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Thousand of Teachers ‘Take on Tally’ Demanding Pay Raise

January 13th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Thousands of teachers from across the state were in the State Capitol Monday, arguing that 20 years of disrespect and low funding for public schools has got to come to an end.

Teachers came by bus from every corner of the state.

Then marched to the Capitol in mass, taking up Governor Ron DeSantis on his call to make 2020 the year of the teacher.

The teachers say this is about a whole lot more than a pay raise.

“We’re losing PE. We’re losing programs that are meaningful to the students,” said retired Escambia teacher Mary Louise Winter.

The crowd, estimated at over 10,000, was far bigger than the Governor’s own inauguration last year.

“Teachers don’t do it for the salaries. Our support professions don’t do it for the salaries. They don’t even make a living wage, but that’s got to change,” said Hillsborough teacher Missy Keller.

On Friday, the state DOE sent an email to Polk County teachers, who with about 1,500 making the trip may have had the biggest turnout of any county, telling them their absence for the rally could be considered an illegal strike.

“And we are here with you today in Tallahassee,” said Polk Education Association President Stephanie Yocum.

Polk teachers who made the trip say the memo backfired.

“I think it rallied more people and I think it drew people closer together,” said Polk County teacher Samantha Joyner.

“Yes, absolutely. We had more from our school personally, we had more people rally together and come after that email was sent. So it did not do its job of scaring us away,” said Chelsea Clements, also a teacher from Polk County.

In the end the union is asking for a ten percent pay hike for everyone who works in a school.

“We’e those who are being crushed by student debt. We’re those who are being crushed by skyrocketing health care,” said Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram.

The cost would be right at $2.4 billion more this year alone.

Also Monday, Senate Democrats introduced their own pay raise plan.

It would increase the salaries for all school employees by 7.5 percent beginning next year and provide for a 4.5 percent cost of living increase each year for the next decade.

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2020 Flu Season Could Be the Worst in a Decade

January 10th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida could see a record breaking flu season this year.
Seventy-one outbreaks of the flu have been reported so far and peak flu season is just around the corner.
Nationwide there have been 87,000 hospitalizations and an estimated 4,800 deaths from the flu this season according to the CDC.
In Florida there have been a number of pediatric deaths, in one case a 35-year-old man died.
“Everybody is at risk for influenza. It is very, very contagious,” said Martha DeCastro with the Florida Hospital Association.
The 2017-2018 flu season was the worst Florida had seen in a decade.
DeCastro said indications are that this year could break the record.
“The number of cases has peaked early so they’re considering this somewhat of a crisis this year,” said DeCastro.
Tallahassee Doctor John Mackay said if you get sick with the flu, there are some indicators you may need additional medical attention.
“Difficulty breathing, vomiting where you can’t keep fluids down, those are all good reasons to head to the ER and get checked over,” said Dr. Mackay.
But medical experts argue the best way to avoid getting sick is to get vaccinated.
Flu vaccinations take about two weeks to kick in, but health experts say it’s not too late to get vaccinated.
And getting vaccinated is easy.
“You can go to Publix and get one for free and they’ll give you a $10 gift card so you can go do some shopping afterwards. CVS, Walgreens, they’re all making flu shots readily available,” said DeCastro.
In most cases your health insurance should cover the cost.
For those without insurance, contact your county health department.
In addition to the vaccination, health experts say taking simple steps like washing your hands frequently and avoiding large crowds can help keep you flu free and keep you from spreading the virus if you are sick.

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No Juice Least of Welcome Centers’ Worries

January 9th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

A decades long tradition of welcoming visitors to Florida with free orange and grapefruit juice has gone the way of roadside motels.

Now, the very fate of the state’s welcome stations is in doubt as lawmakers prepare to do battle over whether to keep funding Visit Florida, which runs the stations.

Nearly 900,000 visitors walked through the door of the welcome station on I-75 just south of the Georgia border last year.

These days, more often than not, they’re asking this question: Where’s the orange juice?

But the free orange and grapefruit juice is gone.

$500,000 for the juice was vetoed in 2015.

Florida’s orange growers picked up the slack, but smaller crops and disease have cut their harvests and profits.

