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Florida Supreme Court to Decide Whether Marsy’s Law Protects Police

December 22nd, 2021 by Jake Stofan
The Florida Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether law enforcement officers involved in fatal shootings can keep their identities shielded from the public.
The question at issue is whether the constitutional protections for victims of crime extend to on-duty officers.

Florida voters approved Marsy’s Law and established a crime victims’ bill of rights in the state constitution in 2018, but following two fatal police shootings in 2020, Marsy’s Law was used to shield the identities of the officers involved.
“Marsy’s Law allows for somebody who has been victimized, beginning at the time of his or her victimization, to prevent the disclosure of information that could lead to their identity being revealed or their being subject to other forms of harassment,” said Attorney Luke Newman.
Newman is representing the Police Benevolent Association, which sued the city of Tallahassee after it said it would release the names of the officers.
He argues the officers were victims of crime.
“They were both victims of aggravated assault, one with a deadly weapon and one with a firearm,” said Newman.
But the First Amendment Foundation, which has intervened in the case, argues shielding the identities of officers involved in shootings would be detrimental to police accountability.
“They’ve taken on this job to protect and serve and that means when something goes wrong, there needs to be transparency,” said FAF Executive Director Pam Marsh.
The attorney representing the PBA said the case can be whittled down to a basic question: Is an on-duty officer a person?
“My clients are people as well and so that’s who’s covered by the language of the Florida Constitution and they’re asserting their right to be covered by that plain language,” said Newman.
Initially a trial court ruled in favor of the city and ordered the names of the officers be released. 
In April, an appellate court reversed that decision and that ruling has since been used to justify shielding the names of officers involved in fatal shootings in multiple cases throughout the state.
The final ruling by the Florida Supreme Court will set the precedent on how future officer involved shootings are handled throughout the entire state.

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Petition Gathering Group Faces Accusations of Paying Employees Per-Petition

December 21st, 2021 by Jake Stofan

A legal battle between backers of a citizen initiative to expand casino gaming and groups with ties to the Seminole Tribe is heating up.

In recent court filing, the defendants accused Grassfire LLC, a plaintiff in the case, of paying its employees based on the number of petitions they collect.

It was just two years ago state lawmakers outlawed the practice.

Under the 2019 law, paying petition circulators based on the number of signatures they collect is first degree misdemeanor.

Representative Mike Beltran was a co-sponsor.

“We don’t allow people to do that because it corrupts the process. Then people have an incentive to fabricate or doctor additional signatures in order to make additional money,” said Beltran.

The new court filings the legal battle between supporters and opponents of a casino gaming citizen initiative suggest the practice hasn’t stopped.

A sample employee contract found on Grassfire LLC’s website offers bonuses for employees as they reach petition benchmarks.

“They say they want core values and the courage to do the right thing and on the face of the document they’re violating the law,” said Beltran.

Rep Beltran argued the intent of the law is clear.

“It doesn’t say if you pay them an hourly wage you can give them a bonus. It doesn’t say that you have to pay them a base hourly wage. It doesn’t say anything… It says you may not compensate them based upon the number of petition forms gathered,” said Beltran.

In the court filing, it’s claimed whistleblowers have reported Grassfire LLC to authorities.

We reached out to the Secretary of State, Attorney General and Florida Elections Commission regarding the accusations, but our inquiries have gone unanswered.

The Governor’s Office declined to weigh in on the specific allegations, but highlighted the Governor’s push for lawmakers to create an election integrity unit in the upcoming legislative session.

“The Governor is absolutely committed to legislation that would empower the Department of State with the resources and personnel to aggressively investigate election-related crimes,” said the Governor’s Press Secretary Christina Pushaw.

We reached out to Florida Voters in Charge, the group sponsoring the citizen initiative Grassfire was collecting signatures for, and received an emailed statement.

“The Defendants’ allegations are meritless, and are nothing more than an attempt to divert attention from their aggressive attempts to prevent Florida voters from having the opportunity to vote to end the Seminole Tribe’s monopoly over Florida casino gaming,” said attorney Jim McKee.

