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State Fire Marshal’s Christmas Tree Safety Tips

December 13th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Christmas is a joyous time of the year, but too often mistakes are sometimes made when maintaining the festive tree and the results can be deadly.
Something as simple as an electrical shortage can turn a serene Christmas tree into a deadly blaze.
“You know it’s the holiday time we want to get all these decorations up and have everything looking shiny and bright, but you need to be smart,” said Deputy Fire Chief Richard Jones with the Tallahassee Fire Department.
Luckily this is just a demonstration.
But State Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis said each year Christmas tree accidents cause an average of 160 fires and three deaths nationwide.
“And from an insurance stand point we’re talking about an excess of over $10 million in losses,” said Patronis.
But simple safety precautions like using LED lights instead of incandescent bulbs, keeping your tree hydrated and away from fire hazards like fire places, heat vents, and other heat sources can prevent a Christmas catastrophe.
“The most glaring point is make sure there’s no open flames, no candles near them. That was the biggest cause of the fires,” said Patronis.
If your tree does light, every second counts.
Once the smoke alarm sounds you have only two to three minutes to make it out safely.
“You’re going to want to get low and go. You’re always going to want two ways out of every room. Don’t go back for presents. Don’t go back for toys. Once you’re out, get out and stay out,” said Chief of Fire Prevention Casia Sinco with the State Fire Marshal’s Office.
And while fake trees are generally a safer option, using a bit of common sense and implementing safety precautions can ensure the only thing burning in your home this Christmas are the logs in your fireplace.
Fire safety advocates also urge Floridans to use caution when disposing of a live tree.
You should keep them stored outdoors and contact one of many Christmas tree disposal services, which will often take the tree off your hands free of charge.

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Unmarked Cemetery Found Near State Capitol

December 13th, 2019 by Jake Stofan
As many as 40 possible unmannered graves have been discovered at a golf course near the State Capitol.
Historical records show the land was once part of a plantation that operated during the 1800’s, and experts investigating the find believe those buried are likely enslaved African Americans.
The revelation comes as legislation filed State Senator Janet Cruz is seeking $500,000 to create memorials at similar unmarked graves discovered in Tampa and establish  an Abandoned African American Task Force to investigate other potential grave sites
“We’re not really looking for any kind of internment. We just want these lost cemeteries and these lost souls to be honored and to respect the dead, that’s basically what we’re asking for,” said Cruz.
The bill has already cleared one Senate committee.
The discovery of an abandoned cemetery so close to the Capitol, might help push the bill to the finish line.

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Fixes to the State’s Guardian Program Passes House Committee

December 12th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Legislation approved in a state House committee Thursday will make it harder for someone acting as a guardian to get a ‘do not resuscitate’ order for someone who does not want to die. 

Many who testified in the bill’s first committee said there are many other issues with the state’s guardian program that need to be fixed.

Guardians are appointed by the state to care for people who don’t have family to fill the role.

“We’re here today on this particular issue because of somethings that have happened in our state where folks who could not help themselves were harmed,” said Rep Colleen Burton, who is sponsoring the new legislation.

The bill comes in response to a case of a central Florida guardian who signed do not resuscitate orders for people who wanted to live.

If passed, a judge’s approval would be required for a DNR to be put in place.

“It helps folks who cannot help themselves,” said Burton.

Douglas Frank spoke at the bill’s first committee stop.

Frank’s mother Ernestine had $2 million drained by a guardian over four years, all while he was fighting to get her back into his care.

“I freed my mom after four and a half years. No one does this,” said Frank.

Frank said the bill doesn’t address financial exploitation by guardians like his mother experienced.

“Right now there is no fear. There is no fear at all because they can do exactly what they want,” said Frank.

While this year’s legislation only addresses the issue of DNR’s, the bill sponsor and families impacted by bad actors in the guardian program hope other issues can be addressed in the future.

Frank said until stiffer criminal penalties are imposed for bad actors he expects the financial exploitation to continue.

“People are going to try to feed off them as long as possible because that’s just what they do, that’s just how they’re wired unfortunately and we need to stop them,” said Frank.

But Frank said this bill is a step towards that goal.

The bill has two more committee stops in the House. 

Its Senate companion has yet to be referenced to any committees.

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Lawmakers Plan to Act on Parkland Grand Jury Recommendations

December 12th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Florida’s schools are not as safe as they could be, that’s the premise of a new grand jury report looking at the Parkland shooting.