“We always stop for the orange juice. There’s no orange juice,” said Kathy Boaz visiting from Chicago.

We’re told that taking selfies with the ‘no juice’ sign has become very popular, but the welcome centers face much bigger problems than no free juice.

One of the hottest battles this coming legislative session will be over the $50 million of funding for Visit Florida, the state tourism arm that runs the centers.

Fiscal conservatives believe people come to Florida, well, because it’s Florida, and the money for promotion is just wasted.

House Speaker Jose Oliva, one of the agency’s most critical opponents, only allowed funding to go through in 2019 to in his words, show the Governor ‘how unnecessary it is’.

Visit Florida initially came under fire for spending millions on tv shows that were only shown in Florida, but under the leadership of former Tampa State Senator Dana Young, supporters believe the agency has righted itself.

But supporters of the $50 million argue Visit Florida is most valuable when there’s trouble in paradise.

“There are certain things that we do have to message and mitigate. For example, whether its Zika that cost our tourism industry millions,” said Senate President Bill Galvano.

Dominic Calabro, President of Florida TaxWatch calls the tourism promoter a good value for taxpayers.

“Because advertising often works,” said Calabro.

And because the fight over Visit Florida’s money is going to be so bitter it will be the end of the session before its solved.

The Governor included $50 million for Visit Florida in his budget proposal.

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Utility Amendment Stuck Down By Supreme Court

January 9th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

A proposed constitutional amendment that could have dramatically altered Florida’s utility landscape has been blocked from the 2020 ballot by the State Supreme Court.

The Energy Choice Amendment would have prevented investor owned utilities from generating electricity, limiting them only to maintenance of the power grid and distribution roles.

The Supreme Court took issue with the fact the amendment also claimed to grant Floridians the right to generate and sell their own electricity, but did not specifically do so in the amendment language.

Dominic Calabro with Florida TaxWatch said the move is a win for the state, arguing the amendment could have cost the state and local governments billions in lost revenues.
“Well first of all they were trying to sell it that everyone pays too much for electricity. That’s a false argument. Florida has one of the lowest utility rates in the country and that’s a real advantage for consumers and tax payers alike. The other thing is there’s a lot of instability if you were to take their model. It hasn’t worked as well as people believe it has. Before you make such a dramatic change, you’ve got to make sure it’s far better than the one you have,” said Calabro.

Aside from the court decision, the ballot initiative had so far not gathered enough signatures to secure a place on the 2020 ballot, falling about 100,000 signatures shy with the deadline less than a month away.

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Cities Set Sights on Environment, Cyber Security and Local Control for 2020

January 9th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

From money for cyber security to environmental help, Florida Cities have a long wish list for Florida lawmakers this year.

The Florida League of Cities says one of its top priorities for 2020 is securing $5 million to help cities strengthen cyber security.

“Every city in the state is under attack every day. Now whether they’re successful in that attack is a a different story,” said Casey Cook with the League.

Next on its list is the environment.

In particular, improving the state’s water quality.

“There’s estimates that we’ll need 20 percent more water by 2030 to meet population growth,” said Rebecca O’Hara with the League.

They’re hoping the Legislature will mandate a study to determine how to pay for improvements.

The League estimates the cost could be as high as $18 billion.

“We hear so much about we need water funding, we need water funding, but we really don’t know exactly how much is needed,” said O’Hara.

Another ask of the League, fully funding the Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

Lawmakers have repeatedly taken money from the fund for other state needs.

Above all else, the League is fighting for local control.

Bills have been filed to preempt regulations of short term vacation rentals, something cities fought hard to gain in 2014.

“These short term rental ordinances are balanced, they’ve been vetted by the community and I think that they’re working,” said Cook.

Cities say they’re optimistic Governor Ron DeSantis stands behind them on local control, pointing to the fact he vetoed a bill last year that would have taken away municipalities’ ability to ban plastic straws.

“His message was essentially local voices local choices, which is what our mantra is,” said Scott Dudley with the League.

More bills attacking local control are sure to be filed as session moves forward.

Over the past three sessions more than 40 have been filed each year.

