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Lawmakers Seek to Block Insurance Companies from Access to DNA Tests

January 16th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

More than 26 million Americans have voluntarily submitted their DNA for analysis, but a loophole in federal law could allow some insurance companies to get the genetic information.

State lawmakers took the first step Wednesday to close the loophole.

Hundreds of DNA testing kits are on the market and getting more popular everyday.

An analysis by a state legislative committee reports nearly six percent of Americans have had the tests run.

A federal law stops most insurance companies from getting their hands on the results.

“There is a massive loophole for life, disability and long term care,” said Representative Chris Sprowls.

Sprowls is leading the charge to make sure insurers are barred from asking for the tests and then using them against people.

“They’re gonna take genetic information that can be weaponized by an insurance company who’s gonna take it to set rates or exclude somebody from coverage,” said Sprowls.

The insurance industry has nine high powered lobbyists working against the bill, hoping to short circuit if for the second year in a row.

None of the lobbyists would talk with us on the record about their opposition before or after the bills first hearing.

The insurers worry someone who isn’t in the market for insurance might learn of a potential illness, purchase that policy and then drive up losses and rates.

“What they want to do is have nor risks. They want to spin the roulette wheel and know exactly where the ball is gonna land and that’s unacceptable,” said Sprowls.

Senate sponsor Kelli Stargel of Lakeland said the fears are misplaced.

“I think they’re putting a higher weight on some of these genetic tests. More than just a propensity as well,” said Stargel.

The bill cleared its first committee unanimously.

The AARP and Johns Hopkins Childrens Hospital both supported the legislation.

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Senate Advances Criminal Justice Reform Package

January 16th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Legislation allowing judges to hand out lower sentences in many drug cases is now ready for a vote in the full State Senate after clearing its final committee stop Wednesday afternoon.

Florida has made a number of criminal justice reforms in recent years, but there’s one area lawmakers say has been left out.

“Sentencing reform has been somewhat elusive,” said Senate Sponsor Rob Bradley.

If the bill becomes law, it would make some of the first major sentencing reforms in decades.

It would allow in certain drug trafficking cases, for judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences.

“We could all agree that we could do better when it comes to dealing with the scourge of drugs in our society,” said Bradley.

The idea is facing opposition from law enforcement.

“Drug traffickers are killing people in our state with the poison that they’re pumping,” said Gary Hester with the Florida Police Chiefs Association.

Also prosecutors.

“When you get to the 15 and 25 year level of trafficking that is a lot of drugs. That is not a personal possession amount,” said Philip Archer, President of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association.

But lawmakers were quick to refute concerns raised by opponents.

“Many of these people are girlfriends of drug dealers that get caught up in the whole thing and they’re facing the exact same charge or similar charges the drug dealer’s facing,” said State Senate Jeff Brandes.

While Sen. Bradley said the main purpose of the bill isn’t about cutting costs, he does estimate it could potentially save $50 million.

It’s money that could go a long way in a severely underfunded prison system.

“We have too much turnover in the Department of Corrections and we need to pay our corrections officers more,” said Bradley.

The bill also allows for people who have been wrongfully incarcerated, but have a previous criminal record, to receive compensation from the state.

It still has a long way to go.

The House is often more conservative on criminal justice issues.

The two sides will likely spend the next few weeks working on a compromise.

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Controversial Abortion Bill Advances in Senate

January 15th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

A bill that would mandate parental consent for minors seeking abortions has cleared another pivotal hurdle in the State Capitol.

Wednesday’s hearing before the Senate Judiciary committee focused heavily on whether the legislation would pass constitutional muster.

The State Supreme Court struck down a law in 1989 that required minors to get their parents’ consent before having an abortion.

Now, more than 30 years later, lawmakers believe they’ve come up with a new version that can be upheld.
“This bill also provides a judicial waiver process and a medical emergency exception in accordance with the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in In Re: T.W.” said Senate Sponsor Kelli Stargel.

Before clearing its second senate committee lawmakers heard from both sides of the debate.

Passions were high.

“I’m a 62-year-old woman who had an abortion at 16 and have not been able to have a child since,” said Brandon Resident Megan Petty.

