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Jeff Vasilinda becomes the Vasilinda Family’s first published author!

Democrats Renew Push for Legal Marijuana

April 6th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Democratic State lawmakers say now is the time for Florida to legalize recreational marijuana in the state.

They’re highlighting a 354-page bill that would legalize recreational marijuana for adults 21 and older.

People could posses up to 2.5 ounces at a time and grow up to six plants for personal use under the bill.

House Sponsor Anika Omphroy said with more and more states moving to legalize, Florida should jump into the market sooner rather than later.

“And I look forward to our chambers actually waking up and realizing it’s far time, way past due. When New York can pass legislation Florida, an agricultural state, should be moving forward with passing legislation also,” said Omphroy.

The legislation hasn’t been put on any committee agendas so far.

Even if the Legislature doesn’t act this year, pending Supreme Court approval, a constitutional amendment legalizing recreational marijuana may end up on the 2022 ballot.

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Combating Public Disorder Act Resurrected in the Senate

April 5th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

The Florida Senate is using some creative procedural maneuvering to resurrect the controversial ‘anti-rioting’ bill and the move is drawing criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike.

The stage for the move was set a week before the announcement was made.

In late March the Senate Rules committee made an uncommon maneuver, taking up a House version of a non-controversial bill that had been stuck in a lower Senate committee.

A Republican and Democratic lawmaker expressed concerns at the time.

“I want to ensure that we don’t establish a precedent with this bill,” said State Senator Jeff Brandes.

“I really hope we don’t do this with the anti-protest bill,” said State Senator Gary Farmer.

A week later, a similar move was in fact announced for the controversial anti-rioting legislation.

The bill will now only be heard by a single Senate committee before reaching the floor.

Senate President Wilton Simpson defended his decision to reporters.

“About half the Senate is in the budget committee, so I just think that’s the appropriate place to send it to so that it can be fairly vetted before it comes to the floor,” said Simpson.

But Patricia Brigham, President of The League of Women Voters of Florida believes side stepping the process on a bill that could have First Amendment implications is dangerous.

“I absolutely does deserve full vetting and when it eventually goes to court, which I’m sure it will if it’s passed, I think that’s one of the things that should be pointed out. This bill was not fully vetted by our legislative process,” said Brigham.

Democratic Representative Evan Jenne is holding out hope the Senate won’t act as a rubber stamp.

“That the Senate does the right thing and that this bill is put down for the whole of session,” said Jenne.

The legislation is expected to come up for its one and only Senate committee hearing Friday.

If Senators ultimately pass the bill off the chamber floor without amendments it will head straight to the Governor’s desk.

We reached out to the Senate sponsor of the Combating Public Disorder Act for comment on this story, but did not hear back.

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Vaccine Rollout Questions Remain

April 5th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

As of midnight Monday morning, the state reported more than 6.2 million Floridians had been vaccinated.

It came shortly after CBS News’ 60 Minutes aired a story Sunday night claiming Florida’s vaccine distribution was controlled by money and wealth, but those at the center of the network say there was no favoritism.

The 60 Minutes story began with a powerful statement about the state’s vaccine distribution system.

“We watched Florida’s vaccine rollout deteriorate into a virtual free for all,” said 60 Minutes reporter Sharyn Alfonsi.

“I don’t know that I could say that,” said Tanya Tatum, Student Services Director at FAMU.

Tatum directs the vaccination site on campus, where 3,000 have already been vaccinated.

She doesn’t see the problem.

“No free for alls here. We seem to be doing pretty well,” said Tatum.

Late last year, Publix made four $25,000 donations to the Friends of Ron DeSantis political action committee.

CBS Asked the Governor if it was pay to play.

“I met with the county mayor. I met with the administrator. I met with all the folks in Palm Beach County. And I said here are some of the options. We can do more drive through sites. We can give more to hospitals. We can do the Publix. And they said we think that would be the easiest thing for our residents,” said DeSantis.

Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz, a Democrat leaving the state soon, responded with a tweet taking responsibility for the decision to contract with Publix.

Rep. Omari Hardy was featured prominently in the story.

He told us, many of the Governor’s decisions don’t consider how they will affect people of color.

“Then it does no good for the Governor to defend that decision by saying well most people were okay with it,” said Hardy.

In a statement, Publix called the pay to play allegations irresponsible, false and offensive.

David Kerner, the Mayor Democratic of West Palm Beach also has issued a statement saying, “The reporting was not just based on bad information – it was intentionally false. I know this because I offered to provide my insight into Palm Beach County’s vaccination efforts and 60 Minutes declined.”

