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

FP&L Rate Hike Battle Begins

June 21st, 2021 by Jake Stofan
Electricity costs for Florida Power and Light customers could go up by nearly 20 percent over the next four years if approved by the Public Service Commission. 
 
On Thursday, the first of a dozen hearings saw public response generally supportive of the hike.

If the utility’s request is approved, rates would increase by 18.2 percent by the year 2025, impacting 11 million Floridians served by FP&L’s.
The utility said the intention is to improve clean energy infrastructure and grid resiliency.
“The plan will allow us to continue to make proven investments in infrastructure, clean energy and technology that benefit our customers and a growing state,” said Florida Power and Light President and CEO Eric Silagy.
Of the more than 30 customers who called into testify, the overwhelming majority said they supported the rate hike request.
But groups fighting the rate hike criticized FP&L for trying to raise rates while more than 650,000 of it’s customers are still struggling to pay their bills.
“What’s reliability if you can’t afford to keep the lights on due to a high bill?” said Jordan Luebkemann with Florida Rising.
Aliki Moncrief with Florida Conservation Voters said while the hike is being marketed as a way to shift to cleaner energy, $425 million the $2 billion anticipated from the hikes goes towards natural gas.
“Gas, while it’s better than coal, while it’s better than oil, still has carbon emissions,” said Moncrief.
But Moncrief was happy to see $550 million going towards solar.
“The challenge with that is, who should be paying for this and how much profit should Florida Power and Light be reaping?” said Moncrief.
A decision on the rate hike request is expected by November 12th.
FP&L did note in the hearing that it spent $75 million helping its customers keep the lights on throughout the pandemic. 
The company urged anyone still struggling to pay their bill to call FP&L at  833-407-2006 for assistance.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

$300 Unemployment Checks Ending Saturday

June 21st, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda
Tens of thousands of unemployed Floridians will lose an additional $300 a week in benefits after Friday. 
 
The state made the decision to end the payments, which could have lasted until September, early because many believe the checks are keeping people from working.

Florida still has half a million unemployed. 
 
At the same time, businesses are struggling to fill more than half a million jobs.
“Thirty-four percent of small business owners report that they’ve increased wages in the last three months,” said Bill Herrle with the National Federation of Independent Businesses.
The federation told us 57 percent of its members couldn’t find someone to work over the last three months.
“We’ve always asked this question on job openings. This is at a 40-year record, and it continues to climb,” said Herrle.
More than 2.3 million Floridians were eligible for the $300 a week additional pandemic payments that end Saturday.
“Yes there is a workforce shortage, but to completely blame it on unemployed people is wrong,” said State Representative Anna Eskamani.
 
Eskamani’s office has been ground zero for helping the unemployed navigate benefits.
“Some are still furloughed, some have child care expenses, some are too old to be on their feet all day, in the sense they don’t have the ability to do that. They need a job that can meet their level of skill and comfort,” said Eskamani.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, pawn shops are seeing something they’ve never seen: People have stopped borrowing.
While borrowing is down, check cashing is up.
“People are getting more money, so there wasn’t the urgency of getting money from me,” said Tallahassee pawn shop owner Mark Folmar.
So far the idea that people aren’t working because they can make more staying home is unproven, but the picture could be clearer after the $300 a week checks end Saturday.
 
Florida’s unemployed have also been required to actively look for work to collect benefits since the end of May. 
 
A person must make three or five contacts a week, depending on the size of the county in which they live.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Nikki Fried Threatens to ‘Release a Kraken’ on Organization With Apparent Ties to Sidney Powell

June 18th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture, who heads the state’s Division of Consumer Services, is threatening to levy fines on an organization associated with a former Trump attorney.

The Division alleges Defending the Republic Inc. has been soliciting donations from Floridians without registering with the state.

Defending the Republic’s website is full of information questioning the safety of COVID vaccines and the legitimacy of the 2020 election.

On the front page is the name of former Trump attorney Sidney Powell, known for claiming she would ‘release the kraken’ during post election-litigation.

Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried alleges the organization has been unlawfully soliciting donations from Floridians, by failing to register as a charity.