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Judicial Nominating Process Questioned

January 8th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Governor Ron DeSantis could make his fourth and fifth appointments to the nine member Florida Supreme Court as early as next week.

A panel appointed by the Governor is expected to send at least six names to the governor after meeting all weekend, but critics of the process warn there is a danger the court is being politicized.

Thirty-two people, mostly judges, will be interviewed this weekend to fill two open seats at Florida’s Supreme Court.

A nine member panel will make the selection.

“All nine of the members are ultimately appointed by the Governor, but four of the nine are appointed by Governor from recommendations from recommendations made to him from the Florida Bar,” said Daniel Nordby, Chair of the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission.

It hasn’t always been done this way.

In the mid 1970’s the elected high court was rocked with scandal.

Appellate judges became appointed.

Then Governor Reubin Askew created a commission to make recommendations.

He appointed three members, the Florida Bar named three, and together the two groups appointed another three.

It had been called a model for the nation, but in 2001, all of the appointments went back to the Governor.

“Unfortunately, in recent years, it has really become a very politicized process,” said Damien Filer with Progress Florida.

Governor Ron DeSantis has made no secret what he is looking for in a judge.

“The Judiciary, while important, must be limited,” said DeSantis in his inaugural address.

But critics worry concentrating too much power in the Governor can have consequences.

“We could see what would be an all out ban on abortion here in Florida, even it Roe V Wade stands at the federal level,” said Filer.

Democrats have filed legislation that would return nominating commissions to three Gubernatorial appointments, three Florida Bar appointments, with the six naming three more people.

It is unlikely to get a hearing in a GOP controlled legislature.

Supporters of the Governor appointing all nine to the nominating commission are quick to point out that he’s elected and can be held accountable, while members of the Florida Bar are not.

Those making the recommendation have only one concern.
“We’re looking for people with highest level of integrity, the intellectual ability to do the job, and judicial temperament,” said Nordby.

While the Governor will name two more justices to the court, the replacements are for judges he appointed last January and who have been elevated to a Federal appeals court by the President.

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Students Suing State Over Climate Change Lay Out Their Case

January 8th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Students across the world have increasingly made their frustrations over climate change loud and clear, but a group of Florida students are taking their activism to the courtroom… Suing the Governor and state agencies.

Joined by their attorney, the students laid out their case to law students at Florida State University.

One of the key parts of their case is that the students aren’t suing based on the inaction of the state, instead, they list specific things the state has done to make climate change worse.

“Florida generates more electricity from petroleum than any other state in the nation, second highest amount of CO2 emissions from electricity in the nation. These are very, very big numbers,” said Andrea Rodgers, an attorney with Our Children’s Trust.

The students are diverse, ranging from as young as 12 to college aged.

The one thing they share is the belief the state’s energy policy has put their right to life, liberty and property at risk.

Nineteen-year-old plaintiff Delaney Reynolds said the suit is about preserving the future.

“Our reality is that these rising temperatures and resulting sea level rise is placing much of the region at the real risk of disappearing,” said Reynolds.

Plaintiff Valholly Frank, a 16-year-old member of the Seminole Tribe, said sea level rise will eventually threaten to destroy the tribe’s lands in the Everglades.

“And you can’t really easily move an entire community. If we were displaced we would lose everything we know. We’d lose our identity,” said Frank.

Plaintiffs are asking the courts to declare the state’s energy policy unconstitutional and establish a maximum level of carbon emissions for the state.

If successful, it would be up to lawmakers to figure out how to bring the state into compliance.

The Governor and state agencies involved in the case have asked for the lawsuit to be dismissed.

Both sides are expected to make their arguments before a judge in the coming months.

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CBD Quality Inspections Underway

January 7th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

CBD businesses are undergoing their first round of inspections now under newly finalized state regulations for the hemp based products.

The regulations are meant to ensure consumers are being sold quality products and help weed out bad actors in the marketplace.

Inspections at Natural Life in the state’s capital city began this week, just days after the Department of Agriculture published its new rules regulating CBD products in the state.

“We’ll be completely inspected and done by the end of this week,” said Natural Life owner, Gabe Suarez. “Having all players have to play by these rules will weed out the bad dishonest players and shed light on the proper honest players.”

