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177 Million Dollar Reading Initiative Off the Ground

January 25th, 2022 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida is beginning the largest book distribution program in America. Called the New Worlds Reading Initiative, more than 81 thousand books are on their way to struggling readers across Florida. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, the hope is the initiative will keep  slow readers from becoming dropouts.

Governor Ron DeSantis handed out colorfully illustrated books at this Wakulla elementary school. The book, Swimmy, is about creatures that overcome danger with ingenuity and teamwork.

In addition to these students, 81thousand other slow readers are getting the book in the mail, and will get a new book each month. 

The Governor watched as one student read a pledge to read everyday, concluding ”I’m feeding my brain what it needs everyday” 

“Wow, great job” complemented the Governor.

DeSantis then told reporters:

“And nearly ninety percent of the students who failed to earn a high school diploma were struggling with reading by grade three.” 

177 million is in this years budget for the New World’s Reading Initiative. It’s the brain child of House Speaker Chris Sprowls.

“If a child can learn to read, they can learn. If they can learn everything becomes possible” says the Speaker.

After the initial funding runs out, corporations will be able to donate up to fifty million a year to the program, and then take a credit against state taxes.

In addition to the books, parents are also being given an entire learning plan that includes text messages and support materials. 

The Speaker says the parents are a key to the programs success. “Engaging the parents in a real way, so that includes  getting that communication; here’s a video about the book your kid got. Here’s some quality content that will help you read that book to your kid; give you some techniques.”

The books are free to families with children in K through 5 who are not reading up to grade level. Nine books a school year will be sent to students homes.

To learn more or to enroll your child, go to newworldsreading.com/enroll.

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Guardianship Data

January 25th, 2022 by Mike Vasilinda

The state knows little about who is a guardian taking care of elderly wards in the state, but Senate Bill 1710, which cleared its first Senate committee unanimously today will fix that. The legislation requires Clerks of Court to submit data annually. Doug Franks, who fought for four years to free his mother from a guardian in a two million dollar legal fight says it is unconscionable the state hasn’t already got the data.

“We’ll know what percentage and generate some ideas about abuse so that we can go and tell the Senate and the House how many people one guardian has. If he has twenty-five or thirty clients. Can he, really one person operate that many wards? And we don’t think they can. There is no limit right now that I know of that limits the wards” says Franks.

Franks mother died just two weeks after she was freed from her guardianship. Doug says she was eating ice cream at the time and called it the happiest time spent with his mother. He blames corrupt guardians motivated by money for guardian abuse. 

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Florida Faces Hiring Crisis

January 24th, 2022 by Mike Vasilinda

Virtually every area of state government is facing a hiring crisis due to low salaries. Presentations by Juvenile Justice, Children and Families and Corrections show Hugh turnover, and as Mike Vasilinda tells us,, fewer and fewer job applicants.

A chart, presented to lawmakers, shows there are ten thousand fewer people working for state than prior to the pandemic. Nearly one in five authorized positions is vacant. The burden has been particularly hard on agencies, like Arc of Florida, which serve the most vulnerable.

“Its really horrible right now” says Mark Swain, the Board Chair for ARC Florida and the CEO of ARC Gainesville.  “We need 174 Direct Service Provider’s to operate safely, and we are sixty-six short.”

Pre pandemic an average of 44 people applied for state job postings. Today it is just over 11.

Todd Inman, who is Secretary of management Services for the state told lawmakers “Filling the talent pool is critical” 

Juvenile Justice is also having retention problems. 

An exchange between Senator Jeff Brandes and Heather DiGiacomo of the Department of Juvenile Justice went like this: “I’ve heard people are leaving detention program to go work at the car was across the state. Is that correct?”

“I would say that is an accurate statement, yes.”

And If there is good news here, it is that lawmakers have just been told that they’re going to have an extra four billion dollars to spend over the next two years. 

But House Democrats\ Leader Evan Jenne says starving government has been the Republicans way since Jeb Bush.

“He said he wanted to see state government buildings empty, and this is a continued drive towards that” says Jenne

But for Mark Swain and ARC, understaffing is not a viable option and care is suffering. 

“The people who are most vulnerable are really losing out here because the providers just don’t have the staff to take these people in” Swain told us. 