The casino gaming initiative has collected just over 300,000 valid signatures, but that’s still roughly 600,000 shy of the 891,589 signatures needed by February 1st to make the ballot.

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Changing Cat Fund Could Save Consumers

December 21st, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Every year since 2009, Florida homeowners have been paying to shore up the state’s hurricane fund.

Now experts in the industry are making the case the fund is sound and the charges amount to annual hurricane tax.

Lowering the collections could slow rising rates, which are expected to be one of the coming legislative session’s top issues.

In 1993, Florida set up its catastrophic hurricane fund following Hurricane Andrew.

The fund is a reinsurance asset to help companies pay claims after big storms.

“The Cat Fund has cash, lots of cash,” said Security First CEO Locke Burt.

In 2009, lawmakers added a rapid cash buildup feature to the fund.

Burt, called the cash buildup an annual hurricane tax on homeowners that has outlived its purpose.

“There is enough cash in the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund to pay a hundred percent of all of the claims paid by the Cat fund since it was created in 1993,” said Burt.

Eliminating the rapid cash buildup could save every policy holder in the state $150 a year.

State Senator Jim Boyd pushed through insurance reforms last session.

He told us tackling Cat Fund changes may be too much for lawmakers this year, but he called the 20, 30 and 40 percent rate hikes seen buy consumers unsustainable.

Instead Boyd told us lawmakers are working on language to go after unscrupulous contractors who incentivize consumers to file claims.

It was a change made last year that is being challenged in court.

“I don’t think businesses that are kind of deceiving the public and using bribes, if you will, to get things done should be protected by that,” said Boyd.

Both the Insurance Company CEO and the State Senator said they believe changes made last year are starting to bear fruit by reducing the number of lawsuits being filed.

Boyd indicated we’ll likely see small changes to insurance regulations this coming year, not a major insurance overhaul.

At the same time, the rising premiums are starting to become a building issue for Democrats who want to be Governor.

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Citizens Moves Forward with 11 Percent Rate Hike

December 20th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

The 52 private insurance companies writing polices in Florida lost a total of $847 million through the end of September, causing them to raise rates by 50 percent or more.

That’s forcing homeowners into Citizens, the state’s insurer of last resort, but if the state approves, those already in Citizens will also see double digit rate hikes.

With a Monday vote Citizens, the insurer of last resort in Florida, moved forward with across the board rate hikes of 11 percent for anyone who renews after August 1st 2022.

Citizens would then raise rates 12 percent across the board for renewals after January first 2023.

“The private carriers are non-renewing policies across the state. They are raising rates, high rates,” said Michael Peltier, a Citizens spokesperson.

Peltier told us lawsuits are driving the increases.

“Florida represents about 8 percent of the property insurance market across the country. However, at this time, we represent about 76 percent of all lawsuits relating to property insurance,” said Peltier.

Even with the hikes, Citizens’ own study shows it’s the cheapest alternative 97 percent of the time.

Legislative changes earlier this year require a homeowner to accept a private insurer as long as it is no more than 20 percent higher than Citizens’ rates.

But even with the new criteria, Citizens policies are mushrooming.

“Since January, Citizens policy count has risen about 38 percent,” said Peltier.

Under the legislation passed earlier this year, rate hikes can grow one percent a year, up to a 15 percent across the board in 2026.

“Trying to do what they can to bring Citizens rates more in line with what the private market charges,” said Peltier.

And the 11 and 12 percent hikes approved by the Citizens Board for next year and the year after must still get the okay from the state’s Office of Insurance Regulation.

Lawmakers are expected to make tweaks to insurance regulations when they meet in January, but any changes could likely take a year or two before consumers see any relief from rising costs.

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Democrats Want Rent Hikes Over 10 Percent to Qualify as Price Gouging

December 20th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

Democratic State lawmakers have called on the Governor to declare a state of emergency to help address Florida’s affordable housing crisis.

Regions of Florida have seen rent hikes of 14 and 20 percent since January.

Tampa has seen rents skyrocket 24 percent just since July, which is the highest increase in the nation.