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Ending School Board Salaries Could Be on the Ballot

April 2nd, 2021 by Jake Stofan

School board members in Florida make an average of $34,500 a year, but key lawmakers believe the nonpartisan constitutional office is becoming too political.

Their answer is to take the salary out of the equation.

A joint resolution moving through the House would give voters the power to prohibit school board members from taking a salary.

“61 percent of district school board members in America today as we sit here serve without compensation,” said House sponsor Representative Sam Garrison.

The question would be on the 2022 ballot and if approved, would apply to all newly elected members.

Democrats like Representative Angela Nixon argue it would make school boards less diverse.

“This will lead to an elitist system,” said Nixon.

School Boards are the only constitutional office in the state where women hold the majority of offices.

“If we remove the salaries here, that could change and that could minimize that voice,” said Andrea Messina, Executive Director of the Florida School Boards Association.

The Association argues the level of responsibility and liability imposed on school board members exceeds that of many other constitutional officers.

“All of whom are paid for their time, energy and effort. So school board members ought to be paid as well,” said Messina.

But the sponsor believes the proposal would make the position more service oriented and less politicized.

“Some of the concerns parents have when it comes to their school boards is that it becomes about the politics and not about the kids,” said Garrison.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls agrees.

“The issue is you know getting people who, again, who are committed to the kids. You know kind of like when you get on a board for your local Boys and Girls Club,” said Sprowls.

Chris Doolin with the Small County Coalition doesn’t buy the argument.

“If the Legislature wanted to be courageous here, they would sponsor an amendment that eliminated their own salaries,” said Doolin.

The measure has cleared two committees in the House, but a similar bill in the Senate has not yet received a hearing.

If it makes it to the ballot and 60 percent of voters were to approve the measure, school board members elected before 2022 would still be allowed to receive a salary until they’ve reached eight years of service.

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Ag Commissioner Raises Alarm Over Lack of Medical Marijuana Employment Protections

April 2nd, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried is once again raising concerns over the lack of employment protections for Florida’s half million medical marijuana patients.

In a virtual press conference Friday, the Commissioner was joined by Allison Enright, who was fired from her position as a teacher in a Brevard County school after suffering a fall on the job.

Enright had been prescribed medical marijuana as a way of getting off opioids, which she had previously been prescribed to cope with chronic pain conditions.

“You know I felt like a criminal. I felt like I had done something wrong for just trying to become healthy and for taking action to make myself healthier,” said Enright.

Bills in both the House and Senate have been filed this session that would create employment protections for medical marijuana patients, although neither have been heard so far.

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Restrictions on Local Orders Wins Support

April 1st, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Local governments will be severely limited when issuing emergency orders in the future under legislation moving quickly at the State Capitol.

Local emergency orders that limit church services, close businesses, work, travel or firearms purchases would all be limited to seven days under the legislation.

“Before this bill will pass, an executive order locally could be ordered from a city manager. Someone who isn’t even elected. At least now, it’s going to have to be ordered from someone who’s elected by the people. Gonna have to be short duration, and its going to have to apply equally to every single person,” said House sponsor Representative Bob Rommel.

The legislation does allow local orders to be renewed six times, for a total of 42 days.

Cities call the renewal unworkable in an emergency.

“What if your entire infrastructure is down? It doesn’t make sense. This is an unnecessary restriction,” said Scott Dudley with the Florida League of Cities.

But, the limitations are supported by the Governor.

“There need to be checks on local governments. They should not be able to close things down,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

And it has the support of legislative leaders.

“There should be an opportunity for the Legislature to invalidate and particular order, whether that’s local or state level,” said House Speaker Chris Sprowls.

Rep. Anthony Sabatini fought mask mandates at every level.

“I think this is the best and most important bill filed this year,” said Sabatini.

“I couldn’t disagree with Representative Sabatini more. I think Apopka is not Pensacola, is not Miami Beach, Miami Beach is not Coral Springs. And we need to stop regulating what local governments can and can not do,” said Rep. Dan Dailey.

The senate version calls for orders to be renewed every ten days but right now there is no limit on how many times it can be extended.

Orders also must be the least restrictive they can be under the legislation.

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Deputy Director of Health: Florida is not undercounting deaths

April 1st, 2021 by Jake Stofan

The Florida Department of Health is pushing back after media reports grabbed national headlines once again suggesting the state has undercounted COVID deaths.

The Department of Health argues the study cited in the articles says no such thing.

A study from the University of Utah found Florida had nearly 5,000 more excess deaths between January and September than the state’s official COVID death toll.

“No. Florida is not undercounting deaths,” said Dr. Shamarial Roberson, Deputy Director of Health for the Florida Department of Health. “We capture all reported deaths related to COVID-19. We have a very rigorous process.”