“The implementation of this bill will not lead to stronger families, it will lead to more girls dying of sepsis in the emergency room after attempting a self administered abortion,” said FSU Medical student Rachael Sabra.

Supporters pointed to US Supreme Court rulings that put an emphasis on the rights of parents to make decisions for their children.

“The Supreme Court of the United States in 2000 declared that the liberty interests of the parents in the care, custody and control of their children is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by the court,” said Constitutional Attorney KrisAnne Hall.

Opponents argued the legislation violates the state constitution’s privacy clause the same as the law struck down in 1989.

“It is an undo burden on a young woman’s constitutional right to determine for herself whether and when to become a parent,” said Kara Gross with the ACLU.

The bill needs to clear one more Senate committee before it’s ready for a floor vote.

The Governor throwing his weight behind the bill during his State of the State address sends a strong message to senators.

Senator Stargel said public opinion is also on her side.

“It’s not a partisan issue, it’s more about having the family have the opportunity to have a discussion with their minor daughter when she’s pregnant,” said Stragel.

Opponents did score a minor victory Wednesday.

Democrats on the committee were able to force an amendment that would have brought the Senate version inline with the House’s to be withdrawn over procedural objections.

But Executive Director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates Laura Goodhue argues, the real battle will be in the courts.

“This really is the end game, is to open up the privacy clause in Florida’s constitution to expand upon and pass more abortion restrictions,” said Goodhue.

Opponents worry the State Supreme Court’s newly conservative leaning may increase the likelihood the legislation could stand this time around.

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Legal Holiday Fireworks Bill Ready for Senate Floor Vote

January 15th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Holiday fireworks are one step closer to being legal twice a year after a senate committee passed a bill Wednesday morning.

Initially the bill would have legalized fireworks on Independence Day, New Year’s Eve and day and Memorial Day, but Senators approved an amendment removing Memorial Day from the list.

Senate sponsor Travis Hutson said the decision to remove Memorial Day came from concerns over elevated fire risks.

“The AG Commissioner called and there were some other individuals as well that spoke and said that is typically the high point of the dry season, so Memorial Day coming out would alleviate some of those concerns,” said Hutson.

The bill is now ready for a vote on the Senate floor.

It still needs to pass one more committee in the House before a floor vote.

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Sunscreen Preemption Passes Final Senate Committee

January 15th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

A bill that would prohibit local governments from banning certain types of sunscreen passed its final Senate committee Wednesday morning.

The bill comes in response to an ordinance passed by Key West that banned sunscreens containing certain chemicals believed to be harmful to coral reefs.

Senate Sponsor Rob Bradley argued banning sun screen discourages the public from protecting themselves from the sun and that the studies suggesting sunscreen can be harmful to corals are ‘junk science’.

“The science I’m concerned about is the dermatologists who tell me that when you live in Florida or you visit Florida and you don’t use sunscreen you can get sunburn and that can potentially develop into serious conditions like skin cancer. And Florida has the second highest rate in the country of new melanoma cases,” said Bradley.

Environmental groups opposed to the bill argued the science behind certain sunscreens’ impact on corals is not debatable.

They also noted there are effective sunscreens available that are not harmful to sea life.

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Background Check Legislation Facing Staunch Opposition

January 15th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

The Florida Senate is pushing expanded background checks for private sellers of guns.

Only ten counties in Florida require private sellers to perform background checks at gun shows.

A Senate bill on the move would make the checks mandatory in all 67 counties.

“We’re gonna ban the sale of weapons in any public place unless there is a background check conducted at the time of the sale,” said Senator Tom Lee.

But the bill does more.

It also requires private sellers to create their own version of the federal firearms sales form and have it signed and notarized by the buyer.

“It’s a complicated for with a series of questions,”” said former NRA President Marion Hammer.

Hammer calls the legislation ‘gun control on steroids’.

“It’s a trap for law abiding gun owners,” said Hammer.

The idea is also running into a brick wall in the House.

“We are always very careful when we in any way start to infringe on those things that people consider their constitutional rights,” said House Speaker Jose Oliva.

If it were to make it through the Legislature, it would likely find a cold shoulder in the Governor’s Office.