“This has been a crisis many years in the making,” said State Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith.

Smith joined 23 other Democratic state lawmakers who signed a letter to the Governor requesting he declare a state of emergency.

They want him to direct the Attorney General to consider any rent increases higher than 10 percent price gouging.

“This is a tool that is often used by the Attorney General, for example during a state of emergency with a hurricane,” said Smith.

When asked about the letter Friday, the Governor put the blame on the federal government.

“We should forward it to Joe Biden and the White House because things are more expensive because of his policies,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

The Governor also highlighted his budget proposal, which includes $355 million for affordable housing.

Mark Hendrickson with the Florida Association of Local Housing Finance Authorities told us the Governor’s proposal would be a substantial investment.

“It’s the biggest appropriation in 15 years,” said Hendrickson.

Democrats reject the idea the federal government is to blame.

Smith argued the money the Governor is proposing to spend is too little too late.

“That’s not enough. We need to be able to take bold action to substantially invest in affordable housing,” said Smith.

Last year state lawmakers committed to split doc stamp tax revenue between affordable housing and resiliency projects.

The upcoming legislative session will be the first test to see whether they follow through with that promise.

Even if lawmakers follow through with the Governor’s proposed spending plan, experts we’ve spoken with agree the affordable housing crisis isn’t ending anytime soon.

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One Out of Four News Jobs Nationwide Were Added in Florida

December 17th, 2021 by Jake Stofan
One out of every four jobs added in the United States in November were in Florida according to numbers released by the state Friday.

The United States added 210,000 jobs in November.
Florida alone added 51,100.
That means a state that comprises just six percent of the US population, made up nearly 25 percent of all job gains.
The Governor was quick to tout the news.
“We’re a massive country. Over 330 million people. 200,000 jobs you know, that’s not a lot for the whole country and of that, for Florida to be over 50,000 you know it just shows that the policies matter,” said governor Ron DeSantis in a press conference Friday morning.
State economists report the problem in Florida continues to be a lack of workers, not job openings.
“We’re really starting to see a large number of job openings and employers are saying it’s difficult to find folks to fill those jobs,” said Department of Economic Opportunity Chief Economist Adrienne Johnston.
The state’s job market is more than 90 percent recovered from pre-pandemic levels, but economists are optimistic a fully recovery isn’t far off.
“At the current pace we expect to see us reach those peak employment levels very soon,” said Johnston.
While some sectors like leisure and hospitality still have a long way to go to reach pre-pandemic employment levels, others like trade and transportation, construction, finance and professional and business services have already exceeded pre-pandemic job numbers.
“That shows a little bit of a shift in the economy a little bit more broadly kind of when you step back and look at it,” said Johnston.
Even though the state’s unemployment rate dropped by a tenth of a percent down to 4.5 percent, it is slightly higher than the national average of 4.2 percent.
Currently there are 483,000 Floridians classified as unemployed.
And with a wither surge from the Omicron variant looming on the horizon, the Governor doubled down Friday on his commitment to protect Floridians’ jobs by shielding them from heavy handed mandates.

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Florida Officials Push Local Governments to Defend Abortion Access

December 16th, 2021 by Jake Stofan
The US Supreme Court is mulling the constitutionality of a Mississippi law that bans abortions after 15 weeks.
Many on both sides of the debate have speculated a ruling could go as far as reversing Roe V Wade.

