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Environmentalists Push for Full Funding of Florida Forever

November 4th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Five years ago 75 percent of Florida voters approved setting money aside for land conservation and acquisition, but since its passage lawmakers have never fully funded Florida Forever.

Environmental groups used the 5th anniversary of passing Monday, to call on lawmakers to dedicate $100 million to Florida Forever going forward.

Prior to 2009 the program received $300 million a year.

Lawmakers dedicated just $33 million in 2019.
“The people of Florida voted and it’s time for our legislators to listen,” said Christine Johnson with the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast .

Senate Budget Chair Rob Bradley said part of the funding was low this year was because the state hadn’t spent all the money it received in 2018.

But he believes the administration is picking up the pace.

“I’m confident in talking to Governor DeSantis and his team that they’re going to move the money out the door quicker,” said Bradley.

That could increase the odds for more funding in 2020, and possibly in the future as well.

State Senator Linda Stewart is sponsoring a bill that would guarantee $100 million to Florida Forever and make the funding reoccurring.

“If we have left over leave it and then give the $100 million again the next year. That just gives us more to work with,” said Stewart.

The bill also would prohibit money in the trust fund from being spent on administrative costs, which has taken up a third of the pot in previous years.

Environmentalists like Aliki Moncrief with the Florida Conservation Voters said overall, she’s optimistic going into the 2020 session.

“The more lawmakers we’ve talked to this year, more are willing to entertain the idea of a dedicated stream of funding,” said Moncrief. “I think that the question is going to come around, well at what level?”

The Governor requested $100 million for Florida Forever this past Legislative session.

Those we spoke with expect him to make a similar request this year.

Senator Stewart said $100 million is only her starting bid.

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Governor Throws Weight Behind E-Verify Bill

November 1st, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Governor Ron DeSantis wants to crack down on illegal immigration by requiring all employers in the state check the immigration status of potential employees through the Federal E-Verify system.

The move comes after DeSantis pushed through a ban on sanctuary cities earlier this year.

“I think the best way to help deter illegal immigration is to pursue E-Verify,” said DeSantis.

Legislation filed for the 2020 session would require all employers use E-Verify to check every potential employee or else have their licenses suspended or even revoked.

Sammantha Padgett with the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association worries about mistakes.

“What if it comes back and it gives you a false positive or false negative and you’re still subject to penalties?” said Padgett.

Another opponent of E-Verify is the Ag industry.

Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried said it would impose and undo burden.

“So I’m very concerned about the E-Verify bill and what that could potentially do to our smaller farmers in creating these additional paperwork and burden on their everyday concerns,” said Fried.

We reached out to two farmers near the state Capitol.

Both declined an interview fearing if they spoke out against E-Verify it would make their companies targets for homeland security.

And E-Verify’s potential impacts to the workforce are such a concern, even Republican Senate President Bill Galvano said its passage is not guaranteed.

“I expect that there will be a robust debate, but the case is going to have to be made before it passes,” said Galvano.

There are currently only eight states that require all employees to be screened through E-Verify and this isn’t the first year the E-verify debate has come up in Florida.

The bill has been filed as far back as 2010.

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US Attorney Pledges to Protect Florida Against Election Interference

November 1st, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

A US Attorney and other state and federal officials made a show of force Friday, trying to assure the public that they and others are already paying close attention to security for the 2020 election.

They promised transparency, but also cautioned specifics would be slim.

Governor Ron DeSantis confirmed earlier this year hackers got into two Florida county voter databases back in 2016.

“There was no manipulation or anything,” said DeSantis.

Published reporters point to Washington and Sumpter counties, but software used by the two is very similar to that used by the majority of elections supervisors in the state.

“This is a very real threat,” said Secretary of State Laurel Lee.

Lee confirmed this week it is an on going battle.

“Every single day, domestic actors and foreign actors attempt to penetrate our Department of State networks and the networks of supervisors of elections around our state,” said Lee.

Now, in a show of force, Lee, Florida’s US Attorney for the Northern District, the FBI and elections supervisors are trying to reassure the public they are watching.

“As we stand here today we are nearly one year, 368 days from election day 2020. We are all here to make clear that we will use each of those 368 days to safeguard our election process,” said US Attorney Lawrence Keefe.

And the FBI confirmed what Lee said earlier this week.

“Countries across the Globe are deploying efforts to strengthen themselves and weaken the United States,” said Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Jacksonville office Rachel Rojas.

The state has spent about $18 million on election security since the last election, but as one official put it, ‘We’re in race with no finish line’.

