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Qualifying Ends, Races Begin

June 12th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Candidate qualifying for state and local races across Florida ended at noon Friday.

It wasn’t without some last minute maneuvering.

Generally the final day of qualifying at the R.A. Grey Building in the state capital is bustling with last minute business, but not in this age of COVID.

Still, in the last ten minutes before the noon cutoff, a Democrat from Osceola filed her paperwork to run for the State House.

“Just something I’ve always wanted to do and I didn’t want to have any regrets,” said Kristen Arrington.

Several operatives were in place monitoring any last minute surprises.

As the clock ticked, Virginia Fuller dropped off her paperwork for a long shot House seat in Tallahassee.

And as the clock struck noon, some arrived too late to make the cut.

Rules are rules.

The deadline was 12 noon, not 12:01.

The first test of the 2020 election is just ten weeks away.

The Primary is August 18th.

Look for innovative ideas at marketing.

One example, a bumper sticker face mask.

“You have to play to win and you can’t play if you are not in the game,” said Florida Democratic Party Chair Terri Rizzo.

Rizzo said more campaigns will boost turnout.

“When local candidates run, it brings more votes. People run on local issues,” said Rizzo.

Both Democrats and Republicans are pushing vote by mail, but it comes with pitfalls.

To make sure your vote by mail ballot is counted, you will should monitor it and correct any signature problems with your local supervisor.

We reached out to State GOP Chair Joe Gruters for this story, but did not hear back.

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Local Control Central to State’s Reopening of Schools

June 12th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

The Governor and Commissioner of Education released the state’s recommendations for school districts to open in the fall and it has largely been received positively by education groups.

The 143 page reopening guide lays out recommendations for social distancing and sanitation.

It sets the goal of returning schools to full capacity in the fall, but acknowledges the potential for staggered scheduling or even potential returns to distance learning.

“The commissioner is very enthusiastic about us starting school and I think he should be,” said Fedrick Ingram, President of the Florida Education Association.

Ingram told us the key takeaway is that districts will be able to decide what works best in their area.

“How they start school, what parameters are in place for safety, for academic success,” said Ingram.

And Andrea Messina with the Florida School Boards Association applauds the recognition that many students will need special attention after a five month classroom break.

“We have to recognize them early and we have to get in there with whatever supports we need to be able to get in there with to try to catch them up,” said Messina.

FEA did criticize the plan for its high emphasis on the economic need to return to school.

The labor union argues student health should be the top priority.

And with the state seeing ten straight days with 1,000 new cases, a fall reopening is far from guaranteed.

“But we’re in this situation and we need to be in it together and we need to be by, for and about children,” said Ingram.

The state expects to spend almost $1 billion in CARES Act funding on K-12 education.

An additional $173 million will be at the disposal of the Governor to help hardest hit areas.

In the event schools do have to return to distance learning, the state plan recommends districts use some of the federal funding to ensure all students have access to adequate technology and internet connectivity.

And the school boards association is urging Floridian’s to get involved with reopening plans in their communities by contacting their local officials and letting them know what their expectations are.

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No Charges for Driver Who Ran into Crowd During Tallahassee Protest

June 12th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

During a Tallahassee protest two weeks ago, the driver of a red pickup truck inadvertently drove into the middle of a protest march.

Witnesses say and video confirms he was accused of being with the KKK and that the passenger was punched in the face.

The Georgia man was taken into custody and questioned.

Now the State Attorney has announced no charges will be filed.
“It’s actually necessity that allowed him to drive through other innocent bystanders who were in front of the car. And basically, the common way to say it is that people are allowed to run away. So, if you are in a situation that scares you and you turn and your are honestly and for good reason scared, you knock somebody down as you run away, you are not criminally responsible for that. The law has some common sense to it,” said State Attorney of Florida’s 2nd Judicial Circuit Jack Campbell.

Two people received minor injuries.

The State Attorney also praised officers who protected the driver and passengers from the angry crowd, saying they prevented what could have been life threatening injuries.

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Raises Getting New Scrutiny

June 11th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

While the Governor and Commissioner of Education Thursday pushed to fully open schools this fall, the Governor still hasn’t received the new budget, which takes effect in July.

In it are significant raises for teachers and others, but those raises may no longer be something the state can afford.

Florida lawmakers set aside $500 million for teacher raises, another $400 million for state employees, and $54 million for an additional boost for correctional officers.