The goal of the inspections is to ensure products properly labeled, free of contaminants like pesticides and contain the CBD levels advertised.

Suarez said those are all quality controls his company had already implemented.

“So it have a very minimal effect on us,” said Suarez.

But as Taylor Biehl with the Florida Hemp Association points out, for smaller retailers, compliance may be more difficult.

“From a quality control standpoint I mean this is imperative. You know you had a lot of quote unquote snake oil out there,” said Biehl.

Companies found to be out of compliance will have between 30 and 45 days to conform with the new rules.

Businesses that want to sell CBD will be required to purchase an annual permit from the department of agriculture.

That comes with a price tag of $650.

The state is still waiting on the Federal Government to finalize its rules for hemp cultivation, the plant from which CBD is derived.

Once finalized CBD retailers like Suarez hope their products will be able to carry the fresh from Florida label.

The Department of Agriculture expects to have hemp cultivation rules finalized early this year.

FAMU ad UF are already cultivating some test plots as part of the learning curve to growing the crop in Florida.

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Lawmakers Push Deregulation Once Again

January 7th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

More than 400,000 barbers, cosmetologists, landscapers, interior designers, talent agents and other professionals are regulated by the state of Florida.

New legislation would sunset or abolish the regulations, unless the licensing boards can prove the licensing is needed.

As a new Governor, Ron DeSantis pitched lawmakers on the idea of deregulating more than two dozen professions.

“You can earn jump wings by completing Army jump school in three weeks. Florida law requires twelve hundred hours to become licensed as a barber,” said DeSantis during his 2019 State of the State speech.

The legislation would have cut training for licensed barbers, among others, in half.

It was one of the few things the first-year chief executive didn’t get from lawmakers.

One reason is barbers like Ben Collins.

“I probably needed that twelve hundred,” said Collins. “I had to know what I was doing. I had to be trained to know what I was doing.”

Now new legislation would abolish all regulation over the next two years and require professional boards to prove they should be regulated.

The effort is being saluted by Americans for Prosperity.

“It’s not just about any one license. It’s about the overall idea of taking away occupational licensing to allow hard working Floridians to find meaningful work,” said Phillip Suderman with Americans for Prosperity.

Barber Chuck Richards believes there could be fewer hours, but he believes the classroom work was essential.

“We go into great depth learning how to detect different kinds of skin cancer,” said Richards.

Last year lawmakers underestimated the outcry from thousands of barbers, cosmetologists, and other professionals.

They’re likely to get another earful this year.

The job facing lawmakers is to decide where and when regulation protects consumers and not those doing the work.

The legislation uses nearly six of its 12 pages to list the specific statutes that it abolishes, which amounts to several hundred boards and professions.

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Tallahassee Names New Police Chief

January 6th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

There’s a new police chief in the county with the highest crime rate in the state.

Lawrence Revell was named Chief of the Tallahassee Police Department Monday morning after a high ranking St. Petersburg officer was selected and then turned the job down in a contract dispute

Crime in Tallahassee and surrounding Leon County have been the subject of concern for figures like FSU President John Thrasher and even the Governor.

Revell said his focus will be to address violent crime by creating a culture of unity.

“My vision is simple and that is to work tirelessly to unite this community and the police department in a community-led assault on violent crimes and those who would victimize our citizens. As one of the oldest police departments in the country we will modernize our approach and make 21st century policing more than just a catch phrase,” said Revell.

Revell’s selection has been criticized by some social justice groups for his involvement in the shooting of a black teenager in 1996 who had rammed another officer with his car.

He was cleared by a grand jury which found he “bravely performed his sworn duties”.

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Thousands to Rally at Capitol For Teacher Pay

January 6th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Next Monday thousands of teachers from across the state will be at the State Capitol, hoping to set the agenda for the annual legislative session that begins Tuesday.

Their message: It’s time for not just a higher minimum salary, but much more.

“We can not continue to do what we do and the magic that happens between a teacher and a student when our lights are being cut off. When we can’t afford mortgages or rent,” said Fedrick Ingram, President of the Florida Education Association.