Which means lawmakers will be asked for more cash this Spring.

The State was asked multiple times to confirm the identity of the two hacked counties.

It refused to do so and said details of future incidents, if there are any, would be few and far between to protect the quality of their information.

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Year Round Daylight Savings Time Still Stuck in Congress

October 31st, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

It has been 19 months since Florida Lawmakers and the Governor approved a switch to year round Day Light Savings time, but required Congressional approval has been slow in coming.

US Senator Marco Rubio filed the Sunshine Protection act and in a video released by his office isn’t happy about the delay.

“Well, it is my hope that Sunday, November 3rd will be the last time we have to do this ridiculous changing of the clocks back and forth,” said Rubio.

To many, it seems like a no brainer.

“I sleep late in the mornings, but I like the late afternoons,” said Ruby Mc Allister who lives near the time zone barrier in Florida’s panhandle.

But there is powerful opposition coming from the national PTA.

“It is definitely a trick. It is not good for Florida’s children,” said Melissa Raffensberger with the Florida PTA.

Melissa Raffensberger spoke to us between Halloween parties.

“So you have elementary students waiting in the dark for their busses. It’s a traffic issues with these young students waiting outside. Also, even going up to high school, you have these new drivers, these young drivers driving in the dark,” said Raffensberger.

 

In Congress, there is also competing legislation that would make Standard Time permanent all year long.

Something Patricia Ried yearns for.

“Because you’re more relaxed. People understand stuff and you get more done,” said Reid.

So come this weekend, Floridians will fall back at least one more time with the fate of whether that’s the last time in the hands of a bitterly divided congress.

President Trump has signaled his support for year round day light savings time.

Six other states besides Florida have asked Congress for the change.

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FSU Robberies Prompt Heightened Police Presence

October 31st, 2019 by Jake Stofan

A string of robberies on Florida State University’s campus have law enforcement ramping up their efforts.

There have been four robberies on FSU’s campus in as many weeks.

For some students it’s left them with a sense of unease.

“I definitely made sure to keep my doors locked,” said FSU student Anna Hammer.

FSU student Juliana Joyner has a long trek to class from her off campus apartment.

“You have to like go through the tunnel to get everywhere. So yeah it’s pretty scary. It just makes me feel like we’re not as safe,” said Joyner.

The most recent robbery resulted in a student gashed with a knife.

Suspect Rodney Jermaine Joyner remains in jail without bond.

FSU Police Chief Terri Brown said the other three attacks are still under investigation.

“We have leads and we’ll keep everybody posted as the investigations unfold,” said Brown.

FSU police are urging students to make good use of all safety resources, including about 400 blue light stations across campus.

“Safe Escort, Seminole Safe App. Go to our website where you can see the resources that we have,” said Brown.

As and added level of safety FSU PD has ramped up patrol efforts around campus.

“We have reached out to the sheriff’s department and the city police department to help us with our efforts,” said Brown.

It’s a reassuring sign to student Tyler Wilson.

“It kind of shows me like okay, there’s someone who would be nearby to help out if something were to happen,” said Wilson.

FSU President John Thrash also sent out an email to students alerting them of the recent robberies and reassuring the universities commitment to student safety, noting the addition of 15 additional campus police officers over the past five years and improved lighting and security camera across campus.

Patrol officers are keeping an eye out for suspicious looking people.

FSU is an open campus, in the county with the highest crime rate in the state.

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Proposed Concealed Carry Changes Already Facing Opposition

October 30th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

There are now more than two million concealed carry license holders in Florida.

The permits are good for seven years, but the Cabinet official who administers the program wants to shorten the time period and require more training to renew.

Florida’s 2,051,728 Florida concealed weapons permit holders had to take just one course to be certified, but everyone of them would have to be retrained if they want to renew their license under a proposal by Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.

“You’ve waited five to seven years. Haven’t picked up you gun again. Haven’t cleaned it. Haven’t gone back to the range. The likelihood of you harming yourself if you need it increases,” said Fried.

Fried also wants to shorten the permits validity from seven to five years.

“The maximum length for which the Federal Government will allow fingerprint retention,” said Fried.

The NRA calls the move a disguised effort at gun control.

“She has no evidence that there has been any accident or incident involved with a license holder due to lack of training,” said former NRA President Marion Hammer.

There have been more than four million applications since the program began in 1987.

Since then, just over 17,000 or 0.3 percent were not qualified to conceal carry.

