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House Passes New Map, Sets Up Collision Course with Senate

August 18th, 2015 by Mike Vasilinda

The state House today approved a congressional map, drawn in secret by staff, that splits Hillsborough County into four districts, cuts Sarasota in half, and reduces the ability of blacks to elect a north Florida congress person. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, today’s vote sets up a showdown with the state Senate over the lines in Hillsborough County.

Lawmakers made it clear, they resent the Florida Supreme Court for ordering them  to redraw Florida’s congressional lines. Rep. Mike Hill (R-Pensacola) complained loudly.

“The United States and Florida Constitutions have been assaulted” Hill told his colleagues.

Rep. John Wood of Winter Haven went so far as to suggest removing the judges,

“Impeachment” said Wood.

Democrats were quick to remind the GOP lawmakers the redrawing was a result of their own mischief. Rep. Jose Rodriguez (D-Miami)

“We are here because this legislature violated the constitution. The Florida Supreme Court describes a shadow redistricting process” says Rodriguez.

“76 years, 35 nays, Mr. Speaker”

While approved, even those in charge say the map poses big problems…among them, using thousands of black prison inmates to boost the black voting age of a new district stretching from Jacksonville to Tallahassee. Rep. Jose Oliva (R-Miami) is the House Redistricting Chair. “While we reduced the black voting age population, add to it the fact that some of that population may be incarcerated and may not be able to vote. I think its certainly reason for concern” says Oliva.

The House map splits Hillsborough into four districts. It sets up a showdown with the Senate, whose map only splits Hillsborough into two.

The Supreme Court is still going to have the final say on these maps, but that’s not likely to happen until October.

The debate also increased the calls for taking the map drawing out of the hands of partisan lawmakers and giving it to an independent commission.

Others also noted the new maps don’t account for more than a million and a half people who have moved to Florida since the 2010 Census. The State Senate will take up its version of the maps tomorrow, which will leave Thursday and Friday for working out the differences between the two maps.

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House, Senate Poised To Vote on Different Maps

August 17th, 2015 by flanews

It looks like the Florida House and Senate are disagreeing again, this time over the congressional voting district maps they were forced to redraw.

The Florida House rejected amendments proposed Monday and will vote on the “base” congressional district map Tuesday.  Legislators have questioned the Supreme Court’s decision to find the original maps unconstitutional, and there’s no guarantee the court will find the re-drawn maps constitutional either.

“You end up with the production of a base map, but done in a way that was sequestered from any possible political intent, and that’s how we arrived here,” said Rep. Jose Oliva/(R) Miami Lakes.

A Senate committee made changes to the base map during a committee meeting Monday that would reconfigure parts of Hillsborough County.

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Planned Parenthood Fires Back Against AHCA’s Findings

August 17th, 2015 by flanews

The state’s Agency for Healthcare Administration cited three Planned Parenthood facilities for abortion violations, but as Matt Galka tells us, the clinics are fighting back.

Planned Parenthood is balking at claims from the state’s Agency for Healthcare Administration that three of their clinics were performing unlicensed abortions.

“We’re trying to get clarification from the court as to our rights and responsibilities under the laws and rules that govern these three clinics effected by this matter,” said Planned Parenthood attorney Julie Gallagher.

The state says three clinics in St. Petersburg, Fort Myers and Naples were performing second trimester abortions when they’re only licensed to perform first trimester procedures. Gallagher filed an injunction Monday to stop further sanctions.

“We’ve been doing what we’ve been doing for the last 9 years and it hasn’t been an issue, and now suddenly they’re calling these procedures that have been considered first trimester procedures now they’re calling them second, when nothing’s changed,” she said.

AHCA secretary Liz Dudek told us last week she disagreed with Planned Parenthood’s claims that AHCA is changing the definition of the procedures.

“If you look at the definition of second trimester and what they reported in number of weeks of gestational age, I’d go back to them and ask them what they reported,” she said.

