wednesday.
Bracy, a former college basketball player, said all athletes should be compensated for their work regardless of their sport.
“We need to go further. I mean they literally generate more than a billion dollars a year,” said Bracy.
The Senator said he’d prefer all college athletes be paid the same, but is open to other pay schemes as well.
But the idea is a step too far for FSU Sport Management Professor Dr. Jason Pappas.
“To me that’s where I’m thinking, wow, isn’t that called professional sports?” said DR. Pappas.
Even FSU President John Thrasher was quick to shoot the idea down when asked if he would jump behind Bracy’s proposal.
“No, no. I’m looking for a football coach,” Thrasher jokingly responded.
Whether paying college athletes actually gains traction, allowing them to profit from their image, which has bipartisan support, will likely move forward just in case the NCAA changes its mind.
Senator Bracy said either way, he’ll try to make athlete pay a part of that conversation.
“It’s time to talk about them sharing in that profit model and so that what I’m here to do, to push the issue,” said Bracy.
Republicans were notably absent during Bracy’s press conference.

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Lawmakers Propose Price Cap on Insulin

November 13th, 2019 by Jake Stofan
2.4 million Floridians are living with diabetes and an additional 5.8 million are at risk of developing the disease, but Florida lawmakers note the price of insulin has skyrocketed in recent years.
Senator Janet Cruz said the high cost is putting the lives of many diabetics at risk.
New legislation announced Wednesday would cap the cost of a 30 day supply of the medication at $100.
“I spoke to the head nurse at the emergency room in Tampa at Saint Joe’s Hospital. She said it happens all the time. You know she has folks that come in in diabetic comas because they are rationing their insulin because they cannot afford the co-pay, nor can they afford to buy the insulin,” said Cruz.
Lawmakers believe the ‘Insulin Affordability Act’ will come at minimal cost to the general population. 
The cite one study that suggested capping the price of insulin at $0 would only raise insurance costs for the average customer between 70 and 95 cents a year.

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University Students Rally at the State Capitol

November 13th, 2019 by Jake Stofan
More than 100 university students walked the halls of the State Capitol Wednesday, lobbying lawmakers on their legislative agenda.
Students are asking lawmakers to eliminate sales taxes on college textbooks, increase access to mental health councilors at universities and allocate more money to campus food pantries.
“I grew up in foster care. For me many times that meant my only lunch that day was school lunch and I was surfing from house to house on an air mattress. It was really tough to be successful in school when you don’t have a full stomach or a steady home and the same applies college. That’s why it’s so critical that we treat these programs seriously and give them the funding they deserve,” said Hunter Lyons with the Florida Government Association.
Student leaders say they have joint sponsorship of a $350,000 allocation that would be dispersed among the Florida University System to help support campus food pantries.

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Parental Consent for Abortion Bill Delayed Before First Senate Vote

November 12th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

A bill that would require women under the age of 18 to receive parental consent before getting an abortion was delayed in a Senate committee before a vote could be taken Tuesday.

It’s a minor victory for pro choice advocates, but supporters vow the bill will cross the finish line this legislative session.

Requiring parental consent for minors seeking abortions has been debated by Florida Lawmakers since the 1980’s.

The constitution’s strong privacy clause stopped the legislation following a court ruling in 1989, but there’s growing concern from pro-choice groups that the bill might finally pass in 2020, triggering a new constitutional fight over privacy.

“Parental consent legislation is part of a much larger agenda to ban abortion across the State of Florida,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani.

Opponents voiced their concerns ahead of the legislation’s first of three Senate committee hearings.

“Forced parental consent laws like Senate Bill 404 have been shown to put youth at risk and even more danger,” said Lauren Brenzel with the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates.

About two dozen opponents each filled out 30 appearance cards before making their way to the hearing.

The bill was the only item on the agenda.

Of 16 amendments, Democrats filed 15.

One by one they were struck down, but ultimately the committee ran out of time and was forced to adjourn without taking a vote.

Bill sponsor Kelli Stargel said when she got pregnant as a teen, she found discussions with her mother vital.
I feel very strongly that this is in the best interest of our children. In the day and age that we’re in there’s many factors that put a wedge in that family union and our kids feel isolated. I believe that contributes to a lot of the ills that we’re seeing with the mental health, various things,” said Stargel. “This is something to support the family and require the kids to have a conversation about something so weighty with their parents. It’s disappointing that we weren’t able to pass it today.”

The delay of a vote hasn’t put a damper on pro-life advocates, who vow the bill will pass in 2020.”

“We’re going to come back and we’re going to come back stronger than ever,” said Anthony Verdugo, Founder of the Christian Family Coalition Florida.

Stargel said the bill addresses issues raised by the Supreme Court in 1989 by including exemptions for emancipated minors and for emergencies.

The bill is already ready for a floor vote in the House.