“My job is to hold everybody accountable regardless of the mission of that organization and regardless of where their money is allegedly going,” said Fried.

The Division of Consumer Services is threatening a $5,000 fine for the alleged violation and additional $10,000 fine for deceptive practices.

“They posted a disclosure, claiming to be registered in the State of Florida,” said Rick Kimsey, Director of the Florida Division of Consumer Services.

When we Googled the West Palm Beach address listed on the organization’s website it appeared to direct donations to a mailbox at a UPS store in the city.

Fried said when the Division confronted the organization, Defending the Republic gave this response.

“They intimated, ‘Oh, that’s not us. You’ve got the wrong people’,” said Fried.

The Commissioner had this message for Powell.

“If you take advantage of Floridians, if you think the rules don’t apply to you, we will release a kraken of our own,” said Fried.

Defending the Republic has 21 days to respond or come into compliance with state law if it hopes to avoid fines and further consequences.

The Division of Consumer Services said it is not aware of how much money Defending the Republic may have solicited from Florida residents.

We contacted an attorney representing Defending the Republic, but he said he wasn’t prepared to issue a statement, as he claimed when we sent the the subpoena and administrative complaint filed by the Division, it was the first time he had seen documents.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Unemployment Rises Slightly in May, But State Economists Say it’s a Positive Sign

June 18th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Florida’s unemployment rate rose slightly in May to 4.9 percent, up a tenth of a percent from April.

The total labor force now sits at 10.3 million with a total of 503,000 Floridians counted as unemployed, an increase of 15,000 over April.

Florida Department of Economic Opportunity economist Adrienne Johnston said the unemployment rate will likely continue to increase in the near future as more Floridians return to the labor force and begin searching for work.

“We are certainly seeing strong growth and it continues to get stronger every month. So I think that that’s a positive sign and there’s nothing that’s pointing to that slowing any time soon,” said Johnston.

The state added 35,800 private sector jobs in May, with largest gains seen in the information and leisure and hospitality sectors.

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Second of Three Marijuana Legalization Efforts Struck Down by the Supreme Court

June 17th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

The Florida Supreme Court has blocked a second citizen initiative aimed at legalizing recreational marijuana from appearing on the 2022 ballot.

With two out of three initiatives out of the running, the odds of legalization any time soon are dimming.

The Supreme Court ruled that the ballot language was misleading because it said the amendment would limit recreational use.

The actual amendment language however, left open the door for state and local governments to allow for unlimited use.

Attorney General Ashley Moody petitioned the Supreme Court to block the initiative.

“We thank the Florida Supreme Court for their time and attention to this issue and respect their ruling. Floridians must fully understand what they are voting on when they go to the ballot box,” Moody said in an emailed statement.

Jeff Sharkey with the Medical Marijuana Business Association said the ruling is a disappointing blow to the cannabis community.

“We need to rethink our strategy and either get this done by 22 or 24,” said Sharkey.

In April, the Supreme Court struck down another proposed amendment to legalize marijuana because it failed to disclose the drug would still be illegal under federal law.

“This court has been really tough for the cannabis community,” said Jodi James with the Florida Cannabis Action Network.

James is also the Chairperson of Floridians for Freedom, which is backing the only remaining legalization effort.

It would guarantee a right to cannabis to Floridians over the age of 21.

Unlike the two amendments that have been blocked, the Floridians for Freedom initiative does disclose marijuana would remain federally illegal and it short ballot summary is almost identical to the amendment language, creating fewer opportunities for the Supreme Court to rule it misleads voters.

“If we can collect that million signatures before February 1st we believe we have enough ammunition at that point to make sure that we could get a ruling from the justices and everything we have seen from these last three decisions lead us to believe we were right all along,” said James.

Currently, Floridians for Freedom has just 2,610 of the required 891,589 valid signatures, but because the initiative dates back to 2015, proponents believe new state laws regulating the citizen initiative process may not apply to them.

Those new regulations include a $3,000 contribution cap on signature gathering organizations.

If the initiative is truly exempt, it open the door for the organization to secure a cash advantage to meet the February 1st deadline.