Media reports grabbing national headlines suggested the difference in COVID deaths and excess deaths could be evidence of an undercount, but Roberson said that assumes the pandemic didn’t have other heath impacts.

“If somebody didn’t go to the hospital and they had a heart attack, maybe it was because they were afraid of COVID-19. So excess analyzing and this forecasting tool is just a tool to look at other things that may be happening in the background,” said Roberson.

Even in the original article, a CDC statistician was quoted saying there’s nothing that stands out about Florida’s numbers.

The lead author of the study has also been quoted as saying more research needs to be done to determine how and whether the pandemic played a roll in the excess deaths.

Florida’s top Democrat, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried shared the original article on social media.

We asked her if the new critiques swayed her opinion.

“I will continue to call light to these issues for continued information gathering and really getting this stuff right because the people of the State of Florida need to know what’s happening in our state,” said Fried.

We reached out to the author of the study directly, but did not hear back in time for this story.

33,494 Florida resident have lost their lives due to COVID-19 according to the Department of Health.

The state ranks 27th in deaths per 100,000.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Ag Commissioner Receives First Vaccine Dose

April 1st, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried received her first shot of the Moderna vaccine at the FAMU vaccination site Thursday.

Fried said she took the vaccine in a public setting to help reduce vaccine hesitancy.

She’s the first statewide elected official to do so and is encouraging others to follow her lead.

“Because this is how we show leadership and an example. If it’s okay for us, it’s okay for everybody else. The Governor and the rest of the cabinet members who haven’t received their vaccine, I don’t know if they have or not, I certainly would encourage them to do it publicly to show trust in the science and trust in what we need to do to get past this pandemic,” said Fried.

Governor Ron DeSantis said Wednesday he would be receiving his first dose of the vaccine soon, but was noncommittal when asked if the media would be invited.

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US Supreme Court Sides Against Florida in ‘Water Wars’ Case

April 1st, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

The US Supreme Court has ruled against Florida in a decade-long lawsuit against Georgia over the water that flows through Atlanta and eventually makes up the Apalachicola River.

The state had contended that Georgia was using more than its fair share of water, which reduced fresh flow into the Gulf, harming oysters and estuaries where game fish breed.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried called the ruling disappointing.

“We have significant damage that is happening to our oysters and to our Gulf. And not allowing Georgia to take responsibility is a big disappointment for our state and we need to do everything we can to protect our waters,” said Fried.

More than 200 oystermen used to farm Apalachicola Bay, but since the water flow was reduced, the number has fallen to fewer than 20.

The bay is now closed through the end of 2025 to help it rejuvenate.

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Senate to Push Ahead With ‘Anti-Riot’ Bill.

April 1st, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson said he would use his discretion to send the controversial HB1 anti-riot legislation, already approved by the House, to the full Appropriations Committee rather than Criminal Justice, where the Senate version of the bill has been bottled up.

Simpson said the referral will give both sides a chance to make their arguments.

“And about half of the Senate is on the Budget Committee, so I just think that is the appropriate place to send it to so it can be fully vetted before it comes to the floor,” said Simpson.

But without the referral, the anti-riot legislation would likely have died in the Senate Criminal Justice committee, where there are not enough votes to pass it.

Nor are two thirds of the Senate supporting the anti-riot bill, so there aren’t enough votes to waive Senate rules.

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Dozier Restitution Stalled

March 31st, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Legislation seeking to put in place a means of providing restitution for victims of the infamous Dozier school for boy in Marianna has hit a snag in both chambers.

Victims of the reform school came to the State Capitol Wednesday in hopes of drumming up support for the effort.

The state has already formally apologized for the atrocities that occurred at the Dozier School for Boys, a reform school run by the state for a century.

Now the victims are asking the state to back its words up with action.

“We’re not giving up,” said Pastor Johnny Lee Gaddy, who attended Dozier from 1967 to 1971.

Gaddy has a simple request for restitution.

“If I can get the boat and a truck, then I can go fishing,” said Gaddy.

He isn’t surprised legislation that would create a pathway for victims to make a claim has hit roadblocks in both chambers.

“13 years later, I ain’t got it yet,” said Gaddy.

Survivor Roy Conerly has also spent more than a decade fighting for compensation.

“I don’t have a number, but if one were offered to us we would consider it whatever the number is,” said Conerly, who attended the school in 1961 and 1962.

In 2013 an excavation of the reform school led to the discovery of the remains of 40 boys.

Survivors suspect they died from abuse.

In the Senate, the bill is being blocked by one Senator who represents the area where Dozier is located.

He told us early in the session he doesn’t believe the alleged abuse occurred.

“I don’t believe for a minute that 500 people were mistreated there,” said Senator George Gainer in January.