A coalition made up of a total of 14 cities and counties across Florida have passed resolutions affirming their support of abortion access. 
In a virtual press conference Thursday, a group of those elected officials encouraged other municipalities to do the same.
“To defend against the current very real anti-abortion attacks from our State Capitol,” said St. Petersburg City Commissioner Darden Rice.
The resolutions though primarily symbolic, also have some practical effects.
“They help create a conversation and help us look at our internal policies,” said Ha;;am dale Beach City Commissioner Sabrina Javellana.
The officials argue the resolutions are more important than ever, with the Supreme Court currently considering Mississippi’s 15 week abortion ban. 
“We’ve also already heard the rumors that a 15 week ban, much like Mississippi, is what Florida Republicans are gonna be leading with,” said State Representative Anna Eskamani.
Many have even speculated the result of the case will lead to a complete overturning of Roe V Wade, which would allow states to completely ban abortion.
In that scenario, Florida lawmakers may have a tougher time banning abortion than other state legislatures. 
That’s because of the state constitution’s privacy clause.
“It has protected the people of Florida from anti-abortion legislation in the past,” said Eskamani.
Past State Supreme Court rulings have held Florida’s unique privacy protections extend to abortion access.
In 2012 Florida voters voted 55 to 45 to uphold that interpretation.
“They don’t want to interfere between someone and their doctor when it comes to a pregnancy,” said Eskamani.
A ruling on the Mississippi law isn’t expected until this summer, but there’s almost guaranteed to be some push for more abortion restrictions in the state legislative session starting in January.
Already a Texas-style heartbeat bill has been filed for the upcoming session, although there are few indications the legislation has much traction among the GOP majority.

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$878,000 Returned to School Districts Now In Compliance With State Masking Law

December 15th, 2021 by Jake Stofan
The State of Florida has officially returned $878,000 it had withheld from eight local schools districts for implementing mask mandates with no parental opt out earlier in the school year.

$309,000 in school board member salaries had been withheld along with an additional $568,000 after some school boards went to the federal government to backfill the lost funds.
Alachua School District Public Information Officer Jackie Johnson told us the district wasn’t expecting the state to return the money.
“We did receive a check from the federal government, but we had not yet cashed it by the time we learned we were getting the money reimbursed by the state. So we just sent the check back to the feds,” said Johnson.
But the Department of Education said it was always part of the plan.
In an October letter to the US Department of Education, Florida’s Education Commissioner noted the money would be returned once districts came into compliance.
“We are glad that these districts have finally recognized that parents have the right to make personal and private health care and educational decisions for their children. The Department will continue to make sure those rights are protected,” said FDOE Director of Communications Jared Ochs in an emailed statement.
The Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said it’s just happy to see the conflict come to a resolution.
“I mean at the end of the day, what every school board and superintendent wanted to do around this state was make sure that they keep every child safe,” said FEA President Andrew Spar.
The department returning the funds also avoids a possible run in with the federal government, which had planned a hearing to determine whether the state’s actions constituted a violation of federal law.
This will likely be the last of the school masking debate for the foreseeable future, now that state law clearly states masking is in the hands of parents.
The statutory clarification came during the November special session of the Florida Legislature.
“Our hands are tied,” said Johnson.
And with the potential for a winter spike fueled by the Omicron variant, FEA is urging Floridians to do their part to ensure the safety of students.
“But it takes all of us working together to make that happen,” said Spar.

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Florida Cases Tick Up, But Infection Rate Remains One of the Lowest in the Country

December 14th, 2021 by Jake Stofan
Weekly COVID cases have been steadily rising in the sunshine state over the past three weeks, with a 24 percent increase from the week of November 26th to the week of December 3rd alone.

13,530 COVID cases were reported last week.
It’s minuscule compared to this summer when the state was racking up more than 20,000 cases a day, but epidemiologists say it is something to keep an eye on.
“The uptick in cases is not necessarily unexpected,” said Dr. Cindy Prins, an epidemiologist at the University of Florida.
Last year, the state’s winter surge was worse than the 2020 summer spike, but Dr. Prins doesn’t expect a repeat this winter.
“This year we have the benefit of vaccines. So I don’t expect our winter spike to be quite as high,” said Dr. Prins.
USF epidemiologist Dr. Jason Salemi points out Florida currently has some of the lowest infection and hospitalization rates in the country.
“We’re 4th lowest in the country on new hospitalization rates,” said Dr. Salemi.
But Dr. Salemi notes it’s not yet clear how Omicron will play into a potential winter surge.
“The early indications are that it’s less likely to cause severe illness, but I think it’s a little too quick to say that definitively,” said Dr. Salemi.
One thing is clear.
Even if we do see a winter spike, the Governor has no intentions of returning to lockdowns or mandates.
The experts we spoke with encouraged Floridians to take their own precautions, especially if they are at higher risk for severe disease.
“Wearing masks and definitely getting vaccinated,” said Dr. Prins.
According to the state’s latest COVID report, 70 percent of Floridans aged five and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
90 percent of Floridians aged 65 and up have been vaccinated.
Both epidemiologists said people should also consider getting a booster shot if they were vaccinated more than six months ago, especially older Floridans and those with preexisting conditions.