And while the Governor has promised raises to move people toward a fifteen dollar minimum wage…even 15 dollars an hour these days is fill the vacancies.

Taxpayers aren’t saving money because fewer people are working. Overtime has nearly tripled, from 58 million dollars to 152 million dollars last year.

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Lawmakers Seek Solution to Organized Retail Theft

January 21st, 2022 by Mike Vasilinda

High end smash and grab robberies are plaguing retailers across the county and here in Florida where a high end handbag retailer in Palm Beach lost a million and half dollars in merchandise in December alone. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, state lawmakers may soon require online merchants to know more about who is selling on their platforms.

The Florida Retail Federation says organized retail theft is skyrocketing in Florida.  

“Sixty nine percent increase across the board, and its not just big box retailers.  It’s all retail.And these are organized entities. This is not shoplifting” says CEO Scott Shalley.

Senate Bill 944 would require Ebay and other middle men between remote sellers and buyers to verify identify and contact information for anyone who sells more than twenty thousand dollars a year on a platform. Senator Dennis Baxley is sponsoring the bill.

“Registration of the marketplaces on line will allow us to detect stolen merchandise much quicker” Baxley told us.

Walgreens and Home Depot voiced support. Ebay lobbyist Jim Daughton  asked lawmakers to wait for a federal solution.

“Obviously we prefer the Federal bill to pass” said Daughton.

But a Senate Committee decided the state couldn’t wait for something that might not happen at all.

“So, SB 944 is reported favorably” announced Committee Chair Ed Hooper

Following the vote, Baxley told us “Florida is leading the way. We’re saying we’re not going to tolerate that. We’re going to interrupt the sales process.”

Think of this online registry as a traditional pawn shop that collects information about  who is selling what and often recovers stolen property. 

The Florida Retail Federation believes the registry will get results.

“This is about individuals who are selling high volume, high volume goods that are still in the box brand new. If you get two blends for your wedding gift and you go to sell them online, that certainly makes sense. If you get twenty five in a year, that’s a little suspicious. So we’d like to be able to track those individuals” says Shalley.

Online facilitators who don’t follow the law could face fines of up to ten thousand dollars.

The law is set to take effect in July. But Ebay says they’d like more time if it passes.

 

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Unemployment Continues to Fall in Florida

January 21st, 2022 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida unemployment dropped a tenth of a percent to four point four percent in December. With twenty nine thousand new people in the work force, it marks the fourteenth straight month of job gains that now surpass the number of people working before the pandemic began. Chief economist Adrianne Johnson says the numbers bode well for 2022.

“Are people engaged in the labor market? Are they getting jobs? And as the labor force was increasing, our unemployment rate continued to decline. Businesses continue to add to their payrolls. So we are seeing a lot of growth in high wage industries, we’re diversifying our economy. All of that is a strong picture for 202, and I think it sets us up for a strong 2022” Johnson told reporters on the video call.

Miami-Dade County had the lowest unemployment among major metropolitan markets at one point four percent.

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Flordia School Boards Under Fire

January 20th, 2022 by Mike Vasilinda

A Powerful committee in the state Capitol this morning passed a bill stripping school board members of their salaries. It was approved mainly on party lines, and as Mike Vasilinda tells us,  the legislation isn’t the only effort to change how school boards operate.

School board salaries vary by county and are based on population. This school year they range from just under 27 thousand to as much as 47 thousand.

“The purpose of this bill is to try to make the education of our children better” State Representative Sam Garrison told the committee. He is leading the charge to end school board salaries.

“We want to structure the way we do these sorts of things to where we are having parents incentivized to be in these positions, engaged in their schools. We want parental involvement in schools. Period” says the freshman representative who has already been designated his classes Speaker Designate. 

Marie-Claire Leman is a mother of three who worries average people won’t serve.

It’s a practically a guarantee that average people that are neither wealthy or politicians will be able to run and serve” says Leman, who also has an organization Fund Education Now. 

Democrats in general voted no.

“These are folks that I want to take their jobs seriously. They are in charge of our kids safety” said Representative Anna Eskamani.

There are also efforts to impose term limits. And another bill would require partisan labels.

Sen. Dennis Baxley is behind term limits. He believes the Covid experience opened eyes.