Planned Parenthood says they’ve been following the 2006 rule defining the first trimester as the first twelve weeks of pregnancy and the first 14 weeks since a woman’s last menstrual cycle.

No criminal charges have been filed against the clinics.

The three facilities have stopped performing abortions through the 14th week out of caution and have directed patients to other clinics.

AHCA released this statement on the issue: “Planned Parenthood self-reported that they were performing unauthorized abortions during the 2nd trimester at three of their Florida clinics. The Agency looks forward to litigating this matter.”

The 13 other Planned Parenthood clinics in the state are licensed to perform second trimester abortions. The investigation into the facilities was launched by the Governor after videos from another state regarding fetal tissue sales went viral.

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Ritch Workman: Uber Lawmaker

August 14th, 2015 by flanews

Lobbyists and other policy makers have noticed a familiar face driving them around Florida’s Capital. Matt Galka took a ride with the Florida House’s Rules Committee Chairman who now spends his nights driving people for the ride sharing company Uber.

He’s not your typical Uber driver.

“Haha yup! Welcome!” says Rep. Ritch Workman (R-Melbourne) when you get into his car.

Workman moonlights as a driver for the ride sharing company around Florida’s capital now.  It’s not exactly the same type of work he puts in for the House of Representatives, but the similarities are there. Talking to different passengers is not so different than campaigning.

When we tagged along Thursday night, the first pickup was for a group of college kids celebrating a birthday.

“His 21st birthday, big night on the town and I was a little piece of it, it was fun,” he said.

Workman says he’d be glad to add perspective to an Uber regulation battle between the companies and taxis that will surely be a hot topic in 2016’s legislative session.

“Uber is making in-roads on their owns without state assistance in the local municipalities, and that’s important. I’m not sure preemption is the answer you go to first.  It often time is the one you must go to last when all local efforts have failed,” he said.

The Melbourne Republican says he doesn’t see the need to regulate the dueling companies the same.  He says taxis were regulated to try and prevent drivers from increasing fares on unsuspecting customers. Uber’s technology makes it tough to do.

 

He provided one more piece of wisdom before dropping us off.

“Drunk dudes, when you’re the sober driver, are not nearly as interesting as they think they are,” he said with a laugh.

But he says he’s happy to help someone get home if they can’t get behind the wheel – and keep himself out of trouble after midnight in the process.

Driving for Uber is a third job for Workman who, along with being a part-time state legislator, is a director of business development at Keiser University. He says the added money helps support his wife and six children.

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Public Records Settlement Hits Taxpayers Hard

August 13th, 2015 by Mike Vasilinda

Taxpayers will be one point three million dollars poorer after Governor Rick Scott’s office settles several public records lawsuits. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, the costs have public records advocates fuming.

Behind this law office sits the home of former Governor Leroy Collins. It’s soon going to be a museum. The Attorney..Steve Andrews, supported Governor Rick Scott’s opponents. And after Scott was elected, a dispute erupted over who had rights to buy the law firm property…Andrews or the state. In requests for public records, Andrews discovered Scott had two non state email accounts used for state business. Law suits followed. This is what Andrews told us last year.

“One of the most important rights in the Florida Constitution is the right to public records. In any form. Private emails, cell phones “ said Andrews last August.

A year later, the state is settling with Andrews for 7 hundred thousand dollars. A 120,000 check was ordered by the Governor;s office on Monday. The exchange is set for 10 am Friday morning.

We talked with Andrews off camera. He wants to wait until the case settles Friday before saying anything publicly.

Documents also show the Governor is paying 304 thousand dollars to outside law firms to defend himself against Andrews and against media outlets in a separate case. .

Media Attorney Carol Locicero says its a shame taxpayers are on the hook for the Governor’s actions.

“Transparency starts with the right attitude and its really not been a priority of this Governor’s office.”

In agreeing to settle the case, Andrews is giving up 1.2 million in legal fees. T

The future of whether the law office every becomes part of the museum entrance remains up in the air.   Public records requests made of the Governor often take a month or more to fulfill. And under a new policy, the office posts every response to a records request online.

