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Crime Victims Arrive at Capitol for Week of Advocacy

February 17th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

400 victims of crime from across the state arrived in Tallahassee Monday ahead of a planned week of advocacy at the state Capitol.

This is the third year in a row victims have organized in hopes of expanding victims rights and lobbying for criminal justice reform.

Aswad Thomas with Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice said last year the group achieved some success.

“We were able to extend the time limit for victims of crime to file for the state’s victims’ compensation program from one year to three years. We also extended the time limit that’s needed for victims to file a police report in order to be eligible for the program from 72 hours to five days,” said Thomas.

A rally is scheduled for Wednesday, where victims say they will unveil their 2020 legislative goals.

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DEO Says Panhandle Relief is On the Way

February 17th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Help is on the way for victims of Hurricane Michael in the Florida panhandle according to the State Department of Economic Opportunity.

The agency said it’s on course to accept and distribute nearly a billion Housing and Urban Development relief dollars that will go towards rebuilding lost homes and businesses.

In the meantime, DEO Executive Director Ken Lawson said DEO will be holding public hearings throughout the week to ensure as soon as the money is made available from the Federal government it will go where it is most needed.

“We’re receiving close to a billion dollars from the Federal Government so there a process that takes time. We have to be transparent, be accurate and accountable. But regardless of how much time it takes the Federal Government, we at the state at DEO are going to make sure we do everything as quickly as possible to understand the needs, provide that in-state action plan so when we do get the money from the Federal Government we can put it on the street,” said Lawson.

DEO did not give a specific timeline for when it expects the funds to be made available.

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Domestic Violence Shelters Raise Concerns Over Funding

February 14th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s 42 locally operated domestic violence shelters remain concerned about continued funding after the Governor ordered an investigation into the statewide nonprofit that transfers money from the state to the local level.

It made for a bittersweet Valentines Day at the Refuge House, which provides services to victims of domestic violence from eight North Florida counties.

“The concerns of many of the program directors across the state are acute,” said Director, Meg Baldwin.

In 2004, lawmakers said funding for local shelters would be distributed by an unnamed nonprofit.

In 2012 they specifically named the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence as that agency.

FCADV was the sole conduit of $46 million in state funds to local shelters.

“The wellbeing of survivors of domestic violence depends on their being the strictest integrity at every level,” said Baldwin.

The Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence paid its former CEO $761,000 a year.

She may also have gotten as much as $7 million over three years in other compensation.

Until this week, the nonprofit refused to turn over financial documents to the state.

State Representative Scott Plakon is the House sponsor of legislation that will take FCADV out of the status as the sole conduit for funding.

“This whole organization is a cascading train wreck of apparent corruption and abuse of taxpayer dollars,” said Plakon.

All 42 shelter directors will be meeting by phone on Saturday.

They want to make sure those on the front line aren’t painted by the alleged sins of the statewide administrator.

The House Public Integrity committee has already voted to subpoena FCADV board members and staff.

The Full House will vote to issue the subpoenas next week.

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Gun Safety Bill Stalled in the Legislature

February 14th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

On the second anniversary of the Parkland school shooting, the Governor ordered flags to be flown at half-staff as a sign of respect for the victims.

Following the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High school shooting, state lawmakers banned so-called bump stocks and anyone under 21 from owning a gun.

They also implemented stronger red flag laws and created a mandatory three day waiting period for all gun purchases from licensed dealers.

All week in the Capitol lawmakers have walked by photos of Parkland victims, but the display seems to have done little to inspire support for additional gun restrictions.

Advocates had high hopes of getting increased background checks this year, but the effort is running into some serious opposition.

The main proposal would require background checks at public venues like gun shows.

It also strengthens gun storage laws and creates new requirements for private sales.

Initially, Senate Sponsor Tom Lee was optimistic.

“We need four Republican votes would be my guess in the Senate to pass a bill and it would shock me if we don’t have four Republican votes for common sense gun safety,” said Lee in January.

But the bill stalled after passing its first committee.

And as session reached its midpoint, Senate President Bill Galvano signaled the bill still had many obstacles to overcome.

“It is very clear that it’s an uphill battle. It’s difficult even within the chamber, but it’s even more difficult across the way,” said Galvano.

Despite the change in tone, 2nd amendment groups like the NRA aren’t letting their guard down.

“Anytime a bill’s sponsor is pessimistic about passage of a massive gun control bill it’s a good thing, but we’re never fooled by rhetoric,” said former NRA President Marion Hammer. “We continue to watch, we continue to work and we continue to fight.”