“It opened up the door for parents to know a lot more about what was going on in education, and not going on in the education of their children” Baxley old us.

And Senator Joe Gruters says it is dishonest for candidates to run without a party label.

“You should have, shine a light on where people are on the issues and the easiest way is to have people run with partisan designation” said Gruters, who is also the chair of the Republicajn Party of Florida.

And what we are being told is that meetings on all three bills are being held to sort out which if any of the concepts can find enough traction to pass.

The Florida School Boards Association did not speak at today’s hearing, but they did tell us salaries are important for people who will be managing million dollar and billion dollar budgets.

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The Mother of All Preemptions

January 20th, 2022 by Mike Vasilinda

Two bills aimed at curbing local ordinances from impacting businesses cleared two key Senate committees at the state Capitol this morning. The first requires local governments to pay for an assessment of what a new ordinance might cost a business. The second would allow a business to sue local governments if a new ordinance caused more than a fifteen percent reduction in a businesses income. A common example used in meetings has been the reduction of operating hours for a bar. Sen. Travis Hutson sponsored both bills and tells us they are designed to work together and make sure local governments understand the costs of what they do.

“280, for example is the front end, right? It is the well informed do you want to make these decision? You can, we’re not telling you not to, but you can make this decision and you will know what the impact is going to be on the business. At the same time, you are soliciting that business, you can find out if it hits that fifteen percent threshold. So there is a front end and a back end, but both of those would deal with it all at the local level.

And Hutson says the idea is to keep business from running to lawmakers asking them to preempt more local authority.

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Abortion Restrictions on the Fast Track

January 19th, 2022 by Mike Vasilinda

A controversial bill shortening the time period for a woman to have an abortion in Florida has cleared it first committee. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, the The legislation is House Bill 5…its low number indicative of its importance to the House leadership.

The legislation shaves nine weeks off a woman’s right to legally abort.

“I think fifteen weeks is plenty of time for a woman to know she is pregnant” says Senate Sponsor Kelli Stargel.

The 15 weeks was chosen because a similar Mississippi statute is already awaiting validation or rejection by the US Supreme Court. Stargel says it also makes sense from the fetus’s development.

“I think recognizing that this is a baby and at fifteen weeks those babies have eyelashes, eyebrows, and fingers and all of those types of things. We want to make sure that If someone is going to make a determination, they make it early on, not later.”

Tampa Obstetrician Dr. Haywood Brown says while most women will know they are pregnant at 15 weeks, others will not.

“We still have a lot of women who do not seek care in the first trimester, so there’s a lot of denial.” 

Dozens of speakers were given just thirty seconds to make their case.

‘Life doesn’t begin at fifteen weeks, it begins at conception” said on man, while a woman opposed voiced her objections. This bill is a blatant attack on Floridians bodily autonomy” she told lawmakers.

Today’s hearing was the first of five. There will be two more in the House, two in the Senate.

Democrat Anna Eskamani says the quick scheduling of the bill in lawmakers second week is unusual.

“Florida Republicans are fast tracking this anti abortion bill” Eskamani told us.

She also knows she and fellow Democrats are outnumbered

“We can expect this bill to get to the House Floor.” Says the Orlando Democrat. “We’re going to do everything we can to amplify public opinion.”

The first committee approved the legislation on a party line vote.

The legislation also requires abortion providers monthly reports to include information about any pregnancy that occurred as a result of human trafficking.

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K9’s for Warriors Saving Lifes

January 19th, 2022 by Mike Vasilinda

Meet Bobbi. She’s a four year old yellow law rescue dog, who through a program that has already helped seven thousand vets, also helped rescue veteran Becca Stephens. 

The program has a waiting list through 2026. K9’s for Warriors is seeking two point five million to quadruple its efforts to pair rescue animals with vets in need. Stephens tells us Bobbi saved her life.

“I was suffering with PTSD and opiate addiction, and she’s completely changed the way I feel about the world and about myself. I’m nearly four years sober now because of her and K9’s for warriors, and the support that has been given for K9’s for warriors.So, without there’sBobbi, there’s no doubt that I would not be here right now.”

All of the dogs paired with vets are rescue animals adopted from a shelter.