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‘Disappearing Waters’ Attracts the Curious

June 17th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

In the past Native Americans camped at a lake just north of what is now the the State Capitol, but now hundreds are flocking there because the lake is being swallowed by a sinkhole.

The dry down happens every decade or two.

People walking along the side of the sink hole at Lake Jackson Thursday, would have been in three to four feet of water before the lake drained.

The phenomena is called a ‘dry down’ by environmentalists.

Dry conditions, a lack of rainfall and a lowered water table are likely causes.

“It dried up my mother said when she was a kid. Once,” said Katherine Robinson, whose mother used to bring here to Lake Jackson to fish when she was a child.

The lake was once one of the premier bass fishing spots in America.

“Oh wow. I just can’t believe what I’m seeing. This is the first time I’m seeing it like this,” said Robinson.

The first time the dry down was documented was in 1829, but long before that Native Americans had named the event ‘disappearing waters’.

In 1982 when the lake drained, it became a playground for 4-wheelers.

Six years later, then-Governor Bob Martinez celebrated its return by going fishing.

“We’re putting it right back in the water,” said Martinez after making a catch in 1988.

Billy Shaynak came to see the lake draining as a teen.

He brought his eighteen-month-old son for pictures.

“I wanted him to see this phenomenon. He may not see it again for twenty years, thirty years,” said Shaynak.

When the lake opened this time, the first onlookers found two human remains.

The investigation remains open with no details on how long the bodies may have been there.

Archeologist Barbra Clark was touring the site, looking not for bodies, but for artifacts.

“We were walking around and we didn’t see any artifacts, but if people do find things, please leave them in place,” said Clark who is with the Florida Public Archaeology Network.

The lake will return once there is more water flowing into it than out.

The Department of Environmental Protection declined to be interviewed Thursday, but directed us to this Lake Jackson FAQ document on their website.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Moment of Silence Now Required

June 14th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida became one of 15 states to require schools to provide a moment of silence at the beginning of each school day Monday.

The moment of reflection was already allowed, but after July 1st it becomes mandatory.

https://youtu.be/cNxvhIZEfas

Florida lawmakers start each day with a prayer.

Now, with the stroke of the Governor’s pen, K-12 students will get one to two minutes each morning to reflect.

Whether the moment of silence lasts one minute or two is up to the teacher under the legislation.

Bill Sponsor Representative Randy Fine told us it will give students a break from a fast moving society.

“With technology, the media and cell phones, children just don’t have that time to be centered the way we’d like them to be. This is going to allow them to be quiet and let the world into their minds in a way that may not be happening today,” said Fine.

Key points in the legislation: students may not interfere with other students’ participation, and a teacher may not suggest the nature of any reflection.

But teachers are required to encourage parents to talk with their children about how to use the moment of silence.

“We are staunch believers of the separation of Church and State,” said Devon Graham with American Atheists.

Graham testified against the idea because she’s worried it will lead to bullying and more.

She told us she believes the new law’s true intent is to mandate prayer in schools.

“It is a bit of a back door way of getting there,” said Graham.

Making the moment mandatory also upset opponents.

“There’s no reason to force them to participate in something they don’t want to do,” said Graham.

The Florida School Boards Association told us more than half the districts were already allowing a moment of silence each day.

 

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Academics Worry CRT Ban is a Slippery Slope

June 14th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

After last week’s Board of Education vote, Florida teachers will be prohibited from incorporating Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project in the classroom when they return this fall.

But some academics worry banning concepts like CRT for K-12 classes is a slippery slope.

Florida Chancellor of K-12 Public Schools Jacob Oliva said the Board of Education decided to ban CRT because it presents ideology as fact.

“It makes judgments or assumptions about people, falling into almost two different categories: that you’re either an oppressor or that you’ve been oppressed based on your ethnicity. And those experiences may not fall true for every single person,” said Oliva.

But critics of the new rule worry the K-12 ban could just be the beginning.

“At what point is that then going to jump to going beyond K-12, because education moves beyond that too,” said Dr. Jonathan Cox, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Central Florida.

Cox argued Florida officials have a distorted understanding of CRT.