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Legal Aid Programs Facing Funding Crisis

August 13th, 2015 by Mike Vasilinda

Funding for legal aid programs in Florida is closely tied to the interest rate…which is virtually nothing on savings accounts these days. As Mike Vasilinda shows us in this next story, the result has been staff cuts, lawyers fired, and fewer cases getting help.

“We had to lay off almost half our staff” is how Florida Legal Services Director Ann Swerlick started our tour of her office.

As a result, a lot of the offices at Florida Legal Services are empty,

“The work has not gone away. We are desperately trying to do more with less.

Q:” No lawyers but lots of cases still?”

“Lots of cases.” says Swerlick

The problem is low interest rates. The interest lawyers earn on other peoples money has gone to fund legal aid in the past…but 90 percent of it has dried up as rates dropped.

“Thousands of Floridians who can’t afford lawyers are getting turned away from legal aid because their staffs are reduced” says Swerlick, who took over the job two months ago,

One proposed solution…raising the dues paid by lawyers from two to three hundred dollars a year. 500 lawyers led by a former Supreme Court Justice asked for the hike, which raises ten million. But the State Supreme Court said no.

The legal community has consistently said funding help for the poor is society’s problem, and lawyers should;t be the only ones picking up the tab.

The court wants to wait for a study due next year. By then there will be fewer lawyers helping the poor and middle class.

“Whether its access to health care, housing, basic sustenance such as food, Lawyers can be critical to making that happen” says Swerlick.

To qualify for legal services, a family of four would have to earn just under 30 thousand dollars a year.

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State Rep Wants Loan Forgiveness for Teachers

August 13th, 2015 by flanews

Every year the Department of Education releases a critical needs list for areas with teacher shortages in the state. As Matt Galka tells us, a bill filed hopes to cut into that shortage by paying off debt and keeping instructors in Florida.

Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – commonly referred to as STEM fields, will get some attention from the state legislature in 2016.  Rep. Ed Narain wants to encourage young people to jump into teaching those subjects.

“What we’re finding is a lot of students they get educated, they take advantage of in-state tuition, and then they leave. So they go to other states, and they’re actually able to benefit their economies and their employment, but not here in Florida. So we want to change that,” said Rep. Narain (D-Tampa).

Narain filed a bill for 2016 that would forgive student loans for STEM teachers. He hopes it can help keep talented young people in the state while also addressing teacher shortages in those areas.  Mark Pudlow with the Florida Education Association says the need for educators keeps growing.

“I think that over the  years it’s become more pronounced, and a lot of the reason for it is, the pay isn’t up to other professionals level, and there’s been a lot of political meddling in the education field with politicians telling teachers how to teach,” said Pudlow.

The bill has a cap of forgiving 16 thousand dollars worth of student loans per STEM teacher.

Narain’s bill would forgive student loans after a teacher teaches for eight years.  He says the bill focuses on STEM because that’s where the jobs are going.

“When we look at the jobs that are being created in other places like Silicon Valley, over in Charlotte, over in Texas even, they’re STEM jobs, and those are jobs we want to have here in the state of Florida,” said Rep. Narain.

An identical bill was filed for 2015’s legislative session but failed to get a hearing.

The Department of Education lists English and Reading ahead of STEM courses when it comes to need for filling teacher shortages in the state.

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Tougher Texting Penalties

August 12th, 2015 by flanews

Lawmakers will look to try and crack down on texting while driving in 2016. As Matt Galka tells us, there’s a push to ramp up penalties if you’re texting behind the wheel around a school.

Texting behind the wheel is a problem that Representative Richard Stark (D-Weston) is seeing too much of.

 

“I turn around and I look, and my wife is driving, and there’s a woman texting with her phone up to here! And she’s slow and I just..I want to do something,” said Rep. Stark.