But with the pandemic, all bets are off.

In late March, the Governor, without being asked, put the teacher raises in play.

“You look at the teacher compensation, obviously, we put a lot into that. And we’ll see what happens with the budget, but that’s important,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

April’s revenue expectations were down more than $800 million.

May’s numbers are likely to be just as bad.

Enter Florida TaxWatch.

It is recommending at least $136 million in vetos of projects that did not get proper review.

There is also $500 million in member projects that could be in their sights.

“We’re asking the Governor to take a close look at all member projects,” said Kurt Wenner with Florida TaxWatch.

To make up pandemic losses, TaxWatch is also recommending the state sign a new gaming deal with the Seminole Tribe.

TaxWatch President Dominic Calabro estimates collecting sales taxes from online sales could be worth more than $1 billion.

“I suspect by the second or third year, we’re looking at two billion,” said Calabro.

A new gaming deal and collecting taxes already owed on remote sales could together raise almost $3 billion a year after fully implemented.

Asked specifically about whether it would recommend vetoing the raises, Calabro said it’s a possibility.

“We’ll be looking at those, among many others-among many others. We’ll be looking at all of those things. Everything is and should be on the table,” said Calabro.

The state does have over $4 billion in reserves and that much and more from federal pandemic relief, but that may not be enough to cover the economic damage expected for months to come.

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Licensing Offices to Begin Reopening, Concealed Carry Lawsuit Still in Play

June 11th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Starting Monday, Floridians will once again be able to apply for a concealed carry permit online and the Department of Agriculture will open its first regional licensing branch since the start of the pandemic.

The Department of Agriculture closed all nine of its Division of Licensing branches and suspended online concealed carry applications in mid-March.

“Now it is time for the next step,” said Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried Thursday.

Fried announced the regional licensing office in the state capital will be the first to open its doors and online applications will resume starting next week.

“We’re going to continue with a cautious methodical plan for reopening and we will announce additional offices in the weeks to come,” said Fried.

But Jeff Hinkle, who helped coordinate a pending lawsuit against the Department of Agriculture alleges the Department’s actions during the pandemic violated Floridians’ 2nd Amendment rights.

“You are required in the Florida state law to actually provide these services such as finger printing etcetera and it doesn’t give any options to not do it. It says you have to do it,” said Hinkle.

Fried said Thursday the decision to reopen was her own.

“I certainly as an attorney do not follow the whims of a frivolous lawsuit on our decision and policy making,” said Fried.

Despite the closures the Department renewed and issued 84,000 licenses since March 1st.

That’s down about 30 percent from the same time last year.

Hinkle said the statistics are proof Floridians have had a more difficult time applying for concealed carry permits, given record setting gun sales this year.

“Background checks in March just for Florida were 192,000. That absolutely smashed the prior record from 2018,” said Hinkle. “So really, that two thirds less than they were issuing, it really should have probably been a third more than normal that they were issuing.”

The reopening announcement hasn’t slowed the lawsuit.

Hinkle said Floridians in other parts of the state shouldn’t be expected to travel to Tallahassee to get fingerprinted if their local police department or tax collector still isn’t collecting them.

At the office in the capital city employees will wear face masks, shields and gloves while collecting fingerprints.

Visits will be by appointment only and can be scheduled by calling 850-245-5300.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Small Counties to Receive CARES Act Funds

June 11th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

On Tuesday many small rural counties felt they were being discriminated against because the state was withholding federal pandemic funds that nearby big counties were already spending.

Late Wednesday, the state notified Chris Doolin and the Small County Coalition that it was releasing part of the $1.2 billion.

“These are a game changer. They will be used for community relief in our small and rural counties. They experienced job losses. These businesses have experienced impacts related to closures. So, yes, we worked pretty hard for 75 days to get what Congress intended to have happen when they adopted the CARES Act back at the end of March,” said Doolin.

Under the initial state plan, 25 percent of the $1.2 billion would be distributed, but the counties are still negotiating the details, including how much they will initially receive.

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More Unemployment Glitches

June 10th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

An unknown number of people who applied for and were receiving federal pandemic unemployment checks suddenly saw their payments stop in mid-May.

The Department of Economic Opportunity says it is working on a fix as protests continue.

Kathy Walker received four $600 checks from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Program managed by the state.