“It’s not about things being inherent or people belonging to inherent groups that you are just inherently oppressed or inherently an oppressor. It’s more about socially and historically speaking what groups have held power and how has that power helped kind of shape and mold our social world,” said Cox.

Oliva said the rule change will give teachers more clarity, not only on how to discuss American history, but a myriad of other topics as well.

“Because teachers need to know for their own protection what the standards say and do and what are those expectations that we should be implementing in our classrooms,” said Oliva.

Chancellor Oliva told us he expects the new rule to be enforced at the local level and encouraged parents and students who have concerns with learning materials or instruction in the classroom to contact their principle or local school board.

He also noted topics including slavery, the Civil War and the civil rights movement will still be taught in Florida schools just as they have for decades.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

State Denied Extra Time to Develop Defense of Big Tech Censorship Law

June 11th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

A federal judge has rejected the state’s request for more time to defend the new social media censorship law, which takes effect July 1st.

The law carries penalties as high as $250,000 a day for deplatforming political candidates.

In hopes of getting more time to develop a defense, the state said it would delay enforcement until August 1st.

NetChoice Vice President Carl Szabo said the state should not have been caught off guard by the lawsuit.

“The state knew time and time again they were going to be tested on this lawsuit,” said Szabo. “Everything they’re complaining about they’ve known for months.”

He added the deal proposed by the state didn’t offer much, if any, protection to social media companies.

“The state may delay enforcement, that doesn’t mean they’ll delay accruing the penalties for future enforcement,” said Szabo.

The state’s deal also would have done nothing to prevent a flood of civil litigation from individual users, who under the law, are allowed to sue if they believe they’re wrongly de-platformed.

“So in short, the state was not offering much and the burdens that the bill creates would still have persisted for our members,”,” said Matthew Schrues, President of the Computer & Communications Industry Association. “The only meaningful relief that we can get at this point is a prompt ruling on the merits that this statute is unconstitutional.”

The judge agreed with the tech companies and denied the state’s request.

Szabo said he’s confident the law will never see the light of day.

“It doesn’t take a rock star to know that this law is unconstitutional and flies in the face of the First Amendment. The state just can’t come down on a private industry and tell them that they have to say something that the state wants you to say,” said Szabo.

A hearing on the tech companies’ request to block the law from taking effect is set for June 28th.

A ruling is expected before the law’s July 1st implementation date.

While the tech companies said they’re confident they will ultimately prevail, we were also told they fully expect the case will drag out to the appellate level and potentially the US Supreme Court.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Governor to Sign Insurance Reform, Rates Still Expected to Rise

June 10th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

The Governor has said he will put pen to paper on a new law that aims to address skyrocketing homeowners insurance rates by reducing litigation, but part of the deal also allows Florida’s insurer of last resort to raise rates year over year at a higher pace than in the past.

Citizens Insurance offers coverage to Floridians who can’t find or afford private coverage.

Roughly 5,000 Floridians are flocking to Citizens each week.

“That type of growth is unsustainable,” said Michael Peltier, a spokesperson for Citizens.

That’s why lawmakers decided to allow the company to go beyond its current 10 percent annual rate increase cap in this year’s insurance reform bill.

The cap on Citizens’ annual rate increases will grow by one percent each year, until reaching a max of 15 percent in 2026.

“It’s going to allow us to close that gap in some cases with private carriers so that more customers can find their insurance in the private market,” said Peltier.

The legislation also includes numerous changes to the claims process, in an effort to reduce litigation costs, which insurance companies blame from driving exorbitant rate increases.

When approved by the Governor, claimants will have to pay their own attorneys fees if they settle a claim for less than 20 percent above the insurer’s initial offer.

If the settlement is between 20 and 50 percent higher the insurer will have to cover a portion of the claimant’s attorneys fees.

If it’s above 50 percent, the insurer will have to pay all attorneys fees.

The bill also prohibits solicitation by contractors, who have often offered gifts to homeowners in exchange for the ability to inspect roofs and make claims with insurance companies.

But even with all of the litigation reform in the bill, rates are still expected to rise in the near future for both Citizens and private policy holders.