Stark filed a bill for the 2016 legislative session to try and crack down on the risky behavior.  His bill would double a person’s fine if they’re driving and texting in a school zone.

“They’re having some issues in schools, probably more parents than the kids, but it’s an area we need to address,” he said

Legislation is also being planned to make texting while driving a primary offense.

Florida is one of only five states with texting laws that have the ban as a secondary offense – meaning a cop can’t pull you over for just texting.  Representative Irv Slosberg (D-Boca Raton) has been trying to change that.

“The bills that I do are grand slam home runs, road safety effects all of our citizens and our guests, but when you have legislation like this is takes a while to convince a lot of different members,” he said.

Florida Highway Patrol statistics show things aren’t trending in the right direction.  Distracted driving accidents have increased by 25 percent since 2012.

Critics of Florida’s current texting while driving ban say that the law doesn’t have any teeth.  A texting while driving secondary offense ticket only carries a $30 dollar fine.

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Redistricting Do Over Begins

August 10th, 2015 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida lawmakers are back in the state Capitol tonight after a court ordered them to redraw the states congressional maps for a third time. Twice the courts have ruled the maps were unconstitutionally drawn to favor partisan interests. Now, as Mike Vasilinda tells us, even those involved doubt lawmakers can be trusted to do the job.

Lawmakers have already spent more than eight million dollars defending the illegal maps they have drawn, only to lose twice.

Now they are back at the Capitol for a third bite at the maps. They were ordered to redraw two districts a year ago. Now they are redrawing 22 of the 27 districts. Unlike past attempts, they say they are now keeping partisan politics out of the map drawing. Senator Bill Galvano is the Chair of the Senate Redistricting Committee. We asked if members were talking to political consultants, a practice that lead to the current special session.

“No..not that I’m aware of…and after the lengthy litigation we’ve been through, I don;t think anyone has any interest in doing that” replied Galvano.

House minority leader Mark Pafford doubts  the job will get done any more fairly than before.

“Staff has drawn a map. Legislators apparently have no idea about the reasons behind it” says Pafford.

The League of Women Voters is calling for an independent commission to draw the maps. Rep. Evan Jenne (D-Broward) is introducing a bill to do just that.

Q:”Every time this has come up before, people have said you can’t take politics out of politics” we asked.

“And that’s the fight…we’re trying to do the impossible.  To get that to happen. To remove as much politics as humanly possible.

Even as the new map drawing begins, two law suits threaten their implementation.

One challenges the Fair Districts Amendment on free speech issues..suggesting political consultants are being denied access. The other is from a Jacksonville Congresswoman who will lose her Jax to Orlando seat in the redrawing effort.

Lawmakers have until August 22 to craft new maps. They are due back in court in late September.

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Second Congressional District Gets Another Candidate

August 10th, 2015 by Mike Vasilinda

Flanked by a former Speaker of the Florida House and an array of political consultants, Neal Dunn, a Panama City surgeon has filed to runs for Congress from the soon to be redrawn second Congressional district. Dunn has a long family history of military service, including his own as an Army Surgeon. He says he will think twice before sending troops to war.

“And I promise you that I will never never cast a vote to send anyone’s child, son or daughter, to fight for this country unless we give them the tools to win, and they have the complete backing, and I mean complete backing of the United States government.”

As the Panama City surgeon announced his run fro Congress this morning, two protestors stood across the street from the Florida Press Center holding larger than life size checks written to Democrats. They are trying to make the point that Panama City surgeon Neal Dunn has given money to democrats in the past. They question his loyalty to the Republican party. Dunn says he regrets the donations.

Sot: Neal Dunn

Congressional Candidate (R)

“And every now and then you make a donation, maybe as a favor to friend. I wish I hadn’t done it, you know. They’re small. And in the general context of all the donations that we’ve made politically, contributions and the money we’ve raised and the support that we’ve shown, this is disingenuousÍ to call that support for a liberal candidate.”

