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Holidays Could Compound Overdose Crisis

December 3rd, 2021 by Jake Stofan
For the first time in US history more than 100,000 Americans died from drug overdoses over a one year period.
Mental health experts are worried that could just be the first sign of what they anticipate will be a post-pandemic overdose surge.
The holidays are also a particularly vulnerable time for those struggling with addiction.

In Florida drug overdose deaths surged 17 percent last year, an increase of more than 2,100 deaths compared to 2019.
Fentanyl was the leading killer.
“People are turning to alternative means to deal with stress and to cope,” said Melanie Brown-Woofter with the Florida Behavioral Health Association.
Brown-Woofter said despite Florida’s anti-lock down COVID strategies, the state wasn’t spared from the mental health and substance abuse impacts of the pandemic.
“We were in probably the top third in the nation in terms of overdose deaths,” said Brown-Woofter.
And there’s a fear that overdoses could continue to rise even as the pandemic wanes.
“After both world wars, after the Great Depression, we saw the rate of suicide increase the year after the event ended,” said Brown-Woofter.
There’s also a fear in the immediate future, as holiday stress and anxiety historically leads to a spike in overdoses in the months of January and February.
“Many times families have experienced a loss of one of their family members around the holidays or maybe this is the first holiday without that individual. So there is definitely an increased stress,” said Brown-Woofter.
Brown-Woofter told us one of the best things you can do for a loved one struggling with addiction over the holidays is to simply reach out and be a friend and let them know help is available.
“Just say hello, how are you? I’m worried about you. That simple conversation can really make the difference in someone’s life,” said Brown-Woofter.
And the Behavioral Health Association recommends visiting Florida’s First Lady’s Hope for Healing website to get linked up with resources if you or a loved one are struggling with a mental health or addiction crisis.
Florida Behavioral Health Association members also offer toll-free hotlines in most areas of the state.*

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Tragic Goodbye Inspires Bill Seeking to Regulate Pet Cremations

December 2nd, 2021 by Jake Stofan
Imagine losing a family pet, having it cremated and later finding out the ashes you received didn’t actually belong to your pet at all. 
 
That’s exactly what happened to one Florida resident. 
Her story is the inspiration behind new legislation aimed at bringing more transparency into the pet cremation process.

When Laurie Sullivan lost her cat after a long battle with lymphoma she wanted to be there for the cremation. 
Instead, she was told it had already happened and something went catastrophically wrong.
“They to this day have never answered what happened,” said Sullivan.
She went looking for answers on her own and sent the ashes she was given to the University of Florida for DNA testing.
 
The results were shocking.
“They could not identify that it was a cat, but most alarming was they found human DNA,” said Sullivan.
Laurie’s story caught the ear of State Senator Gayle Harrell, who for the past three years has carried legislation that would require more transparency from cremation providers.
The bill is named ‘Sevilla’s Law’ in honor of Laurie’s cat, who inspired the legislation.
“We want to make sure that little box on your shelf is truly your pet,” said Harrell.
Under the bill crematoriums that deceive pet owners about the service they’re receiving could face a $1000 fine.
We spoke with Stoney Thompson who runs Peaceful Pets, a pet crematorium service in Panama City.
He told us he started his company after seeing what happens at larger facilities.
“We provide a private ceremony here and we do things a little bit different than we found was being done in the past,” said Thompson.
Thompson said he thinks more transparency would be good for the industry as a whole and most importantly for the owners.
“There’s a lot of room for a more personal intimate service with the family member, cause pets are family too,” said Thompson.

The bill cleared its first Senate committee Thursday, the same day a House companion was filed.

After three years of failing to get traction, Laurie and Senator Harrell are holding out hope this will be the year it passes.

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Family Seeks Justice in Apartment Death

December 1st, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

There is no requirement in state law requiring apartment complexes to conduct background checks on potential employees, but following the September killing of a 19-year-old college student in Central Florida, her parents and a group of bipartisan lawmakers have filed legislation to make background decks mandatory.

19-year-old Miya Marcano was killed in her own apartment by an infatuated 27-year-old maintenance employee who had access to a master key.

“She’s not coming back home and this was very preventable,” said Miya’s mother Yma Scarbriel.

Miya’s mother and father were in the Capitol supporting legislation named for their daughter Wednesday.

“Everyone deserves to feel safe in their homes. Miya’s Law will help make that a reality,” said State Senator Linda Stewart.

The four-page bill would require thorough criminal and Sex offender background checks for every employee at an apartment complex.

“What is important now is that no other family has to deal with the grief that our family has had to deal with,” said Miya’s father Marlon Marcano.

Amanda White with the Florida Apartment Association said everything in the bill is already best practices, although not mandatory.

“The passage of this legislation would just ensure consistent application of those best practices across the state,” said White.

But those not complying if the bill becomes law could lose their right to rent.