The report hampered schools for failing to report crime on campus, not complying with the state’s school resource officer mandate and a swath of other laws passed in the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The report echoes similar concerns raised by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Commission and urges Florida lawmakers to take action by giving the Department of Education more authority to enforce current state law.

MSD Commission member and state Senator Lauren Book said DOE has some enforcement power, but agreed with the report’s findings.

“We gave them some ability to withhold pay from superintendents, but I think that there’s more that needs to be done. They suggest criminal charges, sanctions, going after school board members and I think that we need to start looking at that,” said Book.

The grand jury report also highlighted concerns over antiquated police radio systems, which were also raised by the MSD Commission.

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Are Lawmakers Hearing Both Sides of the Recreational Marijuana Debate?

December 11th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

With the possibility of legalizing recreational marijuana appearing on the 2020 ballot, the Florida House Health Quality Subcommittee continued hearings on the potential consequences of legalizing cannabis Wednesday.

Pro-legalization advocates have raised concerns that lawmakers have focused too much on the negatives and given little time to the positives.

Members heard from economics professor Dr. Rosalie Pacula with the University of Souther California.

She cautioned of regulatory mistakes made by previous state’s that have legalized.
“States cannot regulate cannabis like alcohol or tobacco,” said Pacula.

Colorado DEA Agent Ray Padilla took aim at a number of claims made by pro-legalization advocates.

“I have never been busier when it comes to marijuana and organized crime in our state,” said Padilla.

And a drug testing lab, which suggested its research shows employees have steadily been increasing marijuana use over the past decade.

“There’s been a 70 percent higher self reported use of marijuana among those respondents not subject to employer drug testing,” said Dr. Barry Sample with Quest Diagnostics.

Through multiple hearings witnesses called by lawmakers have been primarily against legalization, prompting concerns from marijuana advocates that lawmakers may try to water down recreational marijuana, if voters were to approve it.

“There certainly needs to be some time spent on talking about what the benefits potentially could be, particularly if 70 plus percent of the population thinks it’s a good idea,” said Jeff Sharkey with the Medical Marijuana Business Association of Florida.

Committee Chair Rep. Colleen Burton said lawmakers intend to carry out the will of the people, should legalization pass.

“That’s why we’re having these meetings so that if it does pass we’re not starting from square one so to speak,” said Burton.

But advocates like Melissa Villar with NORML Tallahassee point to lawmakers’ intense pushback when voters approved medical marijuana in 2017, including an initial ban on smokable cannabis and a restrictive business model.

“They implemented a vertical integrative structure and had a selection of ten companies. So it was highly selective,” said Villar.

The leading recreational ballot initiative still needs slightly over 600,000 more signatures by February to secure a place on next year’s ballot.

Rep. Burton did note if the legalization amendment were to pass, it would provide another opportunity for additional hearings that would include testimony from a wide array of advocates.

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Anti-Fracking Carolers Deliver 20,000 Petitions

December 11th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The Governor’s Office was filled with carolers Wednesday morning, but not the kind you might think.

Delivering 20,000 signatures, anti-fracking advocates sang altered versions of Christmas songs with titles like “We Wish You a Frack Free Christmas” in hopes of pushing the Governor to ban fracking in Florida.

Shortly after taking Office Governor Ron DeSantis signed an executive order supporting a ban on fracking, but last year a proposed ban died in the Legislature.

“We really hope that this legislative session as we head into 2020 that he makes good on his promise and shows that he actually can be a Teddy Roosevelt conservative, that he can be the type of Governor that cares about Florida’s environment,” said Kim Ross, Executive Director of ReThink Energy Florida.

Last year’s effort to ban fracking was criticised because it failed to include all forms of fracking.

Advocates are hoping a blanket ban on fracking will pass in the 2020 session.

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Ban On Pet Leasing Filed for 2020 Session

December 11th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

When you think of leasing, cars and even refrigerators might come to mind, but leasing pets is becoming more and more common in Florida.

However, new legislation would prohibit pet leasing in the state.

Bill Sponsor Senator Annette Taddeo said leasing pets can be devastating both financially and emotionally for families.

“I have constituents that have come to me and said we didn’t know and it wasn’t until we got the bill telling us we had to pay a monthly payment that we found out that our beloved now member of our family turned out to be a lease and if we didn’t make the payments we’d have to return the dog,” said Taddeo.

So far seven states have already banned pet leasing.

Along with Florida, Michigan is also considering a similar ban.