Shortening a permit’s validity will raise about 25 percent more revenue for the department; a fully staffed department that can only use that money on concealed carry permits.

Senate President Bill Galvano questioned the need for change.

“I haven’t seen the data that shows that’s going to somehow decrease mass violence,” said Galvano.

Retraining would cost concealed carry permit holders anywhere from $50 to $200.

The reason for the wide range in costs for training for a concealed carry permit is because the state sets no standards for the training.

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High School Smoking at All-Time Low As Youth Vaping Skyrockets

October 30th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Florida teens are showing the lowest smoking rates among high school students in state history.

This comes amidst skyrocketing vaping rates among youth, but Tobacco Free Florida hopes some of the same strategies used to lower smoking rates may help in the effort to tackling the vaping crisis.

Smoking rates among high schools students dropped from 3.5 to 2.1 percent over the past year.

“Which is a historic low for us. It’s an 86 percent decrease since 2007,” said Tobacco Free Florida Bureau Chief Laura Corbin.

At the same time, youth vaping rates are skyrocketing.

Statistics show one in four teens use the devices, but Attorney General Ashley Moody believes the numbers don’t reflect reality.

“If you talk to the students one on one and get them to put their phones down for a moment they’ll tell you more than that,” said Moody.

Corbin said the drop in smoking isn’t necessarily related to the rise of vaping, as smoking rates have been steadily dropping even before the crisis.

“The FDA has attributed the recent rise in youth vaping to flavors [and] the high nicotine content,” said Corbin.

The Attorney General said she’ll be asking the Legislature to free up additional funds for anti-vaping campaigns during the 2020 session.

“We saw the success with smoking traditional combustibles. It can be replicated. Our Legislature just needs to make sure the funding is there,” said Moody.

The Attorney General also announced she’s opened an investigation into more than 20 vaping companies to find whether they intentionally marketed to children.

“And the purpose of that investigation is always to determine whether there is a next step that needs to be taken,” said Moody.

That next step could a be a lawsuit similar to the one that produced the 1997 tobacco settlement, which now funds Tobacco Free Florida.

In addition, the Attorney General is advocating for a ban on flavored vape products and two factor age verification for online vape purchases.

She has not endorsed the idea of raising the age to purchase nicotine products to 21, which has been filed in the House.

Eighteen states and more than 500 municipalities, including two here in Florida have already raised the age.

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Governor Says 2020 Will Be the ‘Year of the Teacher’

October 29th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Gov Ron DeSantis told the state’s editors and reporters Tuesday that teacher pay should be at the top of lawmakers agenda for 2020, but his plan to raise starting salaries is already raising some red flags.

On Monday, Florida’s largest teachers union asked for $2.4 billion.

One billion for an across the board ten percent raise for teachers and with the rest to improve buildings and add classes.

“We’ve watched two decades of of disinvestment by legislature after legislature, governor after governor,” said President of the Florida Education Association Fedrick Ingram.

DeSantis said he wants lawmakers to make 2020, ‘the year of the teacher’.
But the Governor’s not endorsing the unions ten percent pay hike or the other $1.4 billion for improvements.

“Let’s not pretend there’s not politics involved in this. I mean, just a fact of the matter.. I’m a Republican, they’re not. And so, what I’m doing is never going to be enough, and mu job is not to do what the union wants. It’s what’s best for education,” said DeSantis.

And Senate President Bill Galvano threw a little cold water on both plans.

Revenue is going to be tight and teacher pay is a local responsibility.

“We can make a commitment to a specific number at this point, until we fully understand where we are budget wise. How the mechanics of these things work,” said Galvano.

The Governor, who said teachers said starting teachers would get $47,500 now says no teacher will make less than that.

“That’s more attractive at forty seven five than it is at thirty one or forty. It just is,” said DeSantis.

The Governor’s approval rating is over 70 percent.

The question he’ll have to answer is how much of that political capital does he want to spend to make 2020 the year of the teacher.

The Governor’s plan to raise minimum salaries will cost taxpayers just over $600 million a year.

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Clemency Board May Consider Reviewing Death Penalty Cases

October 29th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

James Dailey was set to be executed early next month, but a Federal Judge has issued a temporary stay.

The Innocence Project believes Daily may be innocent because there is not physical evidence and now some members the clemency board believe they should have a greater role before death warrants are issued.

Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried, a former public defender, said she’s torn on the death penalty.

“Because I know that there is a problem in our criminal justice system that needs to be fixed,” said Fried.

Fried also sits on the state clemency board.