“From there is they don’t get it done in 30 days, they may get a fine. And if they don’t get it done the next time they come by to check on them, they could have their license taken away, so there is a follow up to this,” said Stewart.

The 27-year-old worker committed suicide days after the murder.

“Justice has not been served,” said Scarbriel.

Lawmakers come back to the Capitol for their annual session on January 11th.

A hearing on the bill is promised during the first week.

In addition to requiring background checks, the legislation also increases the amount of notice a complex must give to a resident before entering the apartment from twelve to twenty-four hours.

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Lawmakers Look for Solutions to Affordable Housing Crisis

December 1st, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Housing is considered affordable if it costs less than 30 percent of a household’s income, but nearly 900,000 Florida households are paying more than half of their monthly income on housing.

That’s one of many statistics portraying Florida’s growing affordable housing crisis state senators heard in a committee Wednesday morning.

“We are now one of the most unaffordable states in certain metropolitan areas and it’s growing,” said Dr. Edward Murray, Associate Director of the FIU Metropolitan Center.

Experts testified to a Senate committee the state is losing nearly ten thousand affordable housing units each year.

Meanwhile more expensive units are growing at a rapid rate.

“There’s really nothing quite like it in the country, where you have such an imbalance between supply and demand,” said Murray.

Part of the problem was blamed on out of state investors.

Also on residents who can afford more, choosing less expensive housing options.

“And so they’re effectively competing for units,” said William O’Dell, Director of the UF Shimberg Center for Housing Studies.

When asked for solutions, at O’Dell boiled it down to more cash.

“You’re going to have to spend more money on this issue,” said O’Dell.

One suggestion coming out of the meeting was for local governments to play a larger role in addressing the affordable housing crisis.

Committee Chair Jennifer Bradley said the state could do more to push local governments.

“We’re gonna have to start thinking outside the box and really encouraging, you know, finding some carrots and sticks with the local governments to make it happen,” said Senator Bradley.

And State Senator Travis Hutson added efficient using of state funds is also key.

“Take a look at what we can do with the dollars and how to make sure those dollars go best bang for the buck,” said Hutson.

Last year lawmakers committed $200 million towards affordable housing.

That’s more than in years prior, but about half of what would be considered full funding.

Lawmakers didn’t have any specifics as far as possible legislative solutions for the 2022 legislative session.

When they return in January they’ll have 60 days to get something through both chambers.

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Fried Asks for More Control Over Enforcing Agricultural Best Practices

December 1st, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Democratic lawmakers are seeking legislation that would give the Department of Agriculture more authority over farming operations that do not follow best management practices.

Violations are supposed to be turned over to the Dept of Environmental Protection, but Fried said no referrals were made in the decade before she took office.

She has since sent 6,600 violations to DEP, but she argues the Department of Agriculture, not DEP, should have enforcement authority.

“And if we have found that somebody has violated and going against the BMP program, what should have happened is taking those producers and sending them over to Environmental Protection for enforcement. Unfortunately, prior to my administration, no companies and producers were ever sent over to DEP. We have since reported that sixty six hundred under my administration has been doing so. What this would do is instead of sending this over to DEP, we in-house it. That way, we are the checks an balances inside, because there is a disconnect,” said Fried.

Fried is also proposing major climate change initiatives, including the increased use of solar.

Fried is a candidate for the 2022 democratic nomination for Governor.

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New President Wants to Create an ‘Entrepreneurial Culture’ at FSU

December 1st, 2021 by Jake Stofan

FSU’s new President made one of his first major public addresses since taking the job to the Economic Club of Florida Wednesday.

McCullough described FSU’s rise from a public university ranking among the top 40 in the nation to number 19 in recent years as ‘meteoric’ and made a commitment to continue the momentum.

He said he plans to do it by doubling the university’s investment in research, hiring more faculty and building an entrepreneurial culture at the university.

“50 percent of the engineering graduates at Harvard University started a company as their first job. 50 percent. These students want to start companies. The hope that comes with that is so powerful that we just need to get out of the students’ way and provide opportunities for them to do that,” said McCullough.

McCullough suggested the university should pursue IT and government technology programs, saying he sees potential for the careers as likely candidates for start up companies in the state.

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Lawmakers Propose Medical Marijuana Changes

December 1st, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Legislation filed at the State Capitol would increase the amount of training doctors would be required to have each year to prescribe medical marijuana, double the amount of time a patient card is valid from one to two years, regulate an intoxicating CBD strain not currently illegal and set rules for testing of crops.

Sponsor Representative Andrew Learned argues patients win if the bill passes.

“Under the bill there is significant cost savings to patients, including two-year medical marijuana license cards, an eight month doctor appointment that will cut the cost of participation in the medical marijuana program by over 60 percent,” said Learned.

The bill also prohibits doctors from having an ownership in marijuana testing facilities.