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Keep Our Graduates Working Act Passes Second House Committee

December 11th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Legislation that would prohibit the State Department of Health from suspending medical professionals’ licenses for failure to pay government-backed student loans passed its second House committee Wednesday morning.

121 suspensions were issued last year alone.

Sponsor Representative Nicholas Duran said the number has been steadily increasing in recent years.

“What we don’t want to do is create a way where they get into a hump or something, life happens or something happens in their life happens where they can’t pay a student loan, but now we’ve also created a larger sort of problem for folks now that they make have had their license taken away,” said Duran.

The bill also cleared its second Senate Committee Monday.

It has one more stop in both chambers before it’s ready for a vote on the House and Senate floor.

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Parental Consent for Abortions Clears First Senate Committee

December 10th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Minors could soon be required to get permission from their parents to have an abortion if a bill that cleared a senate committee Tuesday afternoon becomes law.

At the hearing passions ran high as dozens of supporters and opponents came to speak on the bill.

“It’s a challenge to the Privacy Clause in Florida’s State Constitution, our Roe V. Wade,” said opponent Alanna Felton.

The bill would require minors to get approval from their parents before having an abortion.

Supporters like Nathaniel Wilcox said it’s about parents’ rights.

“It’s outrageous that they could sit over here and tell us what I need to do with my children,” said Wilcox.

Opponents like 2nd year FSU Med School Student Lydia Tortorici fear it will put vulnerable children in harm’s way.

“Maybe they’re afraid of physical abuse if they reveal their pregnancy,” said Tortorici.

There is a safe valve in the bill that allows children to petition a court and bypass the parental consent requirement.

A study conducted by opponents found only 11 of the state’s 67 county courts are prepared for the judicial bypass option included in the bill.

However, bill sponsor Senator Kelli Stargel said the report is misleading.

“The premise of that study said that the child had to go to the county court in which the child resides, that is not accurate, it’s to the circuit court,” said Stargel.

The bill passed with a vote down party lines.

Supporters celebrated their first victory outside the committee room.

“The delay tactics didn’t work, persistence paid off,” said Anthony Verdugo with the Christian Family Coalition Florida.

But opponents vowed to keep fighting.
“We are having a broader cultural conversation about abortion access mattering,” said Lauren Brenzel with the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates.

Two more Senate committees stand in the way and passage is far from guaranteed.

The bill also needs to pass the House.

It’s been one of the first bills passed through the chamber in recent legislative sessions.

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Family Members Demand Full Exoneration for Groveland Four

December 10th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Four black men largely believed to have been falsely accused of raping a white woman 70 years ago, were issued an official pardon by the Governor and Cabinet earlier this year, but now surviving relatives of the Groveland Four are hoping for a full exoneration.

A resolution calling for the exoneration has been filed in the House and Senate and Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried has called on the Governor and other Cabinet members to act sooner.

Carol Greenlee, daughter of one of Charles Greenlee who spent 12 years in prison before being paroled, said the exoneration is the last step in the state of Florida righting the wrong done to the Groveland Four.

“My whole thrust from the start of this whole process has been exoneration. He’s innocent, but yet he was tortured, beaten and my family has had this cloud over their head for 70 years,” said Greenlee.

None of the members of the Groveland Four are alive today.

Two were shot and killed, one by a posse of more than 1,000 men and another by the Lake County Sheriff.

The other two died of natural causes in 1969 and 2012.

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Bill Would Allow Local Governments to ban Smoking at Beaches and Parks

December 9th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The word “indoor” may soon be dropped from Florida’s Clean Indoor Air Act.

The decision to ban smoking on beaches and in parks could soon be in the hands of local governments if a new bill becomes law.

Cigarette butts are one of the most commonly littered items and when they end up in environmentally sensitive areas like beaches and parks they pose a great risk to wildlife.

“There’s obviously chemicals like formaldehyde. The filter is the worst part of the cigarette from a litter perspective,” said Aliki Moncrief with the Florida Conservation Voters.

Adding fuel to the fight, health experts like Mark Landreth with the American Heart Association assert even outdoor second-hand smoke can impact the health of others.

“There are many, many clinical studies on the effects of second hand smoke and every one of them talks about how bad it is for other individuals who are around the smoker,” said Lendreth.

But a new bill would give local governments the ability to ban smoking at their local beaches and parks.

“This is a decision that the local government should be able to make. Listen, we’re talking about parks where kids are going,” said Senate cosponsor Sen. Debbie Mayfield.

Last year there was an effort for a statewide smoking ban on beaches and at state parks.