“There’s no exemption for gun shows. I mean if you look at a gun show, anyone selling firearms there at any of those tables, they do background checks,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

But Tom Lee said he will keep trying.

“All I am asking for is a chance to bring something to the floor of the Senate,” said Lee.

The legislation also adds medical personnel to the list of people required to report people making credible threats under the state’s Red Flag law, which allows guns to be temporarily taken away from those who are considered dangerous.

Lawmakers will spend the next five or six weeks in search of a compromise.

Something that has eluded the Legislature for the last two decades.

If the legislation were to gain traction, it will likely be March before any deal could be worked out.

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Keep Our Graduates Working Act Clears Final Senate Committee

January 15th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Medical professionals who fall behind on student loan debt may no longer have to fear having their license suspended by the state of a bill passed by a Senate committee Wednesday morning becomes law.

The bill dubbed the ‘Keep our graduates working act’ would prohibit state agencies for suspending licenses based on failure to pay student debt alone.

The average Florida graduate leaves college more than $24,000 in debt.

Senate Sponsor Travis Hutson said it will ensure medical workers can keep earning a living and not fall further into financial turmoil.

“We found this to be a little draconian and we’re going to repeal that and make sure that those can continue to have a job, continue to work as they pay off those debts,” said Hutson.

The bill is now teed up for a floor vote in the Senate.

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Tampa Takes Over the Capitol

January 15th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

From pirates on stilts to a 30-year-old Macaw from Zoo Tampa, Wednesday was Tampa day in the State Capitol.

Traditional cuban sandwiches were being handed out from a pirate ship and there were beads galore.

The annual event is a chance for the Chamber to showcase Tampa and State Representative Jackie Toledo said the awareness will help her convince fellow legislators to approve her 35 different budget requests for the area.

“We have so may requests from the Aquarium, the Straz Center. We have funding requests from flooding. We have New Life Village which you should come by and visit. Definitely, we have varying different appropriations requests in our area and I’m gonna be fighting for all of them,” said Toledo.

The Moffitt Cancer center also had displays in and outside the Capitol.

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Pensacola Naval Ari Station Victims Honored by Florida Senate

January 14th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

From the opening prayer to a moment of silence Tuesday morning, the first item of business for the Florida Senate in the 2020 legislative session was to pay tribute to the three fallen Navy men who were killed in the December 6th terrorist attack at the Pensacola Naval Air Station.

Also present and honored were dozens of law enforcement officers who brought the shooter down.

“We pray and remember the hero’s from the tragic events of December sixth in Pensacola. Especially of the three who paid the ultimate sacrifice. We lift up our prayers to thanks giving for the first responders from the base, the county, the state and the city who stopped the tragedy and saved innumerable lives. We pray honor on their heroism this morning, and we pray your continued strength for our military, our first responders, and their loved ones,” said NAS Pensacola Chaplain Brian Crittendon.

The US has since expelled a dozen Saudi airmen training at the base.

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Governor Delivers State of the State Address

January 14th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Governor Ron DeSantis delivered his second State of the State address to the opening session of the state legislature Tuesday.

The Governor’s wish list is very much a continuation of his first year in office.

The Governor said the operative word for the 2020 legislative session is “opportunity”.

“This is Florida’s season of opportunity,” said DeSantis.

Over the course of 32 minutes, the Governor encouraged lawmakers to keep the course on a half billion dollar funding for water projects and everglades restoration, but he asked for new penalties for cities dumping sewage into the streets and waterways.

“It’s cheaper to violate the law and pay a nominal fine. This is unacceptable,” said DeSantis.

And he pushed his plan to deregulate dozens or professions, including beauticians and barbers.

“Our citizens shouldn’t need a permission slip from government to earn a living,” said DeSantis.

New was his effort to pass an employer required E-verify system.

“Our low income workers should not have their wages depressed by cheap foreign labor,” said DeSantis.

And he prompted his plan give teachers raises so that no one makes less than $47,500.

“My plan will lead to a substantial pay increase for over 100,000 current teachers,” said DeSantis.

Veering into a social agenda, he jumped on legislative leaders push for new abortion legislation.