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University Presidential Searches Could Be Behind Closed Doors

January 19th, 2022 by Mike Vasilinda

The next president of the University of Florida could be chosen partially out of the sunshine. Legislation removing presidential searches from public scrutiny got approval from its second Senate committee today. It came after the FSU faculty president Matthew Lata told lawmakers the current process works well.

“So this bill is another in a series of solutions looking for problems. Searches for president are too important to be done in secret.  We don’;t want to be presented with a candidate selected quietly by a highly paid search firm, or political faction and essentially approved behind the scenes.”

Sponsor Jeff Brandes says the openness likely resulted in an unqualified candidate being named to head USF in Tampa two years ago.

“The goal here is to let search committees get the broadest pool of applicants. Uninhibited, that they can possibly look at. And yes, Florida State and UF have had great presidents in the last two years.  But IU was you know who hasn’t? USF, who’s president turned over in two years. Because why? Potentially because they didn’t’;t get the broadest pool of applicants looking at them.” 

The legislation does delay any final selection for 21 days after the finalists are announced.

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Misunderstood Kratom Could be Regulated and Tested

January 18th, 2022 by Mike Vasilinda

Kratom is in the coffee family and is an herbal supplement grown mostly in southeast Asia. Some states have banned it after the Federal government raised questions about its safety, but as Mike Vasilinda tells us, the problem came not from the supplement, but from what unscrupulous vendors laced it with…which Florida lawmakers took the first step today to prevent from happening again.

 

Kratom is legal but unregulated in Florida. It is a big seller at the Natural Life chain of stores. Gabe Suarez is the owner.

“And everyday, we get testimonials from people how this plant has changed their life for the better. And we hear it multiple times a day, everyday” says Suarez. 

Suarez tells us he requires what he sells to have been tested by a third party to insure its pure and safe. “You name it, we’re searching for it.”

But there’s no requirement to do that in law, yet. Mac Haddow is the Senior Fellow at the American Kratom Association. “It is used as a popular product in the United States today by eleven to fifteen million people” Haddow told lawmakers.

Kratom has gotten a bad rap in the past. Sarasota County banned it in 2014 after reports it could be dangerous. Haddow says nothing is further from the truth.

“It is perfectly safe. It is not dangerously addictive. Unless its been adulterated with very dangerous substances including fentanyl, morphine and heroin.” 

And because of that, the American Kratom Association supports regulation and testing.

“About a third of the Kratom population used it like a cup of coffee in the morning for an energy boost and increased focus. Another third use it to reduce anxiety, and then the final  third are people that are finding that it can help you wean off very dangerous opioids” says Haddow.

Sarasota is the only county that has banned Kratom. This legislation would undo that ban.

Under the legislation, distributors would be required to test and certify the supplement before shipping it to retailers says sponsor Senator Joe Gruters (R-Sarasota). 

“I think people should have access and have the availability. You just want to eliminate the bad actor and those people who are turning the product into something that it is not.”

The legislation cleared its first committee unanimously.

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Sports Subsidies Could be Tied to the Playing of the Star Spangled Banner

January 18th, 2022 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida lawmakers open their annual session with the presentment of the colors and the signing of the national anthem. Now some want to guarantee that every sports team in the state that gets state or local money perform the Star Spangled banner before every game or face the loss of government funding. Sen. Joe Gruters believes the song is a symbol of freedom.

 

 

 

 

“It’s all about making sure that with everything thats happening in our country that people who enjoy and love freedom, Florida is the freest state in the world and our governor is leading the way. Its to make sure we have the love for America and the playing of our star spangled banner at all the professional events where taxpayers are footing the bill” Gruters told us after the bill passed.

The bill cleared its first committee seven to one. Since 1987, more than three hundred and seventy million in state sales taxes have gone to sports teams in the state. Under law, teams who qualify get two million a year for thirty years.

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Florida Schools, Lead, and Drinking Water

January 18th, 2022 by Mike Vasilinda

Few Florida school districts test for lead in their schools drinking water. Some because they fear funds won’t be available to fix problems, but now Democrats in the state legislature say there is no need to test schools. They want to use 95 million the state has already received from the American Rescue Plan to equip every school with filters on drinking water, including adding bottle filling station. Sen. Gary Farmer calls the bill a no-brainer.