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Pro-Casino Groups Drop Request for Speedy Relief in Petition Gathering Lawsuit

December 13th, 2021 by Jake Stofan
Groups backing a citizen initiative aimed at expanding casino gaming in Florida are no longer seeking immediate relief in a lawsuit that alleges vendors with ties to the Seminole Tribe are using illegal means to block the measure from making the ballot. 

The backers of the initiative to expand casino gaming in Florida allege vendors hired by groups funded by the Seminole Tribe have been paying off petition gatherers to stop collecting signatures.
“Not to actually do any work for the defendants, but simply to agree to stop working for us,” said James McKee, an attorney representing the groups that filed suit.
They even claim some petition gatherers have been intimidated.
“Ripping clipboards out of their hands, grabbing stacks of petitions and running away with them, screaming at voters to keep them away from petition circulators,” said McKee.
The vendors argue they’ve done nothing wrong because in a right to work state, petition gatherers have the right to choose their employer.
“My client has the right to hire people to amplify its voice and education in the community where they think that voters are being misled,” said attorney William Shepherd, who is representing the vendors named in the suit.
A hearing was scheduled for Tuesday, but the groups suing unexpectedly dropped their request for a temporary restraining order, just one day after a judge ruled the lawsuit could go forward.
A statement put out by Cornerstone Solutions, one of the groups that has been sued, called the decision to no longer seek a restraining order, ‘no surprise’. 

“We continue to do the right thing by Floridians while out-of-state companies are wasting Florida’s time and tax dollars with frivolous emergencies of their own making,” said Cornerstone Solutions President Rick Asnani.
We’re told the decision came down to time and man power. 
The groups suing said they couldn’t afford to pull staff out of the field for lengthy depositions.
“The judge asked for us to bring our team out of the field for multiple days of depositions – which is counter productive to our signature gathering efforts,” said Florida Voters in Charge spokesperson Sarah Bascom.
And the groups pushing the initiative told us they intend to continue the legal battle to push back against the blocking efforts.

“We will continue to pursue our legal options to expose and seek damages from those that have intentionally and aggressively attempted to thwart the constitutional signature gathering process,” said Bascom.

They also claim to be on track to make the 2022 ballot, despite only having validated roughly 255,000 of the nearly 900,000 required signatures as of mid-afternoon Monday. 

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Judge Allows Petition Gathering Lawsuit to Proceed

December 10th, 2021 by Jake Stofan
A circuit court judge is allowing a lawsuit to go forward that was brought against vendors funded by the Seminole Tribe. 
The vendors are alleged to have worked to block a citizen initiative that would expand casino gaming in the state by paying petition gatherers to stop collecting signatures.

The Seminole Tribe hasn’t been shy about their opposition to citizen initiatives seeking to expand gambling in the state.
The tribe has funneled $10 million into Standing Up for Florida, a political committee advocating against the initiatives.
The committee is also at the center of a lawsuit brought by those backing one of the petitions, which would expand casino gaming in Florida.
Time isn’t on the side of the groups trying to get the citizen initiative on the ballot. 
They’ve got 20 days to collect nearly 650,000 more verified signatures.
The backers of the citizen initiative claim vendors paid by Standing Up for Florida have made that goal nearly impossible.
They allege the vendors have intimidated some petition gatherers and paid others to leave state or stop collecting signatures.
“They’re being paid simply to not work for the plaintiffs and being paid in fact to leave the state,” said James MeKee, the attorney representing the petition backers.
The vendors being sued argued the case should be dismissed, telling the judge it’s not illegal to poach employees from another company by offering more competitive pay.
“That’s exactly what the plaintiffs are asking the court to do. To make a hiring restriction that would say, Burger King, you can’t hire employees from McDonalds,” said attorney William Shepherd.
The judge however, decided to let the case proceed.
“I’m going to deny the motion to dismiss,” said Circuit Court Judge Angela Dempsey.
A hearing on the merits of the case is scheduled for this coming Tuesday.
The ultimate ruling could determine whether Florida voters get to weigh in on the expansion of gaming next November.
If the citizen initiative makes the ballot, it would need 60 percent voter approval in order to pass.