She said she’d support brining back a mandatory review by the board for all death cases, which was in place for a decade after the state resumed executions in 1979.

“There is no harm in making sure that there’s more eyes on these cases and reviewing of all of the facts underlining it,” said Fried.

Another member, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis also seemed supportive of a clemency review when asked Tuesday.

“You want to ensure that every opportunity to create any type of exoneration is a possibility, but at the same time there also has to be a consequence to the crime that was committed,” said Patrons.

While two clemency board members said they would consider requiring the additional review, a third, the State’s Attorney General Ashley Moody is skeptical.

“Trust me, we put a lot of time and energy into making sure that claims have been heard and due process has been exhausted before we reach that point,” said Moody.

For every three inmates put to death in Florida, one has been exonerated from death row.

If Daily’s execution is carried out, he will be the 100th inmate put to death since executions resumed.

Commissioner Fried said she’d be interested in taking a closer look at James Daily’s case, which could include a review by the clemency board.

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Commissioner of Agriculture Proposes Sweeping Changes to Concealed Carry

October 29th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried is asking the State Legislature to implement sweeping changes to the concealed carry process in Florida.

She wants to keep fingerprints for concealed carry holders on file for five years and also reduce the renewal period from seven to five years.

In addition she wants to require applicants take a concealed carry course each time they renew their license, not just when they first apply.

“If you have gone through a course one year and then you’ve waited five or seven years, haven’t picked up your gun again, haven’t cleaned it, haven’t gone back to the range your likelihood of you harming yourself if you need it increases,” said Fried.

The Commissioner, the only statewide elected Democrat, said she believes her proposal will be received with bipartisan support, but it’s yet to be see how receptive the Republican controlled Legislature will be to the ideas.

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Petition Gatherer Registration Site Still Down

October 29th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Florida’s website where paid petition gatherers are supposed to register with the state has been down for more than a week now.

Secretary of State Laurel Lee said the site crashed because it couldn’t handle the number visitors it was receiving, which she described as hundreds a day.

Lee said in the meantime, a manual application process is being offered.

“Our key focus there is that we do not want our process to result in a delay to any petition gatherers who wish to register and commence their process. We do believe that the manual process that we have in place as of today is achieving that,” said Lee.

Lee said the Department of State is actively working on getting the site back up, but didn’t speculate a time frame for when the site would be functioning again.

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Teachers Union Seeks Massive Increase in School Funding

October 28th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

The Florida Education Association is on the road this month, trying to drum up support for a big pay hike for teachers, better classroom maintenance, and more music and art classes. And As Mike Vasilinda tells us, they are asking parents and teachers to come make their case to state lawmakers.

The Florida Education Association is pinning its hope on rallying teachers and parents across the state to push lawmakers to pump more than two billion new dollars into education next year. FEA President Fedrick Ingram says its vital to keep teachers from pursuing other careers

“Give us what we need to take care of these kids” says Ingram. “Give us what we need so that we can stay in this profession.”

And its not just a one year ask…but for 22 billion over ten years.

In addition to touring the state in this bus, the teachers are calling for a massive rally at the state Capitol on January 13th,  the day before the legislative session begins.

It won’t be the first time. 

In 2009 thousands of teachers brought more than two million pennies as they pushed for a sales tax increase for schools. 

Nat sot: “Enough is enough.”

In the following years, chanting “enough is enough, thousands more teachers marched for better schools. Each time lawmakers did little.

”Let’s hold them accountable” was the theme a tone rally. 

So we asked what would be different this time.

“We’re fighting for kids everyday, and that’s what’s different.” Says FEA’s Ingram. “And the pressure they are going to see is going to be bigger, broader, and more comprehensive than we’ve seen in the modern his history of the state of Florida.”

Teachers are quitting at record rates, often after just a year or two. Missy Rudd retired in June. She says  many can’t make ends meet.

“It’s frustrating when we have to get a second or third job, or when you get an email from a team teacher that says, hey, I got this side business, can you come and support me” says Rudd.

The Governor has proposed increasing starting teachers salaries to for forty-seven-five, but the teacher say they need a billion more to give every teacher a raise.

Education week has ranked Florida dead last when it comes to per pupil funding. Average teacher pay in Florida currently ranks forty-sixth in the nation.