That was until her last check on May 19th.

“They just stopped. And we don’t even know where to go to see why that happened,” said Walker.

We provided Kathy’s name and claimant number to the state on Tuesday.

DEO said it found two technology concerns it’s working to fix.

It told us the only thing Kathy and others need to do is keep requesting benefits if they’re still unemployed.

At the Capitol, a handful of people protested the overall lack of available benefits Wednesday morning.

Organizer Judy Tanzosch said she’s seen a lot of complaints about checks stopping.

“In the various groups on Facebook, a lot of people complaining in May their Federal payments just stopped,” said Tanzosch.

Among the protestors was a prominent Tallahassee lawyer.

Fred Harris and his family own a restaurant in nearby Quincy.

When it closed, the family thought its employees wouldn’t have any trouble getting benefits.

“We pay unemployment premiums, so we felt like they would be taken care of, but a lot of our employees have been unable to access the unemployment benefits,” said Harris.

And for Kathy, the news that DEO was aware of her situation wasn’t at all comforting.

“Right now, my state payments are a $113 and part of me is… is it even worth the headache?” said Walker.

The state processed its two millionth jobless claim on Sunday, disqualifying about one in three applicants.

Anyone unemployed on March 29 can receive the additional $600 federal payment through the week of July 31st.

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Democrats Call for End of Black Voter Disenfranchisement

June 10th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Riding the wave of racial justice protests, Florida Democrats are calling for an end to the disenfranchisement of black Floridians ahead of the 2020 election.

Felons’ voting rights and the state’s clemency process are at the center of their demands.

When the state blocked felons from registering to vote until they paid all financial obligations related to their sentence, a UF professor testified it would prevent almost nine out of ten blacks with felony convictions from voting.

“This administration apparently intends to let that system remain,” said Marsha Ellison with the NCAAP.

A recent federal ruling effectively quashed the financial requirements, but the Governor plans to appeal.

Florida Democrats like State Representative Tracie Davis are calling on him to reconsider.

“It’s past time that our government shows us that black lives really matter and do that by including them in the democratic process without disproportionate discrimination,” said Davis.

If the ruling in the felons voting case stands, it’s estimated hundreds of thousands of felons would be able to register for the 2020 election.

Democrats also want the Governor to revamp the state’s clemency process, which currently has a waiting list of 17,000.

“Restoration of rights for black Floridians is the lowest in half a century. The Governor can change these rules. Do the right thing,” said Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried.

The clemency board hasn’t met since 2019.

The Governor’s Office told us it’s working to schedule a clemency meeting for July, but Fried asserts there are currently 600 cases before the clemency board that could be approved for rights restoration without a formal hearing.

She said that her calls for the Governor to allow the cases to go forward have fallen on deaf ears.

Democrats call the state’s disenfranchisement of black voters systemically racist and said the recent road blocks are an attempt to preserve policies that date back to the Jim Crow era.

“Governor DeSantis and the clemency board must fix this shattered system that unfairly punishes black Floridians and denies them their constitutional rights,” said Davis.

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Florida Unemployment Failures Highlighted in US Senate Hearing

June 10th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

A US Senate Committee heard testimony from the US Labor secretary along with a panel of experts on the rollout of the CARES Act unemployment benefits and the future of the program Tuesday.

Florida State Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez was on the panel and reported on the disastrous failures of the state’s unemployment system early on in the pandemic.

Rodriquez testified the state has proven to be one of the slowest in the nation when it comes to distributing the $600 a week federal benefits.

“If you take two of the federal programs the one that gives $600 a week, the State of Florida has only distributed about half of that money to eligible Floridians, which means the other half is still sitting in DC. With the other program for gig workers, self employed, by my count for every dollar the State of Florida has distributed three dollars are still sitting in DC,” said Rodriguez.

And while the Governor has commissioned an investigation into how the state spent $77 million on a broken unemployment system, Rodriguez agrees with calls from top ranking US Senators for the federal government to look into the matter as well.

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Small Counties Still Waiting For Federal Funding

June 9th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s smallest counties, 55 of them, are still waiting on more than a billion dollars in Federal Cares Act funding while the other 12 larger more urban counties have had the money for months.

The delay is because of how Congress ordered the money distributed.

Congress ordered that the state’s biggest population centers should get their more than $2 billion in Cares Act funds directly from the US Treasury, but it said the Governor was best suited to distribute another $1.2 billion to the more rural areas.