Democratic State Senator Gary Farmer argues because efforts to guarantee rate reductions in the bill were rejected, the reforms only stand to benefit insurance companies.

“All it’s going to do is enable insurance companies to be more bold and aggressive in denying and underpaying claims,” said Farmer.

But State Senator Jeff Brandes, who co-sponsored the legislation, believes in the long run, the reforms in the bill will prevent what otherwise result in a catastrophe.

“In absence of this bill passing you could see rates double within the next two to three years. Rate increases of 30 or 40 percent are going to become common over the next two years if we do nothing,” said Brandes.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Second Gentleman’s Vaccine Tour

June 10th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s Capital City was the first stop on a nationwide tour by the Vice President’s husband.

The goal is to increase the national vaccination rate to 70 percent by the fourth of July.

The Second Gentleman’s motorcade arrived at a state health department office in a predominately African American neighborhood.

Statewide just 20 of the Black population has gotten a shot.

“Going to the sporting events and the weddings and all the things people want to do this summer and get back to school in the fall and going back to movie theaters. They are not going to be able to do that unless we hit those numbers, 70 percent plus,” said Douglas Emhoff, Second Gentleman of the United States.

In the audience, 16-year-old Maya Waymon, who volunteered for a shot.

“The concerns of my generation is the side effects and just not being sure how it’s going to effect us as young individuals,” said Waymon.

Vaccine hesitancy is far more common among African Americans than other populations.

“The vaccinations are working, they are safe, they are free,” said Emhoff.

And if getting back to normal and staying safe aren’t reason enough to get a shot:

“There are incentives. There’s free beer,” said Emhoff.

Right now, Florida’s vaccination rate stands at 53 percent for those 12 and older.

Afterwards there was a quick tour of a mobile vaccine unit and questions.

Emhoff was asked if free beer was really enough to incentivize those hesitant to get the vaccine.

“It can’t hurt. It can’t hurt. Vaccines.gov and incentives,” said Emhoff.

We asked how many more stops on the tour between there would be between now and July 4th.

We were told the details were still being worked out.

Then we asked where is the next stop.

We were told that’s still to be determined.

So far a total of 10.1 million Floridians have had at least one shot.

More than 3.7 million more shots are needed to reach the President’s goal of 70 percent.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Teachers Union Pushes Back Against New Education Rule

June 9th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

A proposed rule change by the Florida Department of Education is aimed at weeding out inaccurate accounts of American history and historical events from the classroom.

It also prohibits teachers from persuading or indoctrinating students into particular viewpoints inconsistent with state standards.

But the Florida Education Association is fighting the change and proposing their own language.

The proposed rule requires topics to be taught factually and objectively, and prohibits the suppression or distortion of historical events such as the holocaust.

The Florida Education Association argues the rule should include other historical topics as well, including slavery, the Civil War, the civil rights movement, the Trail of Tears and contributions of African Americans, Hispanic people and women to the United States.

“We should talk about every aspect of our history. We should learn from the mistakes that we have made and will make in the future as a country,” said FEA President Andrew Spar.

The rule also would prohibit teachers from ‘indoctrinating’ students to adopt viewpoints at odds with state standards.

FEA calls it offensive and is requesting the word ‘indoctrinate’ be removed.

“To say that they’re indoctrinating students. They don’t do that. That’s just simply not fact based,” said Spar.

But Dr. Edwin Moore, Former President of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida told us he doesn’t see a problem with the proposed rule.

“By asking that it be removed, it’s almost just like they’re endorsing the act of indoctrination,” said Moore.

The rule change comes in response to recent comments made by the Governor and Education Commissioner condemning critical race theory, a controversial ideology that asserts America’s laws and legal institutions are inherently racist.

Moore said the ideology ignores how far America has come since its founding.

“There are some boils, I guess, on the side of the history of America, but we’ve always tried to correct those,” said Moore.

But FEA points out, critical race theory is not part of Florida’s curriculum.

“This is a political event; a political stunt,” said Spar.

The Board of Education is set to consider and vote on the rule change Thursday.

We reached out to the Department of Education for comment on this story, but did not hear back.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

State Shifting COVID Response

June 9th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida is changing how it reports new COVID cases from daily to weekly reports, calling it a transition from an emergency response to a more traditional public health response.