Even if the bill were to pass the Senate, convincing the House and the Governor would likely be a daunting task.

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Governor Orders Investigation into Head Anti-Domestic Violence Organization

February 13th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s 42 Domestic Violence Shelters are on pins and needles as the state opens two investigations into Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the non-profit the funnels state money to the shelters.

In a strongly worded memo, Governor Ron DeSantis ordered his inspector general Melinda Miguel to look into the spending practices of the FCADV.

“The coalition’s compensation, their spending. A Look at whether or not there has been any reasonable grounds to determine whether a crime has occurred,” said Miguel.

Former CEO Tiffany Carr was paid at least $761,000 a year, but there were other perks that could drive that number much higher.

“A number of records were provided already but we still need a lot more,” said Miguel.

Under state law the Department of Children and Families is required to send all state money, $45 million a year, through the Coalition.

“It puts the department in a very difficult position,” said DCF Secretary Chad Poppel.

We spoke Poppel as he left the Governor’s office Thursday.

“A vendor can basically tell us they are not going to agree to our terms and we have to give them the money anyway,” said Poppel.

Sen. Aaron Bean is moving legislation to give DCF control of the funding.

“My immediate priority is to pass this bill,” said Bean.

The House will take a rare step subpoenaing more records and all of the coalitions board members.

“We need to get to the truth. For twenty months we’ve been stonewalled, not being given any information,” said Rep. Tom Leek, who chais the House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee.

Attorney Mark Herron was hired by the FCDAV Wednesday.

“Interface with the committee as well to do an internal investigation into what went on,” said Herron.

Local shelters said they depend on monthly checks from the coalition to keep running and assert any delay in those checks could result in fewer victims being helped.

Also under investigation is a contract provision between local shelters and the coalition that required the shelters to pay dues twice a year to the coalition.

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House Committee Approves New Union Requirements

February 13th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Union employees in Florida would have to reauthorize their union membership every three years under a bill that cleared its final House committee Thursday morning.

Sponsor Representative James Grant said the bill is intended to make it easier for workers to opt out of a union without fear of retribution.

But Marshall Ogletree with the United Faculty of Florida argued it’s not the unions workers fear.

“I will tell you this, the fear is over management. The fear is not over the union. I talk to people every day that are afraid to step up because they’re fearful. You don’t get promotions by being in a union,” said Ogletree.

Other union reps who spoke at Thursday’s meeting expressed concerns over the cost of having to reach out to all union members to remind them to reauthorize their membership.

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Lawmakers Want to Cut Communications Tax

February 13th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

When you download a movie, watch cable or satellite TV or use your cell phone, you are being taxed by state and local governments to the tune of $1.6 billion a year.

Rates vary depending on location and device, but big business in Florida and Florida TaxWatch are applauding a House effort to lover the tax by $60 million this year.

“Besides the sales tax there’s probably no tax that could be cut that would affect more people. Just about everybody pays it somewhere and most people pay it multiple times. So we think it’s long overdue,” said Kurt Wenner, VP of Research at Florida TaxWatch.

Businesses pass the tax on to consumers, but the legislation doesn’t guarantee that any tax savings by business will also go to consumers.

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Higher Ed Bill Proposes University Mergers and Scholarship Cuts

February 12th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Two state universities could be merged with UF and FSU and sweeping changes to scholarships for private universities are part of a controversial higher education package passed by a House committee Wednesday.

New College would be merged with FSU and Florida Polytechnic University with UF.

Sponsor Representative Randy Fine said it comes down to cost.

“We could educate ten students at one of our other schools in many of these cases for what we are spending at these schools,” said Fine.

Florida Polytechnic argued the higher cost comes with a higher return on investment.

“Three times better than the average university state system,” said Florida Polytechnic Trustee Robert Stork.

New College did not speak on the legislation.

The bill would also cut financial aid to as many as 30,000 private university students.

It would limit the $2,800 a semester EASE grant to only those who qualify for financial assistance.

“The idea is: Is it a good use of tens of millions of dollars, which is what it costs, to subsidize wealthy kids to go to private schools?” said Fine.

But students like Brenda Guess who attends Keiser University in Sarasota said they fall in the middle.

“There’s a gap for the need-based and then there’s the families that currently are above that threshold. We’re there because we’re actually working. So don’t take that away from us,” said Guess.

While both the mergers and the EASE grant cuts received flack from Republicans and Democrats alike, the bill passed and is now headed to the House floor.

One part of the bill supported by everyone on the committee would allow students who receive the Medallion Bright Futures Scholarship have 100 percent tuition covered at state or community colleges.