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State Democrats File Texas-Style Abortion Bill, But Reversed

December 1st, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

As the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments on a contentious Mississippi abortion law bans abortions after 15 weeks, Florida lawmakers are responding by filing a bill turning another contentious abortion law upside down.

It’s operates in a similar way to Texas’ controversial abortion law, which allows citizens to sue others if they provide or help facilitate an abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected.

Sponsor Ben Diamond said his legislation would allow anyone who has had their right to privacy interfered with to sue for damages.

“All people have the right to have children, the right not to have children, and the right to raise their children in a safe an healthy environment. Floridians should have the right to make these choices privately, without the interference of politicians, and certainly without the interference of their neighbors, their coworkers or some person they’ve never met,” said Diamond.

Florida has a unique right of privacy clause in the state constitution that is stronger than protections in the US Constitution.

So even if the nation’s high court overturns Roe v Wade, its impact on the state could be minimal.

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Dozier Survivors One Step Closer to Restitution

November 30th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Survivors of the Dozier School for boys are one step closer to being compensated after a Senate committee has a approved a bill Tuesday that would set in motion plans to identify those who were victims of the reform school.

The legislation still must overcome many hurdles before becoming law.

Survivors of the now-shuttered Dozier School for Boys have been coming to the State Capitol for at least a decade seeking restitution for the physical, mental and sexual abuse they suffered during their time at the state-run reform school.

“It’s something that we’ve waited our whole lives for,” said Dozier survivor Charles Fudge.

More than 500 victims have come forward, all united by a shared horrific experience.

“Mostly the sexual abuse that was inflicted on us as children. And when I say children, I’m speaking of children as young as five and six and seven years old,” said Dozier survivor and retired Army Ranger Capt. Bryant Middleton.

This year they’re advocating for a bill that would establish a process for victims to register with the state, so they might be compensated in the future.

“Time is not on the side of the victims to continue to wait for justice,” said Senate sponsor Darryl Rouson.

There are signs attitudes in the Legislature may be changing.

A key state Senator who voted against this bill last year, voted for it in its first committee stop Tuesday.

That Senator is George Gainer, who grew up near the school.

“By the grace of god there, I might have been there too. And I feel like this is one move that puts us a little closer to closure,” said Gainer.

The House never heard the bill last year, but sponsor Tracie Davis said she’s hopeful a deal can be struck this session.

“The time is running out because these men are now 70, 80 years old and so they’re not gonna be around much longer. So getting this done is of the essence for me,” said Representative Davis.

Even if the legislation crosses the finish line payment would be at least a year away.

That’s precious time many of the now-elderly survivors can’t afford.

The bill doesn’t address how much money Dozier victims would be entitled to.

That determination would be up to a future Legislature.

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Lawmakers Seek Extended Protections for Healthcare Workers

November 30th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

New York City instituted a new mask mandate Tuesday as the stock market was down over renewed COVID fears.

In Florida, state lawmakers took a step to extend liability protections to health care workers incase the pandemic doesn’t wain soon.

Derell Butler has spent the last 15 years working as a certified nursing assistant.

The last year and a half have been the toughest.

“It’s been very hard. It’s been very hard. Especially seeing our loved ones pass away inside a nursing home facility,” said Butler.

Legislation protecting health care workers like Derell and his employer from COVID-related lawsuits is set to expire at the end of March.

Lawmakers want to add another 14 months of protections.

“So, as our front line workers are out there doing God’s work and protecting us, we just want to make sure they aren’t out there looking over their shoulders, doing everything they can during an uncertain global pandemic,” said Senate sponsor Danny Burgess.

Under the legislation, a health care facility would have to been grossly negligent or engaged in intentional misconduct to be sued.

A patient would also have to specifically pinpoint where and when a infection occurred.

Trial lawyers argued against the extension.

“This disincentivizes heath care providers from doing the things are necessary to help us end this pandemic,” said Stephen Cain with the Florida Justice Association.

But nursing home attorneys testified that even with the protections in place, they are in court everyday.

“There was a stop in the number and volume of the lawsuits coming in, but there still is active litigation,” said attorney Robin Khanal.

The sponsor told us the legislation is not about fears that the pandemic is getting new legs, but a fact that lawsuits live on.

Democrats voted no.

“It protects bad actors and lumps them into the same category of those who who are working hard to provide for our loved ones,” said State Senator Darryl Rouson.

Lawmakers end their session March 11.

If the bill gets bottled up in last minute horse trading, the Governor would have just a little over two weeks to sign it before the current protections expire.

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Senate Committee Approves More than $100 Million in Tax Cuts

November 30th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

A Senate committee approved more than $100 million in tax holidays and reductions Tuesday morning.

The proposals include a 10-day back to school sales tax holiday and a three-day sales tax holiday for energy star appliances.