Florida saw 11,000 new COVID cases in the week ending June 3rd, down from 43,000 the week of April 9th.

“The response has worked, is working,” said Dr. Shamarial Roberson, Florida’s Deputy Secretary for Health.

Florida’s COVID vaccination rate is at 53 percent.

State data tells the story of the vaccines success.

As more people have become vaccinated, infections have fallen.

“As cases have fallen, vaccine rates have gone up,” said Roberson.

County vaccination rates range from a high of 67 percent in Sumpter County, home of the Villages, to a low of 27 percent in rural Baker and Union counties.

“That’s irrelevant,” said Roberson.

The state is also pushing back on claims of data manipulation by Whistleblower Rebecca Jones without mentioning her by name.

“We have a very robust system. The integrity of our data is good. There’s no information that’s being withheld from the public,” said Roberson.

After a year of being at its highest activation level, a level one, the state’s emergency operations center has now been downgraded to a level two.

Despite the end of a 24/7 emergency response, the state says it is not lowering its guard.

“We have data where we are looking at emergency departments. We have algorithms where we are detecting anything that may be unusual in ER’s, even outside of COVID-19 in those emergency rooms,” said Roberson.

While the state is ending daily reporting to the public, it will continue to report daily case information to the CDC.

We reached out to whistleblower Rebekah Jones for comment and she did not return our text.

Her lawyer told us the whistleblower complaint is being delayed, as Jones faces criminal charges for improperly posting on a secure state computer system after being fired.

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Crist Promotes Voting Rights in Capital City

June 9th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Congressman and Gubernatorial hopeful Charlie Crist made the third stop of his voting rights tour in the State Capitol Wednesday, holding a roundtable at the local NAACP headquarters.

The group is suing the state over a recently signed bill restricting drop off boxes and making it more difficult for someone to return multiple ballots.

Crist said while changes to the legislation make it less onerous, he believes it will be a major issue of the campaign.

“When you make it hard for my 89-year-old father or my 86-year-old mother to mail in ballots, I think its anti-senior because of that. I think it just makes it difficult not having as many drop boxes in minority areas of Florida. That’s not right either. I mean, just because it’s a little bit better than what horrible was, it’s still pretty darn bad and it’s not what Floridians want, and they deserve better,” said Crist.

The case is pending in a Federal Court in Tallahassee.

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Debate Continues As No Fault Repeal Awaits Governor’s Signature

June 8th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Florida’s no fault auto insurance law is on the chopping block as legislation that would repeal the decades-old law awaits the Governor’s signature.

Florida’s no fault law currently requires drivers to carry at least $10,000 of personal injury protection coverage.

“Honesty that dollar amount is gone the second you walk through the emergency room door,” said State Senator Danny Burgess, who sponsored the repeal in the Florida Senate.

Burgess argued his legislation, which would now require drivers to carry $25,000 of bodily injury coverage, will lower rates by five to six percent on average and provide better coverage.

But Logan McFaddin with the American Property Casualty Insurance Association said the change could raise rates by $860 a year for the 40 percent of motorists currently holding the minimum coverage.

As it stands, one out of five Floridians don’t have auto insurance at all.

“We don’t want the people that can afford it the least getting hit the hardest and then potentially becoming uninsured,” said McFaddin.

Burgess said because the new system includes measures to reduce fraud, it will ultimately lead to lower rates.

“The holy grail of TORT reform is bad faith reform. We have some meaningful things in this bill that are going to further reduce costs,” said Burgess.

But McFaddin believes it will do exactly the opposite.

“The definitions in the bill do provide a lot more ambiguity and in the legal system that opens the doors for more lawsuits,” said McFaddin.

Now the Governor is faced with the difficult task of sifting through the countervailing narratives and deciding whether repealing the 50-year-old law will truly lead to savings or rate hikes.

We reached out to the Governor’s Office for insight on the Governor’s position on the no fault repeal, but did not hear back in time for this story.

The American Property Casualty Insurance Association told us Floridians have sent the Governor more than 35,000 letters calling for a veto.

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