“I also hope that the legislature will this session send me the parental consent bill,” said DeSantis.

The session began with 3,393 bills already filed.

Sixty days from now very few of them will have passed.

Opening day was the Governor’s chance to make his case, lawmakers will spend the next 9 weeks articulating their vision for Florida.

The Governor did not mention Visit Florida funding in his speech, but said he supports the agencies continuation.

Nor did he mention gun control or background check legislation, but afterwards called the so called gun show loophole nonexistent.

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Democrats Respond to State of the State Address

January 14th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

After the Governor delivered his state of the state Florida Democrats unveiled their own plan for where they want to see the state go in 2020.

“We are here today to deliver the people’s response to the Governor’s State of the State address,” said Ray Seaman with Progress Florida.

The Sunrise Agenda, as Democrats call it, touts their alternative plans for key issues like health care.

“We care deeply about expanding Medicaid,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani.

They argued for reducing carbon emissions.

“When we ignore the needs of our environment we ignore the needs of our friends, our children and our neighbors,” said Jonathan Webber with the Florida Conservation Voters.

And they condemned Republican efforts to restrict access to abortion.

“My pregnancy is between me, my family, my doctor, my faith and not politicians,” said Eskamani.

When it comes to the economy, Democrats argued Republicans have time and time again chosen cooperate hand outs over the working class.

Democrats favor a minimum wage increase and an end to affordable housing trust fund sweeps.

“3.2 million households, 45 percent of all the households in the state of Florida are working poor,” said Rich Templin with the Florida AFLCIO.

As in year’s past, many of the ideas proposed by Democrats will likely fall on deaf ears, but they’re hopeful for the 2020 election.
“To narrow the gap between the Republicans in the House and the Democrats in the House, The Republicans in the Senate and the Democrats in the Senate,” said Rep. Geraldine Thompson.

But with the Presidency also on the ballot, it’s guaranteed to be a hard fought battle on both sides.

In an effort to increase voter turnout, Democrats have for the second year in a row proposed changes to the state’s elections including making Election Day a State Holiday and automatically registering Floridians to vote when they turn 18.

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Lawmakers Begin Student Athlete Compensation Debate

January 13th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Clemson and LSU will battle it out for the National Championship Monday evening.

Ahead of the big game, three Florida House Committees met jointly to discuss the possibility of allowing college athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness.

California was the first to mandate college athletes be allowed to profit off their likeness last year.

Monday’s conversations were the first step towards Florida doing the same.

“What we’re truly looking for is how can we best guarantee a fairness system,” said Rep. Kionne McGhee, who is sponsoring one of two bills aimed at allowing college athletes to receive compensation.

The idea has the backing of the Senate President, House Speaker and Governor.

All the panelists who testified before House lawmakers also endorse legislation similar to that passed in California.

“The only category in the country that I’m aware of that does not have an unfettered right to their name image and likeness is college athletes,” said Professor Gabe Feldman, Director of the Tulane Sports Law Program.

While the NCAA has argued student athletes are compensated with the education and scholarships they receive, experts like Ramogi Huma, Executive Director of the National College Player Association said it’s not enough.

“A full athletic scholarship leaves over 80 percent of college athletes at FBS athletic programs, that’s the top division, living below the federal poverty line,” said Huma.

The NCAA has said it would work to allow athletes to profit off their image, but experts argued Florida putting it into law would keep pressure on the organization.

“The NCAA has not committed to allowing compensation for college athletes. I think it was a bit of a redirect. Just last month they’re talking publicly about going to Congress. Instead of coming up with a solution on their own they want to preempt the states and kind of stop what’s going on. So we sniffed that out a bit. I think the real change is going to come from the states,” said Huma.

Both bills filed for the 2020 session allow compensation for name, image and likeness.

The Democrats’ plan also includes a task force that would investigate possible changes to college athlete compensation moving forward.

Representatives from the NCAA, SEC and ACC were all invited to attend the discussion.

All turned down the opportunity to appear.

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Democrats Announce Competing Teacher Pay Raise Plan

January 13th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida Democrats unveiled a plan to increase teacher salaries across the board Monday morning.