Laura Youmans with the Florida Association of Counties said this year’s effort allows communities to decide what’s best for them.

“You may want to allow smoking, you may not have a problem in that community and some communities may have a concern with litter or the health consequences,” said Youmans.

Environmentalists hope if the bill passes it could lead to the repeal of other preemptions the state has imposed on other environmental policies like plastic bag and styrofoam bans.

“Local governments in Florida are actually leading the way on really good environmental policies. Nine times out of ten the State Legislature has been trying to take away local power,” said Moncrief.

The bill was scheduled for its first hearing in the Senate Monday.

It received unanimous approval.

If the bill crosses the finish line, local governments could begin to enact smoking bans on July 1st 2020.

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Pensacola Shooting Hangs Heavy Over Wreaths Across America Ceremony

December 9th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s First Lady paid tribute to every veteran who lost their life dating back to the Revolutionary War Monday.

Schedulers had no way of knowing she would also be paying tribute to the three sailors who died Friday in Pensacola in what is being called a terrorist attack.

As the colors were posted for the annual Wreaths Across America ceremony honoring veterans from all wars, flags at the State Capitol were still at half staff in honor of the three sailors who died Friday in a terrorist attack.

“We acknowledge that while sin still flourishes, and evil men cast aside all that is righteous, good must and shall prevail,” said Retired Navy Veteran Chaplain Jonathan Craig.

First Lady Casey DeSantis talked of the sacrifice made by not just the three who died Friday, but all who have died in conflict after conflict.

“These brave sailors gave their last full measure of devotion in service to this country. And for that no words can begin to express our immense gratitude,” said DeSantis. “Freedom is not free.”

On Sunday, the First Lady met with the families of those who died in Pensacola.

“You see streets of NAS Pensacola lined with thousands of military personnel in their dress blues, all saluting the family and those who made the ultimate sacrifice, and to come come here today to pay tribute to all those who have served our country, its very meaningful and powerful,” said DeSantis.

The Governor has already said the Federal government must do a better job vetting who trains at US bases.

When asked, the First Lady echoed the Governor’s words.

The Saudi national shot by police in the attack purchased the gun legally in Florida.

The Governor has called on Congress to take action from proventing foreign nationals from buying firearms in this country.

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African American Cemetery Task Force Approved by Senate Committee

December 9th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

By a four to zero vote, the Governmental Oversight and Accountability committee of the Florida Senate voted to create a seven member task for to identify lost African American cemeteries in the state.

The bill carries a $500,000 appropriation to examine current practices regarding the preservation of unmarked and abandoned African-American cemeteries and burial grounds.

The measure is sponsored by Janet Cruz of Tampa.

“Let’s establish a state wide task force. We know there many many lost cemeteries,. And lets make an attempt to respect the dead that weren’t respected. It’s never too late to do the right thing,” said Cruz.

If approved, the task force must hold its first meeting by August 20th of 2020 and submit a final report by March 1, 2021.

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Law Enforcement Vehicle Protections Pass Senate Committee

December 9th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

The Innovation, Industry, and Technology committee of the Florida Senate has voted ten to zero in favor of a bill that would make it clear police vehicles can not be prohibited from parking in an officer’s driveway by a home owners association.

The problem was brought to State Senator Ed Hopper after a Clearwater police officer was threatened with daily fines by her homeowners association.

“A group of elected homeowners associations determine this was a commercial vehicle, and it is not. I believe the Attorney General of this state has opined previously in the early two thousands that a law enforcement vehicle is not a commercial vehicle, and they were unwilling to change their interpretation, so I think I can help them change their mind,” said Hooper.

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Advocates Push for Fully Funding Affordable Housing Trust Fund

December 9th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Nearly 922,000 Florida households pay more than 50 percent of their income on housing, but the state trust fund designated for affordable housing is rarely fully funded.

More than $2 billion has been swept from the Sadowski trust fund for other purposes. $125 million last year alone.

More than 30 statewide organizations are looking to stop the fund from being swept in the future by supporting Legislation that would raise the status of the fund so it could only be swept in cases of emergency.

Advocates said fully funding the Sadowski trust fund would create more than 30,000 jobs and $4.4 billion in economic growth.

“The importance of safe housing that’s affordable is not controversial or partisan, it’s an issue that unites us,” said Florida Housing Coalition President Jamie Ross.

Governor Ron DeSantis has requested the Legislature fully fund the Sadowski Trust Fund in his first two budget proposals.

Advocates are hopeful the Legislature will honor the request in the 2020 session.

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