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Lawmakers Won’t Bet on Seminole Compact Money in the 2022 Budget

December 9th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

When lawmakers return in January and begin crafting the 2022 budget, they’ll be anticipating a $500 million hole, caused by the state’s compact with the Seminole Tribe being struck down by a federal judge.

A legal resolution isn’t likely to come before lawmakers gavel out in early March.

This spring, the Governor and the Legislature touted a historic deal with the Seminole Tribe that promised to bring in $500 million a year.

But with the compact currently entangled in a legal battle, lawmakers don’t plan to bank on that revenue when crafting the state budget.

“We’re gonna have to assume we’re not getting that $500 million,” said State Representative Randy Fine.

Fine said that $500 million could have gone a long way.

“To put even more money in reserves, or to cut taxes, or to spend more money on other critical priorities,” said Fine.

The compact was struck down because it allowed for sports betting off of tribal lands.

Governor Ron DeSantis said he expects a national push to have the ruling reversed.

“There’s a lot of indian tribes across the country who are looking at this decision saying, whoah, that was not something that was good,” said DeSantis.

Fine argues the compact was designed to survive, even if a portion was struck down.

He lays blame on the Biden Administration for failing to make that argument in court.

“It was either an intentional effort to hurt Floridians or some of the greatest legal malpractice in legal history,” said Fine.

While Republicans are blaming the Biden Administration for the undesirable ruling, Democrats in Florida say it’s ultimately Republicans who bare responsibility for the compact falling through.

“The fact that my colleagues on the right kept saying this was not an expansion of gambling was false and unfortunately a judge agreed,” said State Representative Anna Eskamani.

Before the compact was struck down the Tribe had already paid the state $75 million.

In an emailed statement, tidal spokesperson Gary Bitner said the tribe does plan to appeal the ruling.

“The Seminole Tribe looks forward to working with the State of Florida and the U.S. Department of Justice to aggressively defend the validity of the 2021 Compact before the Appeals Court, which has yet to rule on the merits of the 2021 Compact. The Seminole Tribe of Florida, the State of Florida and the United States have all taken the position that the 2021 Compact is legal,” said Bitner.

It’s unclear whether the tribe intends to keep paying as the court battle continues.

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Governor Unveils 4th Budget

December 9th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Governor Ron DeSantis has proposed spending $99.7 billion to run the state for the year beginning July 1st, 2022.

There is more money for schools, the environment and some tax breaks.

The biggest break could save motorists more than 25 cents a gallon for most of the second half of next year.

The Freedom First budget is how the Governor is billing his spending plan.

“Florida is clicking on all cylinders when it comes to economy and budget,” said DeSantis at the Thursday announcement.

The proposal is flush with billions in federal money, which the Governor wants to use to offset the state’s gas tax for five months starting in July.

“Which will be a cushion and a buffer against the rising gas prices we have seen,” said DeSantis.

There is also $650 million for teacher raises, who along with police and other first responders, will also see thousand dollar bonuses.

“That’s over 175,000 individuals,” said DeSantis.

Other school employees could see only minimum hikes, which the Florida Education Association argues doesn’t go far enough.

“We are seeing a drain of the profession from teaches and bus drivers, to cafeteria workers and paraprofessionals,” said FEA President Andrew Spar.

Per student spending rises to a record $8,000 under the plan.

And the Governor is putting his foot down, demanding there be no tuition increases.

In a post-announcement news conference, Democrats said they will fight to do more more for average Floridians.

“Parents are scared because children have to wait in the dark for a bus that may or may not come pick them up,” said State Representative Angie Nixon.