The move comes in opposition to the Governor’s proposal, which would increase starting pay for teachers to $47,500, but Democrats argue the Governor’s plan would only impact about 50 percent of teachers.

Democrats said their plan would cost the same, $900 million, but would raise salaries for all teachers and other employees by 7.5 percent starting next year.

Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson said the plan would take Florida from 46th in the nation for average teacher pay to 35th.

“I would certainly like to get higher than that and our caucus would, but using that money without being labeled tax and spend Democrats then keep us level and then it includes everyone. No one is left out,” said Gibson.

Moving forward, Democrats’ plan would also increase salaries by an average of 4.5 percent each year for the next ten years to adjust for cost of living increases.

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Thousand of Teachers ‘Take on Tally’ Demanding Pay Raise

January 13th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Thousands of teachers from across the state were in the State Capitol Monday, arguing that 20 years of disrespect and low funding for public schools has got to come to an end.

Teachers came by bus from every corner of the state.

Then marched to the Capitol in mass, taking up Governor Ron DeSantis on his call to make 2020 the year of the teacher.

The teachers say this is about a whole lot more than a pay raise.

“We’re losing PE. We’re losing programs that are meaningful to the students,” said retired Escambia teacher Mary Louise Winter.

The crowd, estimated at over 10,000, was far bigger than the Governor’s own inauguration last year.

“Teachers don’t do it for the salaries. Our support professions don’t do it for the salaries. They don’t even make a living wage, but that’s got to change,” said Hillsborough teacher Missy Keller.

On Friday, the state DOE sent an email to Polk County teachers, who with about 1,500 making the trip may have had the biggest turnout of any county, telling them their absence for the rally could be considered an illegal strike.

“And we are here with you today in Tallahassee,” said Polk Education Association President Stephanie Yocum.

Polk teachers who made the trip say the memo backfired.

“I think it rallied more people and I think it drew people closer together,” said Polk County teacher Samantha Joyner.

“Yes, absolutely. We had more from our school personally, we had more people rally together and come after that email was sent. So it did not do its job of scaring us away,” said Chelsea Clements, also a teacher from Polk County.

In the end the union is asking for a ten percent pay hike for everyone who works in a school.

“We’e those who are being crushed by student debt. We’re those who are being crushed by skyrocketing health care,” said Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram.

The cost would be right at $2.4 billion more this year alone.

Also Monday, Senate Democrats introduced their own pay raise plan.

It would increase the salaries for all school employees by 7.5 percent beginning next year and provide for a 4.5 percent cost of living increase each year for the next decade.

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2020 Flu Season Could Be the Worst in a Decade

January 10th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida could see a record breaking flu season this year.
Seventy-one outbreaks of the flu have been reported so far and peak flu season is just around the corner.
Nationwide there have been 87,000 hospitalizations and an estimated 4,800 deaths from the flu this season according to the CDC.
In Florida there have been a number of pediatric deaths, in one case a 35-year-old man died.
“Everybody is at risk for influenza. It is very, very contagious,” said Martha DeCastro with the Florida Hospital Association.
The 2017-2018 flu season was the worst Florida had seen in a decade.
DeCastro said indications are that this year could break the record.
“The number of cases has peaked early so they’re considering this somewhat of a crisis this year,” said DeCastro.
Tallahassee Doctor John Mackay said if you get sick with the flu, there are some indicators you may need additional medical attention.
“Difficulty breathing, vomiting where you can’t keep fluids down, those are all good reasons to head to the ER and get checked over,” said Dr. Mackay.
But medical experts argue the best way to avoid getting sick is to get vaccinated.
Flu vaccinations take about two weeks to kick in, but health experts say it’s not too late to get vaccinated.
And getting vaccinated is easy.
“You can go to Publix and get one for free and they’ll give you a $10 gift card so you can go do some shopping afterwards. CVS, Walgreens, they’re all making flu shots readily available,” said DeCastro.
In most cases your health insurance should cover the cost.
For those without insurance, contact your county health department.
In addition to the vaccination, health experts say taking simple steps like washing your hands frequently and avoiding large crowds can help keep you flu free and keep you from spreading the virus if you are sick.

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