On top of bonuses, the Governor is proposing raising teacher salaries to a minimum $47,500.

“Which takes Florida from 26th to number two in the nation,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

The Governor’s plan is being called “A start, but it’s not a cure for where we are.”

The union believes everyone from the janitorial staff to cafeteria workers and bus drivers need more money.

“This school year we had three thousand classrooms that did not have a certified teacher. The Governor’s plan will not cure that. We still have over two thousand vacancies that are teacher shortages. We have bus driver shortages,” said Ingram.

Under Florida law it’s illegal for public employees, including teachers, to go on strike, but they point to actions by teachers in other states.

They want to put national pressure on lawmakers.

“And it is up to us to put pressure on lawmakers. To let them know we’re going to nationalize this issue. Because if we want to be at the forefront of what’s right, we’ve got to recognize what’s wrong,” said Ingram.

Many lawmakers are leery of mandating raises from here in the Capitol.

That’s because teacher pay is the cornerstone of collective bargaining with local school boards.

So far, the Governor’s raise plan has gotten a cold shoulder from some top lawmakers because of the cost and because salaries are set by local school boards.

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New Study Warns Local Control is Under Attack

January 6th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Local governments’ ability to control their own communities is under attack.

That’s the message a new report published by a government watchdog group in the State Capitol, which suggests state lawmakers have become increasingly aggressive when it comes to preempting local governments on issues from plastic straws to gun control.

Over the past three years state lawmakers have proposed 119 bills that would preempt local governments in various ways.

16 have already been filed for the 2020 session.

“It shows you the concerted effort on a yearly basis to limit the power of local governments,” said Ben Wilcox with Integrity Florida.

The new report found preemptions are becoming not only more numerous, but also more punitive.

“Their efforts are not designed to influence local actions, but to prevent any at all,” said Alan Stonecipher with Integrity Florida.

They trace the trend back to a 1987 law that prohibited local governments from passing gun restrictions stronger than the state.

In 2011 lawmakers implemented harsh penalties for local officials who violate the preemption.

“I think that’s a constitutional violation of free speech,” said Wilcox.

The law was struck down by a circuit court, but is now on appeal.

Marion Hammer with the NRA said lawmakers are well within their rights to hold rouge local officials accountable.

“If they refuse to follow the laws of the Legislature, the Legislature can abolish them,” said Hammer.

The outcome of the court battle against punishments for local officials who pass gun regulations will likely set the tone moving forward for how far lawmakers can go with preemption.

Integrity Florida said lawmakers could make it harder to pass preemptions by requiring a 2/3 majority or mandating a single subject rule for preemption legislation, but state lawmakers aren’t known for limiting their own power.

Governor Ron DeSantis vetoed a bill that would have prevented local governments from banning plastic straws.

Integrity Florida says it was a positive sign, but the Governor has favored preemption in other cases, including the ban on sanctuary cities signed into law last year.

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Abortion Debate to Be Front and Center in 2020 Session

January 3rd, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida lawmakers have filed a dozen bills dealing with abortion for the 2020 session.

Pro-choice advocate Lauren Brenzel with Planned Parenthood said everything is on the line.

“If 2019 told us anything it’s that attempting to restrict abortion is unfortunately on anti-abortion legislators’ minds,” said Brenzel.

One bill would ban abortions after a fetal heart beat could be detected, which could be as early as six weeks.

It’s likely dead on arrival according to Senate President Bill Galvano.

“That’s a tougher issue to get through,” said Galvano.

But legislation that would require minors to get parental consent before having an abortion is moving full speed ahead.

“This is something to support the family and require the kids to have a conversation about something so weighty with their parents,” said Senate sponsor Kelli Stargel.

It’s already teed up for a floor vote in the House and the Senate President expects it to pass its second Senate committee during the first week of the 2020 session.

While the parental consent bill isn’t the most restrictive abortion bill filed this year, it could act as a test to see how far the newly conservative State Supreme Court is willing to allow lawmakers to go.

Pro Choice advocates fear the court could overturn a previous ruling that found a similar law violated the Privacy Clause in the state constitution.