While it’s getting early hearings in the Senate and has the Senate President Bill Galvano’s support, Galvano has vowed to vet the bill thoroughly.

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World War II Vets Honored in Capital City

November 11th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

For the past five years, Altrua, a business in the state’s capital city picks a hometown hero to honor during the Veteran’s Day parade.
This year, there are two, both veterans of the second world war.
“It’s just amazing what these guys did during that period of time and they weren’t ever asked to do it, they just did it because it was the right thing to do for our country and for the world,” said Skip Smelko, President of Altrua Global Solutions.
Selecting World War Two veterans this year was no coincidence.
June 6th of this year marked the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings.
Following behind the marching bands and floats, veterans Brice Thornton, who took part in the invasion, and Julius Fisher, who helped bring supplies to the front lines, took center stage.
They were then honored in a special ceremony.
“The sacrifice that these guys made for our freedoms and what we have here today is second to none,” said Smelko.
Both vets were given gift cards, a year’s worth of home cleanings, letters from US Senator Rick Scott and other tokens of appreciation.
But Thornton tells us he doesn’t think of himself as a hero.
“I’m pledged to defend this country just like you are and so when I was called that’s what I done,” said Thornton. “I was able to come back, have a good life. A lot of my friends didn’t come back.”
Organizers said they’re fortunate to have had the opportunity to honor the two men this year. 
The country loses about 350 WWII veterans each day, and the Department of Veterans Affairs predicts the last will be gone by 2044. 
That would be the 100th anniversary of the Normandy landings.

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Tragedy Spurs Effort to Strengthen Pool Safety Laws

November 8th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

88 children drowned in Florida in 2018.

The year prior, two-year-old Kacen Howard drowned after he bypassed a defective pool fence at a family friend’s home.

Kacen’s tragic death spurred new legislation that would increase safety standards for residential pools.

A routine trip to run errands quickly turned into a nightmare for April Philips and Brittany Howard.

Howard’s two-year-old son Kacen was left with an adult at Philip’s home.

“Their son Kacen opened the sliding glass door, bypassed the weak defective pool fence that surrounded the pool and fatally drowned,” said Philips at a town hall meeting in the city of Oldsmar in 2018.

Kacen would have turned three the following day.

The tragedy spurred Kacen’s mother and her friend to action.

“We must instill laws, guidelines, education and awareness in the adults of today so that we can save the children who will be the adults of tomorrow,” said Philips.

The result is a bill named aptly named the Kacen’s Cause Act.

The legislation would beef up Florida’s pool safety laws by requiring new pools have at least two safety measures installed.

The bill would also require the two safety measures to be installed on a pool if a home is sold.

Currently only one is required.

“In my former career as a fire fighter I had to pull kids out of pools and 20 years later it still bothers me. I don’t want to see a mother or a father or a sister or a brother or a neighbor to have to go through that tragedy of seeing a kid drown in their pool in their backyard,” said bill sponsor Senator Ed Hooper.

New pools could have any a combination of five safety measures.

A pool cover, fence or alarms in the pool itself.

There’s also the option of self-latching doors or alarms on the doors and windows with access to the pool.”

If passed into law, violators could face up to a $500 fine, or would be required to take a drowning education course.

Last year the bill didn’t receive a hearing in the House, but Senator Ed Hooper has vowed to file the bill every year he’s in office.

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DEP Puts New Focus on Transparency

November 8th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is embracing a new era of transparency after eight years under a former Governor that wouldn’t acknowledge a changing climate.

The first step is a data filled website on water quality.

Protecting Florida Together is more than a website according to Noah Valenstein, the Secretary of Department of Environmental Protection.

He called it a statewide conservation about the environment.

“Are we we doing our jobs, first of all? Right? Is the agency making sure water quality is protected and getting better?” said Valentein.

Right now, the website lists nutrient levels in three troubled bodies of water in south Flordia.

It will be built out statewide.

“If we are not having a conversation about water quality statewide, then we’re in trouble, right, and I think that’s where we were in years past,” said Valenstein.

In addition to a new website, there is a new attitude.

“You’ll be able In the near future, to sign up and actually get an email alert saying a new sample came through and you’ve got blue green algae within your area,” said Valenstein.

Funding is at a record high.

And the State’s first Chief Science Officer Dr. Thomas Fraiser said the kind of data being posted has never been in on place before.

“You’re looking at the same data we’re using to see whether or not we’re doing a good job or not, and I think we are. It’s a pretty exciting time for us to do this, and it hasn’t really been attempted before,” said Fraiser.

And a watchdog group of former employees that monitor the agency said they are seeing some positive changes and hope more are on the way.

Soon to be introduced legislation will move septic tank regulation from the Department of Health to DEP.

The Governor’s plan would require permitting for new septic tanks and consider the quality of near by water before the permit would be granted.