But the Governor told us if Democrats had their way, Florida wouldn’t be able to afford what he is proposing.

“They would have locked down and cost hundreds of thousands of jobs. They criticized me for keeping the state open,” said DeSantis.

The Governor is also asking for a 30 percent increase in cancer research, more money for nursing homes, and more help for Alzheimers patients.

Florida currently has a $15 billion reserve that is expected to grow to $17 billion before the budget kicks in on July first.

Lawmakers still have to approve the proposal.

Some tweaks are inevitable, but since taking office, this Governor has gotten most everything he wants from lawmakers.

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Healthy Start Celebrates 30 Years of Service

December 8th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

30 years ago Florida ranked third in the nation for the highest infant mortality rate, but thanks in large part to the work of Healthy Start, the state now ranks 28th.

The program, which offers free services to all pregnant women in Florida celebrated its 30th anniversary Wednesday.

Florida’s infant mortality rate has dropped by 32 percent since Healthy Start was created.

That equates to 638 lives saved last year alone.

“That’s approximately 30 kindergarten classes,” said CEO for the Florida Association of Healthy Start Coalitions Cathy Timuta.

Timuta at an event celebrating the program’s 30th birthday, said the program served more 129,000 pregnant women and 84,000 babies in 2020.

“We’re talking about real people and real families who have been impacted,” said Timuta.

Babies born to mothers who received Healthy Start services has an infant mortality rate of less than three per 1,000 births.

That’s more than 50 percent lower than the statewide average of six per 1,000 births.

The program got its start in 1991 under Governor Lawton Chiles.

“Who had a low birthweight grandchild himself,” said Jack Levine, founder of 4Generations Institute.

Levine has been a child advocated for four decades.

He said Healthy Start’s impact on the state has been undeniable.

“No state in the nation has had better achievement over these three decades,” said Levine.

One of Healthy Starts main missions to reduce racial disparities in infant and maternal mortality rates.

It was an issue given special attention in the last legislative session.

“It is our biggest challenge as a state and as a Healthy Start program,” said Timuta.

As part of the Legislature’s response, it extended postpartum Medicaid coverage from two to 12 months earlier this year.

It’s a $240 million endeavor Timuta believes will have a major impact.

“More families are going to be able to get services this year through Healthy Start, which is very exciting,” said Timuta.

And Healthy Start advocates said there’s an economic benefit to providing pre and postpartum services.

They claim for every $1 spent, the state saves $10 down the road.

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Pro-Casino Groups Denied Immediate Relief in Petition Gathering Suit

December 8th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

A judge in the state capital could decide as early as Friday whether companies with links to the Seminole Tribe have been interfering with petition gathering efforts to allow new casinos in Florida.

Florida Voters in Charge claims the companies are trying to keep the casino measure from making the 2022 ballot.

Florida Voters in Charge had just over 205,000 verified signatures on Monday.

Wednesday the number was up to more than 228,000, but it’s still a long way from the 891,000 needed by the end of the month.

A lawsuit filed last week alleges a handful of companies with ties to the Seminole Tribe are engaging in illegal activity by interfering with the people they hired to gather signatures.

“There is an emergency here,” said Jim McKee, an attorney representing Florida Voters in Charge.

They got to make their first arguments before a judge.

“People are being poached. People are being paid off to leave the state. For what purpose? For the sole purpose of trying to not have the requisite number of signatures obtained between now and December 30th. We’re only 22 days away,” said McKee.

The pro-casino group asked the judge to immediately order the anti-casino groups to stop interfering with its petition gathering activities.

“I deny that request at this point,” said Circuit Court Judge Angela Dempsey.

Those being sued asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit.

“Fundamentally judge, they are seeking to silence. They’re seeking to silence the number of voices that speak against them with vague allegations,” said attorney William Shepherd.

Instead, the judge scheduled a hearing for Friday afternoon on the motion to dismiss.

If the suit survives, a hearing on the merits is set for next Tuesday.

The effort by the anti-casino groups is called blocking, and insiders tell us they have never seen such a fierce effort to keep an amendment off the ballot.

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