Dunn says he has raised hundreds of thousands for republican Candidates and has personally contributed more than 60 thousand of his own money. Dunn also says he made the decision to run before courts ordered the district redrawn. Initial maps make the district much more friendly to Republican candidates. A Tallahassee Attorney, Mary Thomas has also filed to run in the seat.

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60% of New Drivers Failing Written Exam

August 7th, 2015 by flanews

New drivers in Florida are failing their driving tests at an alarming rate, and as Matt Galka tells us, state officials say they’ll make things right, but won’t sacrifice safety.

Robert Murray hopes to have his license at the end of the month. He’s taking hands on driving lesson classes with the American Safety Institute to help him pass the test.

 

“There’s a lot muscle memory involved and I don’t think you can get that just by watching other people drive or like taking a course in it,” said Murray.

In order to get to the driving part of the exam, Murray will have to pass the written test.  Florida switched to a new 50 question exam in January. Nearly 60% of people are failing.

Driving instructor John Zarate is fine with a tougher test.

“I’ll be honest with you, I think the standards are pretty low at this point right now,” he said.

Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles Executive Director Terry Rhodes has asked for patience as her agency deals with the failure rate.

 

“We just want the young drivers and the new drivers to know the Florida law, the traffic laws, we want them to make sure they understand what that means, that it’s a life or death situation,” she said.

State officials want to make sure the test isn’t made easier just to increase the pass rate.

“I’m not advocating we dumb down the test anytime you raise the standard you’re going to see an adjustment period, a transition period, so I don’t begrudge that if we’re asking the right questions,” Agriculture Commisisoner Adam Putnam told Rhodes earlier this week.

Rhodes says the test questions focus on more critical thinking, and that her department will come up with new study guys and focus on education to better prepare new drivers.

The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles says their agency strives for a 70 percent pass rate.

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State Set to Kick-Off Much Longer Sales Tax Holiday

August 6th, 2015 by flanews

Floridians get to enjoy 10 days of tax free shopping on school supplies starting Friday, and as Matt Galka tells us, the sales tax holiday is tied for the state’s longest ever.

Backpacks, clothes, and computers; they’ll all be avoiding the taxman’s fees starting Friday when Florida kicks off a much longer back to school sales tax holiday

“This year we advocated for a longer extension and they agreed with it, and now it’s 10 days,” said James Miller with the Florida Retail Federation.

Miller says that the recent three day sales tax holidays were good, but a longer tax free time period is better for businesses.

“It allows them to space out the traffic we’re going to see for this holiday, in years past, over three days, there was an influx of people for those three days, lots of traffic, some retailers maybe couldn’t necessarily handle the increased workload,” he said.

The state expects shoppers to save almost $70 million dollars thanks to the holiday.

The National Retail Federation says average families spend more than $600 dollars a year on back to school shopping.  The Department of Education says the sales tax holiday is a good way for low-income families to stock up on the same items.

“The reality is that they want to come to school looking well, too.  So that gives them the opportunity, and it gives the community to give back to schools with supplies,” said K-12 Chancellor Hershel Lyons.

If you can’t make it out to the store, all online purchases of eligible items will be tax free if they’re bought during the 10 day window.

The tax free holiday runs from August 7th through August 16th.  Clothing under $100 dollars, the first $750 dollars of computer, and school supplies $15 dollars and under will all be tax exempt.

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Controversy Over Park Plans

August 5th, 2015 by flanews

The newly reappointed head of an important state agency has some controversial ideas for state parks, but as Matt Galka tells us, top state officials told him to reconsider.

Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Jon Steverson was reappointed by the Governor and Cabinet Wednesday, but not before some serious grilling. The issue – Steverson is kicking around the idea of opening up Florida’s state parks to cattle grazing, timber harvesting, and even hunting. He says it’s about self-sustainability.

“I want to say hey what can we do to make our parks the most beneficial to the citizens of the state, to the visitors of the state, and to the environment which we’re serving,” he said.

But the idea doesn’t sit well with Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam.