If they maintain a 3.5 percent GPA, they would then qualify for 100 percent tuition at a state university as well.

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Parkland Photo Gallery on Display in State Capitol

February 12th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

A half dozen portraits showing the anguish after parkland shooting two years ago are greeting lawmakers and visitors on the State Capitol’s fourth floor.

They include a student whose best friend died next to her and a teacher shot in the arm.

The photos are the work of Ian Witten, a photojournalist and graduate of Marjorie Stoneman Douglass.

The photos will be on display through Friday, which is the second anniversary of the shootings.

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Child Safely Recovered After Being Kidnapped By Mother

February 11th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

The father of a three year old lied about a stranger abducting his daughter from his front yard.

She was instead taken by her biological mother and the mother’s boyfriend.

Both were in custody Tuesday and the child safely back home.

The Department of Law Enforcement issued an Amber Alert just after 10 AM Monday for 3-year-old Madeline Majia.

Her father had reported her kidnapped by a stranger. ‘

Police had other ideas.

The non-custodial mother’s cell phone had pinged about forty miles east of Tallahassee, so troopers in a three county area were on high alert.

State Trooper Jessie Sunday was traveling eastbound on Interstate 10 when he saw the car pass.

He turned around in pursuit.

“We followed it to about 209 until we got some troopers behind me, and a couple FDLE agents and we performed a felony stop on the vehicle at the 208 mile marker,” said Sunday. “Guns, drawn, yes sir. You know backup around. Surround the vehicle in a semi-circle. Call each person out one at at time. Driver, passenger.”

The 18-year-old biological mother, Tania Duarte and her 19-year-old companion, appeared in a Tallahassee courtroom Tuesday.

Both spoke through an interpreter and got the same message from the judge.

“You will be held without bond pending your return to Orange County,” said Leon County Judge Augustus Aikens.

Two others in the car were questioned and turned over to immigration authorities.

Trooper Sunday said motorists along I-10 cooperated as the interstate was briefly closed.

He said the child was happy to have been rescued.

“A little scared, but once we got her away from the situation, she seemed to be relived as well,” said Sunday.

The child was reunited with her father Monday night.

He is yet to be charged with a crime, but Apopka Police say the investigation remains open.

While originally classified as a stranger abduction, that is seldom the case.

Fewer than one percent of all missing children are taken by a stranger or non-custodial family member.

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Bill Would Reduce Drivers License Suspensions for Failing to Pay Fines and Fees

February 11th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

1.1 million Floridians had their drivers licenses suspended for failure to pay fines and fees in 2017 alone.

“This amounts to 72 percent of the total drivers license suspension notices that year,” said Ashley Thomas with the Fines and Fees Justice Center.

And when people can’t drive, criminal justice advocates say it makes it harder to work and harder to pay.

“Suspending a drivers license because of fees and fines threatens not only a driver’s ability to get to work, but being able to drive for work,” said Alex Miller with the Florida Trucking Association.

But a bill moving through both the House and the Senate aims to reduce those license suspensions by making it easier for people to get on affordable payment plans.

“You have 30 days to engage your Clerk of Court to say that you want to create a payment plan. After that you have another 60 days to work out the mechanics of what that is,” said bill sponsor Representative Byron Donalds.

Unlike in previous years, this year’s bill doesn’t completely do away with drivers license suspensions for failing to pay fines and fees.

It also doesn’t allow the debts to be dropped.

“But by putting them on a reasonable payment plan that’s based on their ability to pay their ability to comply with the payment plan will increase,” said Thomas.

And Rep. Donalds said at the end of the day, the current system just isn’t working.

“I know in Collier County there’s $94 million in uncollected fines and fees associated with drivers license suspension. So the clerks aren’t getting the money now,” said Donalds.

Clerks of Courts have not taken an official stance on the legislation, but their statewide office told us in a statement, “It is a priority component of the Clerks’ legislative agenda this year to work with the legislature on innovative solutions that help reduce driver license suspensions, without eliminating the ability to do so when necessary.”

Florida is among eleven states considering legislation to reduce or eliminate drivers license suspensions for failure to pay fines and fees.

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Lawmakers Seek Greater Protections for Endangered Species

February 11th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida is the state with the third highest number of endangered species, but recent rollbacks to the Endangered Species Act by the Trump Administration have environmental groups worried they could lose their protected status.

Legislation moving through the Senate would require the Florida Department of Environmental Protection continue protecting endangered species no matter the cost.