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Congressman Lawson Touts Plan for Cheaper Prescriptions

November 8th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

US Congressman Al Lawson spoke with retirees in the state’s capital city Friday morning.

Lawson fielded questions from his constituents on a wide range of topics including immigration, impeachment and the war in Afghanistan.

The main focus though was healthcare.

Lawson is supporting a bill that would allow Medicare and Medicaid to negotiate maximum drug prices and prohibit prices from exceeding 120 percent of the cost of the same drug in certain other countries like Canada, the UK and Australia.

“And America is the richest country in the world, ain’t no question about it, but we p[ay so much more for prescription drugs,” said Lawson.

Lawson did not endorse universal single payer healthcare, a proposal endorsed by Presidential Candidates including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

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FAMU’s Medical Marijuana Education Program Takes Flack From Lawmakers

November 7th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

FAMU’s minority medical marijuana education program came under tough scrutiny from lawmakers Thursday morning. 
The program has had a difficult time explaining how it’s spent its funding. 
This was the second time FAMU’s Medical Marijuana Education and Research Initiative presented to lawmakers.
The program’s new Director Patricia Green-Powell tried to focus on the positive.
“41 events across Florida have netted over 20,000 participants,” said Green-Powell.
But lawmakers were quick to cut to the chase.
The program has been fraught with concerns over how it’s spent state money. 
FAMU was given $2.1 million for the education program in August, just weeks later DOH stopped requiring the university to report how it was spending the money.
The university now filling the primary oversight role didn’t sit well with lawmakers like state Senator Audrey Gibson.
“The program just runs whichever way?” Gibson asked.
“No, there’s oversight with our Office of Compliance,” Green-Powell responded.
Glory Brown, Director of FAMU’s Office of Sponsored Programs said the university would be open to more oversight from the state.
“Our records are open, they’re available. We have a Department of Compliance, we have the audit, we do regular meetings monthly and we adhere to any request,” said Brown.
Senate Budget Chair Rob Bradley wouldn’t specify exactly what part of the program’s budget concerned him most.
“There’s several things. The entire program brings concern to me,” said Bradley.
Financial information presented to lawmakers showed salaries make up more than three fourths of the program’s $1.4 million expenditures.
FAMU says it’s satisfied with progress that has been made with the education program.
14 research projects through the program are currently in their early stages.

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Everglades Restoration Could Be Pivotal to Fighting Rising Seas

November 7th, 2019 by Jake Stofan
The Senate Appropriations Committee got a briefing from the State Department of Environmental Protection Thursday morning.
The state allocated a record $413 million for Everglades restoration projects in 2019.
One Senator asked whether DEP was considering the potential impacts of sea level rise in their restoration projects, and how rising seas could negatively impact the wetlands.
DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein said in short, Everglades restoration is one of the state’s best ways of combating sea level rise.
“Getting water through the system, hydrating, restoring aquifers in South Florida, restoring flow into Florida Bay, creating that hydraulic pressure and head to prevent the speed of saltwater intrusion is one of the most important things we can do as the State of Florida for long term resilience,” said Valenstein.
DEP reports all $413 million has been designated to projects, some of which they expect could be complete by 2023.

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Lawmakers Look to Balance Privacy and Public Safety With Red Flag Technologies

November 6th, 2019 by Jake Stofan


The Parkland report exposed many missed opportunities to flag accused gunman Nikolas Cruz as a potential threat.

Now private companies are developing tools that could aid law enforcement and schools to identify threats before they happen.

Two companies showed off their technologies to state house members Wednesday.

“We have uncovered and reported more than 200 different threats,” said Douglas Licker with Lumina Analytics.

Lumina Analytics offers a product called Radiance, which allows police to scan the web for public information on a specific person and identify potentially threatening behaviors .

“A manual web search to the same magnitude would take someone over a year to complete,” said Jessica Dareneau with Lumina Analytics.

The other company Psynetix Laboratories, has a program called SIREN.

It focuses on education, providing a template for interviewing students who have already been reported as possible threats.

It then creates the student a profile that is scored against known mass killers.

“We’ve identified 13,089 potential behaviors,” said Dr. Russell Baker with Psynetix Laboratories.

Baker said flagging potential threats using machine learning has a 97 percent accuracy rate, compared to 39 percent using traditional pen and paper methods.

However, FSU Law Professor Wayne Logan cautioned lawmakers of the potential Orwellian consequences of the new technology.

“We’re predicating our interventions with respect to people on what they might do, not what they’ve done,” said Logan.

Recently the Legislature passed a law specifying how police can use drones.

In 2020 similar legislation may appear regulating these new technologies as well.

“We want law enforcement to have clear predictability about how to use these tools in an investigation and simultaneously we want individuals to know due process and individual liberties are going to be preserved. If we’ll give both of those entities clarity we’ve done our job,” said Rep. James Grant.

It’s a heavy burden, as the legislative process tends to move much slower than technology.

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