“They’re not going to be self-sustainable and what it would take to manage a park to be self-sustainable would be unacceptable to the reasons why we got it,” Putnam told Steverson.

Florida’s state parks system has been nationally recognized nationally with three gold medals from the National Recreation and Park Association.

 

Opponents of the idea said that privatizing the parks won’t help the state win any more awards.

Park advocate Jono Miller said that opening the parks up won’t send the right message to Floridians.

“Hearing chainsaws, dead deer, and cows are not going to get us a fourth gold medal,” he said.

Jean Huffman with environmental group Parks in Peril presented thousands of petitions to the Governor and cabinet.

“If these activities become practice in our state parks these citizens are committed to opposing these implementations,” she said.

Steverson said he’d take all concerns into consideration, but wouldn’t totally take the idea off the table.

The Governor and Cabinet also reappointed FDLE chief Rick Swearingen who received much more support from the four state officials.

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Schools Not Jumping at Uniform Switch

August 4th, 2015 by flanews

The legislature put incentive money on the table for schools that made the switch to mandatory uniforms this year. But as Matt Galka tells us, not many districts are jumping at the idea.

Teacher Rod Durham didn’t grow up wearing a uniform for school

“I did not, I went to the high school I teach at,” he said.

The 11th grade creative writing instructor says he doesn’t really see the need for them in his classroom.

“It gives everybody kind of a, to use the word ‘uniform’ kind of look where everyone’s the same, but I’ve just never had a problem with kids expressing themselves through their clothes,” said Durham.

But the legislature gave schools some extra help in their decision making process on uniforms this year.  They’ve incentivized making what they call Standard School Attire mandatory for elementary and middle schools. Districts are eligible to receive $10 dollars per student if they make the change.

Only four districts have applied to potentially make the switch to khakis and collared shirts so far.

There’s a $10 million dollar pot available to schools on a first come first serve basis.  K-12 Chancellor Hershel Lyons says the Department of Education isn’t pushing districts one way or the other.

“We just implement what the legislature puts in place,” he said.

The incentive program made the cut in the state’s budget.  It had previously passed the House but not the Senate.  Lawmakers heard from five districts that already had uniforms.

“When they implemented a school uniform policy in their schools the climate the culture of their schools improved. It’s an issue of school safety,” said Rep. Janet Adkins (R-Fernandina Beach) in March.

Uniforms are also eligible for the state’s back to school sales tax holiday which starts at then end of the week.

School’s have until September 1st to apply for the incentive money.  A school would have to have their school uniform policy in place by January 1st.

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New Environmental Rules

August 3rd, 2015 by flanews

The President announced a new rule Monday set at cutting into greenhouse gasses that experts say are helping to cause climate change. As Matt Galka tells us, environmentalists in the state are praising the effort.

Florida will have to continue to cut down on greenhouse gasses under a new federal plan released Monday.

 

The President and Environmental Protection Agency hope the Clean Power Plan cuts carbon emissions by 32 percent in the next 15 years

Environmentalist Eric Draper says action against climate change – a heavily debated topic experts say is causing water to rise – is needed now.

 

“Climate change threatens us so significantly because we’re a low lying state and sea level rise is going to do some significant damage to Florida. The good news is that Florida is ready for this plan, already our utilities have done a good job of cleaning out our carbon impacts on the environment,” he said.

Earth Justice environmental attorney Bradley Marshall says the plan is an opportunity for Florida to embrace cleaner energy solutions. The federal plan offers credits to states using renewable resources.

“Here in Florida we’re hoping that this will open the state to solar finally. This is the sunshine state, and we hope that this means Florida can finally live up to its name,” said Marshall.

A new report says Florida has the most to lose when it comes to climate change.

The Risky Business economic report on climate change says Florida already has $69 billion dollars worth of coastal property at risk. A number that could balloon to $152 billion in the next 35 years.

The rule is already receiving criticism and is expected to be challenged in court.

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