“We have a higher constitutional protection for access to abortion than actually the United States Constitution and it’s one of the reasons why Florida functions differently than other states in the South. Why we don’t see that massive restriction,” said Brenzel.

That could open the door for even more restrictive abortion laws, including the heart beat bill.

Heart beat laws have been passed in ten states and is expected to pass an eleventh later this month.

Courts have temporarily blocked or struck the laws so far in every state.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a State Senator has put fourth a proposed constitutional amendment, that would prohibit either chamber from passing restrictions on abortion unless half of the members are women.

So far it has not been scheduled for a hearing.

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Make it Legal Florida Sues for More Time

January 2nd, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Chances voters will get a chance go legalize recreational marijuana this year are slimming.

The group pushing the citizen initiative has filed suit against the Secretary of State over a new law that put restrictions on petition gathers in a last ditch effort to get more time to collect signatures.

Make it Legal Florida is still 500,000 signatures short of putting the question of legalizing recreational marijuana before voters in November.
All petitions must be validated by February 1st.

“It looks very challenging to make those numbers work,” said Jeff Sharkey with the Medical Marijuana Business Association of Florida.

In a last ditched effort the group has filed suit, challenging a law passed last year that requires paid petition gatherers register with the state.

They’re asking for an additional 30 days to gather and submit petitions.

“They’re the first ones to really have to operate under this new petition gathering law and I think it’s certainly demonstrates how challenging it’s going to be going forward,” said Sharkey.

The new law has been fraught with issues.

The website to register petition gatherers was offline for weeks.

The suit alleges it resulted in multiple delays.

It’s a problem the sponsor of the legislation Rep. James Grant called accidental when we spoke with him in October.

“I don’t think anybody had an intent or even an expectation that some of the antiquated servers and challenges would lead to this problem,” said Grant.

If the initiative doesn’t make it on the ballot this year, there is still a chance it could return in the future.

The petitions collected so far are still valid for two years after the date they were signed.

“There’s certainly been some conversations with legislators and others that they would anticipate that in 2022 this will be back,” said Sharkey.

Lawmakers could also take up the issue of legalizing marijuana at any time, but marijuana advocates say it’s a long shot.

A second group seeking to regulate marijuana like alcohol has already decided to wait for the 2022 ballot.

We reached out to the Department of State for comment on this story, but did not receive a response in time.

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New Florida Laws Taking Effect January 1st

December 31st, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Day one of 2020 will bring some immediate changes in Florida, with nine laws taking effect.

Here’s breaks down some of the new laws that are likely to impact you.

Just over 1100 tickets have been written for texting while driving or not being hands free in a school or work zone since the texting law took effect earlier this year, but with the new year comes tough new enforcement.

Law enforcement will ramp up ticket writing for distracted drivers.

“That’s the number one thing, just put it down,” said Lieutenant Derrick Rahming with the Florida Highway Patrol.
Also starting January 1st, the Department of Health will have more control over office surgery centers, which have been responsible for multiple deaths and hospitalizations throughout the state.

“It will increase patient safety by orders of magnitude,” said Celebrity Plastic Surgeon Michael Salzhauer at a March press conference.

Doctors will start having to electronically report all prescriptions.

Stricter vaccination reporting requirements will also take effect, but because of opposition from anti vaccination groups, parents will still be able to opt their children out by claiming religious exemptions.

“At the end of the day it’s up to a parent to be able to make that decision,” said Erin Olszewski, President of the Florida Freedom Alliance at a rally in April.

You’ll also be able to have documents notarized online at the start of 2020.

The new year will also come with a 10 cent minimum wage hike, raising it to $8.56 an hour.

And 2020 could see more changes to the minimum wage.

Voters will get the chance to decide if they want to raise the minimum wage to $10 starting in 2021, ultimately reaching $15 an hour.

“I’m not saying right away I’m saying 11, then 12, 13, 14, 15 over a period of years,” said Florida for a Fair Wage Chair John Morgan at a speaking event in August.

After the New Year lawmakers will quickly be returning to work.

The 2020 session kicks off January 14th.

Some of the hot button issued already teed up for the 2020 session include parental consent for minors seeking abortions, mandatory e-verify checks for employment and raising teacher salaries.

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