They are still waiting.

”Its very disappointing,” said John Meeks, President of the Small County Coalition.

John Meeks is the President of the Small County Coalition. “This money is critical to the small businesses and the people who are self employed.”

The same is true in agricultural and tourist dependent Okeechobee county.
“We dumped over 41 trailers of milk out on to the ground because the processing plant wasn’t taking it,” said Okeechobee County Commissioner Terry Burroughs.

Burroughs told us he has modified a plan developed by Pinellas and Pasco counties to distribute grants to small businesses.

“It affected almost everything in our community for the forty one thousand people that we have in our community,” said Burroughs.

The delay isn’t political.

Most of the small counties still waiting for money voted Republican, while the big counties that got money mostly vote blue.

And in Hardee County, the delay is creating political problems as residents watch grants being given to neighboring Polk County businesses.

“It’s kind of made some of the local residents here in Hardee county feel like we’re not getting treated fairly as the big counties are being treated,” said Hardee County Commissioner Russel Melendy.

We’ve asked the Governor’s office about the delay.

One concern is that if the locals misspend the money, the state could be on the hook for it.

The small counties say keeping businesses alive now is critical to keeping a solid tax base in the years to come.

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First Female Florida Senate President Passes Away at 85

June 9th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Gwen Margolis, the first female President of the Florida Senate and the last Democrat to preside for two full years over the state’s upper chamber has died.

Margolis was 85.

First elected to the Senate in 1980, she became the Senate President in 1990.

The Miami Beach Democrat returned to state politics in 2002 and stepped down from the Senate again in 2008 to allow someone else to run before running and winning a third time in 2010.

She championed the equal rights Amendment and is responsible for implementing the will of voters who wanted a Department of Elder Affairs.

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Protests Spark New Hope for Criminal Justice Reform

June 8th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

A handful of Florida lawmakers have been pushing for criminal justice reform for years in the State Legislature, but their bills seldom make it far in the process.

However, the immense protests across the state and nation over the death of George Floyd have reformers hopeful the 2021 Legislative Session will be different.

More than a week straight of mass protests across the state and country has put a spotlight on the public’s frustration with the criminal justice system.

“I’m hoping that my counterparts across the isle really get the message,” said State Representative Dianne Hart.

Hart and the Florida Black Caucus have put together seven pieces of legislation aimed at greater accountability and punishment for bad actors in the justice system.

“At a time like this everybody should be held accountable,” said Hart.

State Senator Jeff Brandes has spent years pushing for reforms.

“It’s not just law enforcement, it’s the court system itself and then it’s obviously the prison system,” said Brandes.

He hopes the Legislature can allocate more dollars to officer training.

“But in order to free up resources to do that we need to look at the broader criminal justice system, including the prison system, and figuring out what’s going to give us the best results,” said Brandes.

Heavy opposition from law enforcement and prosecutors have largely quashed even modest attempts at reform in years past.

It’s not yet clear what reforms they may be willing to stomach in light of the protests.

But Representative Byron Donalds believes many of the reforms need to be tackled at the local level.

“The actual policies and protocols that they use are part of their training and that’s stuff that the Legislature doesn’t typically write,” said Donalds.

The incoming House and Senate leadership haven’t spoken to reforms directly.

Instead, their social media accounts have largely focused on their displeasure with rioting that has occurred.

Shy of a special session, which one state senator has called for, lawmakers won’t be back in the Capitol until November.

In the meantime lawmakers we spoke with are urging citizens to call their elected officials and advocate for criminal justice reform.

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The 2020 Race Officially Begins

June 8th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

The 2020 election is officially underway as qualifying for State House and Senate seats began at noon Monday.

Democrats remain a minority in the State Legislature, but are hoping moderate gains can help level the partisan playing field.

A dropbox replaced the traditional parade of candidates waiting to qualify.

It didn’t stop Rodney Long from Gainesville coming to make sure his paperwork to run for a State House seat got delivered in person.

“So my stamp of approval would be that I personally brought it up here, and I put in the box, so I know it got here,” said Long.

Long shot GOP State Senate candidate Benjamin Horbowy arrived doing his own facebook live announcement.

“We have to do what no man has ever done before,” said Horbowy.