“They’re now allowed to take economic impact and cost into account when deciding to list a species as threatened or endangered and to protect one of those species. Science should be what’s taken into account and the effect on our environment regardless of the cost, just like we had for over 40 years,” said House sponsor Representative Adam Hattersley.

The legislation would also require the department to consider climate as a potential risk factor for species.

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Voter Groups Hold Memorial for Citizen Initiative Process

February 11th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Voter groups held a preemptive memorial service at the Capitol Tuesday afternoon for the state’s citizen initiative process.

The memorial came ahead of a vote on a bill that would make it harder to amend the state constitution through citizen-led efforts.

Advocates like Rich Templin with the AFL-CIO said the bill is the latest a long line of attacks on the citizen initiative process.

“For 16 years we have seen over 100 pieces of legislation filed killing the citizens’ right to direct democracy with 1,000 paper cuts. The bill that’s being considered behind us later today is simply the final nail in the coffin,” said Tempin.

The bill was amended in the Senate committee to reduce the threshold for Supreme Court review from 50 percent of the target signatures to 33 percent.

It also capped the cost for counting petitions at $1.

Currently only 10 percent of the target signatures are required for Supreme Court review and it costs only 10 cents to count each petition.

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Healthy Marriage Guide Making Gains in the Florida Legislature

February 10th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

There were 156,168 marriages in Florida in 2018, and nearly half as many divorces.

One estimate is that divorce is costing Florida taxpayers nearly $2 billion a year in direct and indirect costs such as court time and welfare payments, but legislation hopes to strengthen marriages by requiring couples read a privately produced guide to a healthy marriage as a condition of getting a marriage license.

At least five states already require couples to read a marriage guide before they can be wed.

Florida would be the next if sponsor Dennis Baxley has his way.

“This is a tool just to foster discussion. And there are five states where they are doing this with success and have seen their divorce rates go down, which means they are having healthier families,” said Baxley.

The publication is more like a glossy magazine than the currently required Florida bar pamphlet.

Reading one or the other would be acceptable under the legislation that has cleared House and Senate committees.

“And how they are going to resolve differences when they disagree. How they are going to prioritize family spending,” said Baxley.

The Utah publication encourages people to find the positives in their spouses and even encourages readers to make a list.

There is also a quiz on how well you know your husband or wife.

“It’s the height of hypocrisy,” said Barbara DeVane with the Florida chapter of the National Organization for Women.

DeVane questions lawmakers own marital commitment.

“They come in with one spouse, they go out with another, or they get caught with their mistress. And the women too. There have been women who have done this,” said DeVane.

The Legislation initially stalled when there was a six member committee that was going to decide what went into the pamphlet.

There were fears it would be political, but once the committee came out, the legislation started moving.

Clerks of Court would be required to post the publication on their websites and and hand out copies when available.

The cost would be born by private family groups.

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Student’s Death Sparks Call for Enhanced Pedestrian Safety Around FSU

February 10th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

The death of an FSU student crossing a busy road near campus has sparked a public outcry for enhanced pedestrian safety around campus.

19-year-old FSU student Natalie Nickchen was hit and killed while crossing this busy road near campus after a driver ran a red light.

“I cross Tennessee Street every day up at the Copeland intersection. So I’ve seen how dangerous it is and then when I found out a fellow classmate had gotten killed I just knew I had to do something and start taking action about this,” said FSU student Noelle Enright.

The tragedy inspired Enright to start a petition, which has collected nearly 15,000 signatures.

It seeks to increase safety at the crosswalk by building either a pedestrian overpass or a tunnel below the road.

“Either way, as long as there is an alternate way to cross this road I think it would be a good solution,” said Enright.

Just down the street there is already an underpass leading to campus across the same busy road.

We witnessed more than a dozen jay-walkers in the hour we spent at the crosswalk.

When we asked students what they thought about the intersection we received mixed responses.

“I see a lot of cars running red lights,” said FSU freshman Naomi Cohen.

“I don’t know, it doesn’t seem too, too scary,” said FSU senior Colby Saul.

And while most agreed an overpass would increase safety, others questioned whether it would be worth the cost.

“But I feel like people are more aware now of how unsafe this crosswalk is and a bunch of other cross walks in Tallahassee. But I think 100 percent it would definitely help,” said FSU senior Rose Finkelstein.

The university said it’s speaking with the city and the Florida Department of Transportation to determine the next steps forward.

It said the petition will be considered in that review process.

The universities’ student government is expected to vote on a resolution that would urge the the Tallahassee Mayor and Florida Department of Transportation to consider building the overpass or underpass at the intersection.

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