Senators also gave a thumbs up to removing sales taxes on airplane purchases and a 50 percent reduction on sales taxes for new mobile homes.

Committee Chair Senator Ed Hooper said the proposals will provide financial relief for Florida families.

“I think that’s the goal every year is to recognize and adopt sensible sales tax exclusions and exemptions that help Florida’s families. Whether it’s buying clothes and supplies for back to school, whether it’s hurricane supplies, whether it’s what we heard today,” said Hooper.

Removing sales tax on airplane sales was the only legislation to draw controversy out of the four tax bills.

Supporters argued it will support airplane manufacturers and keep Florida competitive with other states that have already removed the tax.

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Brother of Surfside Victim Says New Legislation Would Cost Lives

November 30th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

The brother of a woman who died with her husband in the Surfside Condo collapse in June was at the state Capitol Tuesday arguing against a bill he believes will cost lives.

The legislation would reduce the amount of time someone has to discover and sue a contractor for construction defects, such as not following the building code, from ten years to just four.

Martin Langesfeld knows the bill won’t bring his sister back, but it could save others.

“Developers need to be held accountable for what happens. The opposite is happening. The negligence will continue to go forward and this is why so many innocent people died. Lowering the years to four years is unheard of. You do not see building defects until five, ten years. We saw it in Surfside 40 years. Sometimes you never see the defects,” said Langesfeld.

Even Republicans who voted for the legislation said it needs more work before they can vote for it again.

The sponsor promised changes before the next committee stop.

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Democrats Push for State Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

November 30th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Florida Democrats are hoping to make the state more equitable by promoting legislation that would establish an Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

The office would be tasked with drafting legislation to address racial inequities in the state, make budget recommendations to the Governor’s Office to support equity and identify laws that have disparate racial impacts.

Senate sponsor Lori Berman said Florida should follow the numerous companies, universities and states that have created similar offices.

“We have a tremendous opportunity here to follow the lead of other states and our business and academic communities and leverage diversity as our strength. We can promote changes that increase equity and make government truly representative of the people,” said Berman.

The legislation was officially filed at the start of October, but has so far not been slated for any committee hearings in either chamber.

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Legislature Unveils New Draft Maps

November 29th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

The once a decade redrawing of the states congressional and legislative boundaries is heating up in the state Capitol. Today, House staff released the chambers first drafts, while a Senate committee fine tuned that chambers proposals. and as Mike Vasilinda tells us, at least one of the House maps is raising questions of fairness.

Ten yeas ago, new standards approved by voters aimed at making the process of drawing new political boundaries less political were in place for the first time.

Matt Isbell is an independent data analyst and says those standards weren’t always followed.

“They were secretly drawing stuff behind the scenes” says Isbell.

Fast forward to today.  Adding fuel to the debate is that Florida gets one additional member of congress.

“You are recognized for a walk thought of the staff prepared plans” said Senate Congressional redistricting chair Jennifer Bradley.

So far all of the maps have been drawn by staff with no public input. 

“They are telling us that they’ve done the work, but they are not sharing the analysis” says Florida League of Women Voters President Cecelia Scoon.

That worries the League of Women Voters, which originally passed the fair districts amendments.

“So if you want to understand what they’ve done, we have to follow their pathway, and they are just expecting us to trust them, and that’s not how government should work” Scoon told us.

 

After a Monday meeting, Democrat Linda Stewart says unlike a decade ago, politicians don’t appear to be trying to pick their voters instead of the other way around.

”What I’ve seen is not political.”

Q:”What does that bode for the future?”

“I think it means we won’t have a lawsuit.”

Two congressional maps dropped by the House today, are raising eyebrows.

Donald Trump won 16 of the states 27 congressional districts in 2020. Analyst Isbell 

says Trump would have won 17 districts under the first House released map, and more under the second.

“This second House Congressional plan has Trump at eighteen districts and Biden ten, so that’s much more aggressive than the other plans” says Isbell.

The House and Senate will each re-draw their own districts, but in the end, both must agree on the new congressional map.

After lawsuits following the 2012 redistricting, courts redrew both the Senate and Congressional maps, which took several years of litigation.

 

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Omicron Variant Could Test New Mask and Vaccine Mandate Bans

November 29th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

The co leader of the House Democrats in the state Capitol today said new legislation passed in the special session, eliminating vaccine and mask mandates could slow the state response to the new Omicron strain of Covid. But as the same time, Rep. Evan Jenne cautioned the impact of the new strain is unknown here in Florida

“One of the things it will do is give us concrete shows  moving forward when it comes to public health emergencies.  So, unfortunately I believe it will have a bit of a detrimental effect, but look, lets not jump to conclusions here” says Jenne.  

The majority of Democrats voted against ending mask and vaccine mandates. The legislation was signed by the Governor the day after the special session ended.

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