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Website Issues Creating Additional Hurdles for Citizen Initiatives

October 25th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

New restrictions were put on petition gatherers earlier this year, including a requirement they register with the Department of State, but the registration page on the agency’s website has been down for nearly a week.
The state reports it’s working to get the site back online.
The law was widely opposed by those who have worked to put initiatives on the ballot like Aliki Moncrief with the Florida Conservation Voters.
“If this law had been in place when we were trying to get signatures to put water and land funding on the ballot I don’t think we would have made it,” said Moncrief.
Moncrief said because the registration site has been brought down for maintenance it’s created another hurdle for paid petition gatherers.
The Department of State said the maintenance is due in part to the short timeframe it was given to develop the site.
“The petition process is important, and we are doing everything in our means to ensure the process continues as smoothly as possible. The Department of State is aware that there are operational issues with the Division of Elections Paid Petition Circulator website. We do not have any reason to believe that these operational issues are the result of external system intrusions,” said Secretary of State Laurel Lee in an email statement.
Even before site went down there were numerous reports of the site not working properly.
“If they’re going to pass a terrible bill like this at the least the system can be operational on day one,” said Moncrief.
Some groups have suggested it’s intentional, but Rep. James Grant who originally sponsored the legislation denies those allegations.
“I don’t think anyone had an intent or even an expectation that some of the antiquated servers and challenges would lead to this problem, but I can promise you that both the Secretary and I are committed to making sure we get it right,” said Grant.
Moncrief said intentional or not, lawmakers should have had more foresight.
“Before lawmakers press the button and make a bill effective perhaps they should do some planning to make sure that we don’t run across problems like this,” said Moncrief.
Representative Grant said in addition to the website, he’s concerned some are intentionally disobeying the registration requirements.
He said he’s hyper focused on addressing both issues.
The Department of State says it’s contacted sponsors of ballot initiatives to inform them of alternative ways to register, but when we asked for an explanation of what those alternatives are, we didn’t receive a response.

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Environmental Groups Layout Hopes for 2020 Session

October 25th, 2019 by Jake Stofan
The Sierra Club wants lawmakers to do more for everglades restoration, storm water management and septic to sewer conversion in the 2020 legislative session.
The group laid out its policy goals Friday morning, which also include a ban on fracking, tighter regulations on urban fertilizers and a ban on sunscreens that contain chemicals that are harmful to coal reefs.
Frank Jackalone with the Sierra Club said this past session lawmakers dropped the ball on all of those issues.
He added if the state does not address climate change, urban sprawl, water pollution and corruption in the political system the effect overtime could be devastating.
“We have four existential threats to the state of Florida currently. Each one threatens to destroy the state as we know it. Taken to together they will lead to the state’s environmental and economic collapse in the next hundred years and probably much sooner,” said Jackalone.
The Sierra Club ranked lawmakers based on how they voted on seven key bills passed in the 2019 session.
87 percent of Senate Republicans and 97 percent of House Republicans voted against the environmental advocacy group’s position on all seven bills.

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Alimony Reform Debate Likely to Resurface in 2020 Session

October 24th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

A battle over alimony is back in front of lawmakers for the first time in three years.

Reformers are seeking to do away with permanent alimony and create guidelines that would make alimony awards more uniform across the state.

Elisa Del Ray married an abusive husband.

She finally got the courage to get a divorce when he threatened her with a gun.

“I would have never imagined that I would be paying permanently, alimony to my abuser,” said Del Ray speaking to lawmakers in a committee Thursday.

Del Ray’s case is extreme, but it’s part of the reason alimony reformers want an end to permanent alimony in the state of Florida.

“The main thing that permanent alimony payers want is to see the light at the end of the tunnel because a lot of them just have this sense of hopelessness,” said Alan Elkins with Florida Family Fairness.

Reformers are asked lawmakers during a panel discussion to limit alimony to half the length of a marriage and put in place a standard formula to calculate alimony payments to ensure consistency.

The idea has the attention of Rep. Bob Rommel.

“I do want to look at whether there’s a fair formula for the majority of cases. I know in some divorces there’s always extreme circumstances,” said Rommel.

But family law advocates say cost of living and lifestyles differ across the state.

“And when you try to put that in a box and create a formula for that it makes it very difficult to be fair to everyone,” said Andrea Reid with the Florida Bar Family Law Section.

In 2016 a bill which included guidelines for alimony payments was approved by lawmakers.

It was vetoed by then Governor Rick Scott, but now there’s a new Governor and new optimism for reformers.

No bill has been formally introduced yet, but supporters have retained two of the most powerful lobbying groups in the state capital.

One change both reformers and family law advocates do agree on is that after a person retires they should be able to stop making alimony payments.

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