But Senate sponsor Darryl Rouson believes the bill is too important to quit fighting for.

“Certainly in the greatest state of the union we can come up with a fair method of moving beyond just words of apology to real action,” said Rouson.

The legislation’s future is uncertain, but what is certain is that as long as the victims are alive, they’ll continue coming to the Capitol year after year to fight for their cause.

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Bill Prohibits Executing Mentally Ill

March 31st, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida would be banned from executing people with a severe mental illness under legislation approved by a Senate Committee in the state Capitol.

It has the support of death row’s former medical director.

Dr. Joe Thornton is a psychiatrist and former death row medical director.

He told us the state has executed the mentally ill in the past.

“Oh, absolutely. We’ve done that knowingly,” said Thornton.

Florida has executed at least three known mentally ill men.

Thomas Provenzano, John Ferguson and Bobby Joe Long.

There are likely many more, and Doctor Thornton said many are veterans.

“Eighteen percent of people on death row are veterans. Twenty percent of the people executed in 2016 and 2017 were veterans. Generally, in almost each instance, their behavior started after they were released from military service,” said Thornton.

To qualify to be executed in Florida, a mentally ill inmate must know they did something wrong, that they are being punished for it and they must understand the punishment.

“It’s a very low bar,” said Senator Jeff Brandes.

Brandes is behind the effort to prevent executions of the mentally ill.

“If we’re going to have the death penalty, them let’s at least have a policy that recognizes people have significant mental illnesses, Schizophrenia and other types of mental illnesses, then those sorts of people shouldn’t be there, exposed to the death penalty when the reason they committed their crime is they had a significant mental illness,” said Brandes.

Thornton said it’s about time.

“If you do not have that awareness, you’re basically doing euthanasia,” said Thornton.

Under the legislation, the mentally ill don’t get a free pass.

They can still be sentenced to life without parole.

Doctor Thornton added more drug and veterans courts could identify and treat mental problems, resulting in fewer violent crimes.

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First Responders Spared from Proposed State Retirement Changes

March 31st, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Legislation revamping the state retirement system is scheduled to be heard both Wednesday and Thursday, setting it up for a Senate floor vote.

The bill is undergoing significant changes.

It will no longer require all new hires to go into a 401(k)-style investment plan.

Amendments offered Wednesday strip out law enforcement and other first responders who are in what is known as the ‘special risk’ class.

Senate Sponsor Ray Rodrigues said keeping them in the plan is good for the first responders and the plan.

“Their careers are physically and mentally more demanding than regular class employees, which leads to shorter careers, which gives them less time to build up the savings in a defined contribution plan. And the second part of that, according to the actuary, they have shorter lives post retirement. So what we want to do is have a plan that is fair to our special risk employees,” said Rodrigues.

With the change, new hires that are not special risk will only be allowed to join the state investment plan, which is also known as a defined contribution plan.

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Senate Advances Trans-Athlete Restrictions

March 31st, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Legislation that would require transgender athletes to have been in the process of transitioning for at least a year and meet certain testosterone level requirements to compete in women’s only sports passed its second Senate committee Wednesday morning.

Democrats and trans-advocates argued the legislation is discriminatory and could come at a financial cost to the state.

At least 50 companies have vowed to refuse to do business in states that pass similar legislation.

The NCAA has also threatened to pull championship games from other states that have passed similar restrictions on trans athletes.

Senate Sponsor Kelli Stargel said the threats aren’t swaying her.

“The bill is very simple and I’m not trying to be discriminatory to anybody, but I think it’s common knowledge amongst most people that men generally are stronger than women. That’s why we have women’s sports. That’s why we have the separation. So in sports, where the gender is separated and it’s a women’s sport, we’re trying to make sure that women who are competing are competing with someone at the same level athletically, strength-wise,” said Stargel.

The bill has one more committee stop in the Senate.

A more restrictive bill that would require athletes to compete as their sex assigned at birth has one more stop in the House.

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THC Cap Legislation Likely Dead

March 31st, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

The legislative effort to cap medical marijuana potency at ten percent THC appears to be dead this year.

The Governor has said he’s not endorsing the caps and the Senate committee scheduled to hear the bill has already had its last meeting.

Sponsor Ray Rodrigues said it was never about a dislike of the drug but what science is telling him.

“The things it’s supposed to be helping, the two most common recommendations are pain and PTSD. Studies have been done that show when you get to THC levels greater than ten percent, you don’t make pain better, you make pain worse,” said Senator Rodrigues.

The House version is still moving, so there is a chance the legislation can still be heard, but with the Governor saying he won’t sign it, it would be a waste of lawmakers’ time.

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