“Under this bill we would also include cafeteria drinking water sources, which must have a filter as well. They’ll have to maintain these filters to make sure lead concentration levels remain below one part per billion. The filters would have to be replaced  no less frequently than provided for in the manufacturers instructions” Farmer says.

David Cullen from the Sierra club told reporters there can be no tolerance for any levels of lead in a child’s drinking water.

“Even low levels of lead in the blood of children can result in behavioral and learning problems., lower IQ, and hyperactivity. Slowed growth. Hearing problems” says Cullen.

The legislation has yet to be scheduled for a hearing. Democrats are calling on parents to push for the legislation.

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Florida Foster Care in Crisis

January 17th, 2022 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s foster care system is in crisis. Low pay coupled with an already stressful work environment has people leaving at record levels. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, agencies are seeking an increase of forty million dollars this year to make case loads more manageable.

Going into someone’s home to check on their kids welfare can be not only stressful but dangerous. Covid has made a child protections workers already tough job tougher. 

“This is in a crisis level right now.” Says Kurt Kelly, the CEO of the Florida Coalition for Children. The agency works with the states 18 child services providers and more than seventy other organizations that provide care or work with adoptions.

“In some some areas we’re having as much as fifty and sixty percent turnover” Kelly told us.

Because of the turnover, case loads for protection workers is hitting as high a forty kids. National recommendations call for a case load of 12.

“There’s been increase anxiety” says Dr. Christine Cauffield, who is the CEO of LSF Health systems. It serves 23 counties in Northeast and North Central Florida, where cases have exploded.

“Domestic violence instances have increased. Child abuse cases have increased as  a result of people’s inability to modulate their mental health” says Cauffield.

A Batchelor’s degree is required for case workers. Salaries are not competitive says Kelly.

“And they are getting paid less than someone who says “would you like to supersize that sir?”

Lawmakers are being asked to put another forty million dollars into the system for salaries. We’re being told that will bring the case loads down from as many as forty, to fifteen, sixteen, or seventeen.

And while no one is saying it out loud, caseloads more than three times the national standard means at risk children are seeing fewer services. The result has been a large increase in children Baker Acted for their own safety in 2020.   

Providers tell us it will take at least six months to stabilize their workforces once the money has been provided…which wouldn’t be before July first. That means high case loads will be the norm for the rest of the year.

 

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Multiple Marijuana Bills on Tap in the Capitol

January 13th, 2022 by Mike Vasilinda

2022 is not likely the year recreational marijauana will be legalized in Florida. Two constitutional amendments were found wanting by the state Supreme Court, and efforts in the legislature are a long shot, but as Mike Vasilinda tells us, that’s not stopping some from trying.

https://vimeo.com/manage/videos/666855566

State Representative Spencer Roach tried to limit THC in medical marijuana last year.

“I think it’s accurate to describe that bill as prohibitionist in nature” said Roach.

This year Roach has teamed with Democrat Andrew Learned, who last year co-sponsored a legalization bill. 

“I want to try to be the guy who’s effective and gets things done” said the Tampa Democrat. 

Now, The two would make medical marijuana more consumer friendly by testing it, requiring more training for recommending doctors, and lengthening the time a patients card is valid. But when it comes to legalization Learned told us:

“I am practical in the sense I know that bill isn’t going anywhere.” 

But that isn’t stopping House and Senate members from pushing recreational marijuana.

Rep. Yvonne Hinson (D-Gainesville) is the sponsor of a leagalization bill,

“Is arresting people for this largely victimless activity helping anybody” she asked during a news conference.

The 157 page bill would also expunge marijuana convictions and grant clemency to low level offenders. Rep. Ann Eskamani (D-Orlando) said the legislation could also do a lot of good going forward.

“Lets also see this as a source of revenue to cover so many of the expenses we have in our state where every person benefits” said the Democrat.

Legalizing marijuana is almost certain to be an issue in the Governor’s race. Ron DeSantis has told us twice he’s opposed to it, but all three Democrats running against him are for it.

We asked Representative Hinson how she would deal with the Governor’s opposition.

“I’m going to pray about that one” she told us.

And the earliest voters could take the matter into their own hands is 2024, and if successful, it would likely take two to three more years before the first bud was sold.

Sponsors of the legislation told reporters more than forty-two thousand people were arrested for misdemeanor marijauana possession in 2018. 

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