For the first time since Democrats lost control of the State Legislature in the mid 1990’s, a Democrat has filed to run in each and every one of the state’s 120 House seats.

But GOP consultant Brett Doster doesn’t think it will matter.

“It depends on the district, and it depends on the candidate, but the reality is I think the GOP is still in a very good position to hold the State House,” said Doster.

Democratic data cruncher Matt Isbell thinks running someone in every House seat could help turnout and Joe Biden.

“It will give them another reason to come out and will help make them more engaged. Especially as the statewide campaign for President can only be in so many parts of the state at once. It helps kind of operate as a surrogate campaign,” said Isbell.

But Isbell said the State Senate is more important, where Dems are just three seats short of a tie.

“If they can get to 20 and tie, it will very important issue for redistricting coming up,” said Isbell.

The outcome of the Senate races will likely determine which party controls the Legislature into the 2030’s.

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Phase Two Promising for Tourism Economy

June 5th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Universal Studios opened its doors Friday as the state moved into Phase Two of reopening.

As entertainment venues begin operations tourists won’t be far behind.

That’s good news for the state’s economy, but recent increases in COVID-19 cases have some warning caution before planning that next vacation.

As part of Phase Two, theme parks can operate at 50 percent capacity.

Universal opened at 35 percent capacity, and Disney won’t begin opening its parks until July.

But the return of the major attractions is an encouraging sign for industries that rely on tourism dollars.

“From retail to lodging to food service and so as those amenities come back online it’s going to be very helpful to the economy,” said Vice Pesident of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association Geoff Luebkemann.

VISIT FLORIDA is still preparing for its in-state ad campaign, but data on its website shows tourist confidence is steadily rising nationwide.

That means it’s likely out of state travelers will begin returning to Florida.

But Orlando State Senator Linda Stewart is urging caution before racing off to the theme parks.

“It’s up to the individual’s decision on whether they want to take that risk now or not and they may just wait a month or two,” said Stewart.

COVID-19 cases saw a spike the past few days, which could reflect the return of large crowds over Memorial Day weekend.

Stewart said ultimately it will fall on businesses and individuals to take the proper precautions for Phase Two to be successful.

“We can only hope that, with good luck, that when these open that it will not be devastating and we’ll be able to continue on,” said Stewart.

And when VISIT FLORIDA launches its in-state ad campaign the focus will be on outdoor tourist attractions like parks and beaches.

Whether theme parks will be part of the campaign is to be determined.

If you’d like to see the COVID-19 tourism data collected by Visit Florida for yourself, click here.

The data is updated daily.

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FSU Students Move out Of Dorms, Hopeful for Return in Fall

June 4th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Students returned to FSU’s campus Thursday to move out of their dorms, nearly three months after they closed because of the pandemic.

While students are moving out, university leaders are continuing to develop plans to keep students safe when they return in the fall.

When students left for spring break they didn’t realize it’d be the last time they’d see campus for nearly three months.

Thursday they were just happy to get their stuff back.

“I was missing everything,” said FSU student Mackenzie Hill.

But they know when they return in the fall things won’t be completely back to normal.

Universities are still deciding which courses can return to the classroom and which will stay online.

We do know FSU is planning for two weeks of virtual learning after Thanksgiving break.

Sarah Kissane is hopeful she can return to the classroom, but is prepared if that’s not the case.

“For next semester I have most of my classes online anyway, which actually kind of benefits in this situation cause if they do move online I’m kind of already set up for that,” said Kissane.

Gloves and face masks will likely be a key strategy.

And the University of Florida has suggested testing wastewater at dorm buildings for virus particles in order to spot outbreaks.

“And then see are there hotspots that we can then target and say, okay we can justify doing these 100 tests in this dorm or this area has at least one case. Do we know about it? Okay, let’s do extra surveillance,” said Michael Lauzardo with the UF College of Medicine during a board of trustees meeting Thursday.

Kissane’s mother Melanie is confident the universities will keep her daughter safe.

“I feel like they’re taking all the right steps to make sure that the kids are safe in the fall, but I do want them to be able to be back and be in that college environment again,” said Melanie.

While most students are moving out at FSU, the university told us international students are still living in the dorms since they can’t travel back home.

They’ll continue living on campus until other arrangements can be made.

FSU will finalize its reopening plans by June 18th.

All universities will present their plans to the board of governors on June 23rd.

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