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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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Lawmakers Seek to Restore Driving Rights

December 7th, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

Preliminary data shows that from January 1st to December 5th, 70,974 citations were issued in Florida to people driving without a valid drivers license because they couldn’t afford to pay a ticket or other fine.

Many end up in a vicious cycle when they keep driving, but this year there appears to be an appetite in the State Capitol to keep people driving and working.

The daily booking reports are seldom without someone caught driving on a suspended or revoked license, often for the second or third time.

“It’s constant,” said Alachua County Public Defender Stacy Scott. “For many reasons, people lose their license for financial hardships and then they are unable to overcome that hurdle to get it back. Of course, we all know that in our state, you pretty much have to have a car to have a job.”

In the 80’s and 90’s lawmakers got tough with people who couldn’t pay their fines and gave clerks little leeway in collecting them.

“Statutes don’t allow us to change what the judge has assessed as a fine,” said Pinellas County Clerk of Courts Ken Burke.

“If you are on a payment plan and don’t make that payment, you lose your license,” said State Senator Doug Broxson.

Senator Broxson is pushing the clerks to find a way to keep people driving and working, so people can pay what they owe.

“All we are saying is we want them to have the flexibility to sit down with these folks, say what can you afford? Be realistic. Start a payment plan. And maybe revisit it in a year and see if you can pay more,” said Broxson.

The Clerks have told lawmakers they are still working on a plan, but a final proposal won’t come anytime soon.

“It’s not ready for this year, but perhaps next year,” said Pasco County Clerk of Courts Nikki Alvarez-Sowles.

But if real change is a year or more away, thousands of drivers will keep digging a deeper financial hole for themselves, making it all that much harder to find a way back to driving legally.

At any given time, there can be two million or more people with suspended licenses in Florida, with many of them still driving out of necessity.

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LGBTQ Advocates Decry DOE Pulling Anti-Bullying Portal

December 7th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

LGBTQ groups are blasting the Florida Department of Education for taking down the anti-bullying portal from its website, characterizing the move as ‘a staggering escalation of its anti-LGBTQ agenda’.

The portal included resources for LGBTQ students.

The removal of the portal comes after a conservative leaning news source contacted the department about links to LGBTQ advocacy groups on the page.

But Jon Harris Maurer with Equality Florida said the department’s decision to pull the page down won’t only impact LGBTQ students.

“These are important resources that are about bullying prevention and ultimately suicide prevention that serve the interest of all students,” said Maurer.

At least one of the sites linked on the portal included recommendations school staff not reveal a student’s transgender status to parents without the student’s permission.

“No one deserves to be bullied, regardless of orientation, gender, race, or any other characteristic,” said DeSantis Press Secretary Christina Pushaw in an emailed statement. “Parents should play the most important role in their kids’ education and upbringing; they should not be marginalized by ideological directives from activist groups.”

LGBTQ groups argued against the ‘Parents Bill of Rights’ in the last legislative session because they feared it would force schools to out LGBTQ youth to their parents.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said the latest move by DOE suggests those concerns were merited.

“This is again another attempt of this Governor to create a culture war in our state and try to pin communities against each other,” said Fried.

And Maurer argued outting students to their parents can put them at risk.

“We wish that every LGBTQ young person came from a safe and supportive household. Unfortunately we know that’s not the case for our LGBTQ youth,” said Maurer.

“Clearly, we support all students – no student deserves to be bullied in school for any reason – the health and safety of Florida’s 2.9 million students is our utmost priority. To suggest otherwise is simply false,” said DOE Director of Communications Jared Ochs in an emailed statement.

In the statement DOE confirmed it took the page down after receiving the complaint and said it’s currently reviewing the materials on the page for appropriateness.

“Unfortunately, the links we reviewed were to U.S. DOE webpages that had previously provided helpful guidance and information, but now are being used as platforms for advocacy,” said Ochs.

Commissioner Fried told us she is looking for ways to make the LGBTQ resources available through her department to ensure students, parents and teachers still have access to the materials.

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Seminoles Shut Down Sports Betting Operations

December 6th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

The Seminole Tribe has suspended all sports betting through its Hard Rock Sportsbook app after a federal appellate court declined to temporarily block a lower court ruling that threw out the gaming compact approved earlier this year.

The Hard Rock Sports book app was up and running for only slightly more than a month before being shut down.

Seminole attorney Barry Richard told us the decision to cease operations came after the appellate court ruling.

“Out of respect for the court decision the tribe has suspended the new operations,” said Richard.

If you have a balance remaining on the app you can still withdraw your funds, but you can’t put more money in or place any bets.

But the Tribe isn’t giving up its legal battle to get its $500 million a year compact with the state reinstated.

“Trial judges, even acting in the best of good faith, make legal errors, which are reversed on appeal,” said Richard. “We believe that the trial judge made a legal error here.”

However sports betting attorney Daniel Wallach is skeptical the tribe will succeed.

“An infinitesimal likelihood of success,” said Wallach.

He argues the compact never stood a chance, because it allowed for sports betting off tribal lands.

“There’s no Hail Mary play here in which to sort of engineer this federal statute to now mean that the person who’s making the bet can be located off tribal lands,” said Wallach.

Wallach also believes those who placed losing bets in the days after the November 22nd lower court ruling might have a legal argument for a refund.

“Either by making an informal request to the Hard Rock digital sportsbook or potentially by commencing litigation to recover those funds,” said Wallach.

It could be months before the federal appeals court issues a final ruling on the legality of the gaming compact.

So legal sports betting isn’t likely to come back any time soon.

The tribe’s attorney also told us at least for now the tribe hasn’t stopped paying the state, but added he didn’t know how the latest ruling would impact the half a billion dollar a year payments going forward.

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Petition Gathering Lawsuit Filed

December 6th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

The clock is ticking for proposed constitutional amendments to turn in enough valid signatures to make the ballot.

Nearly 900,000 valid petitions must certified by February 1st, but a lawsuit by gambling interests alleges vendors for the Seminole Tribe are throwing roadblocks in their way.

The Seminole Tribe has been out front spending millions on TV ads airing across the state.

“Out of state gambling companies want us to sign petitions to turn Florida into another Las Vegas,” said an actor in one ad.

The ads urge voters not to sign gambling petitions.

A lawsuit filed last week alleges underhanded tactics are being used to thwart signature gathering efforts that would add new casinos in the state, including paying petition firms not to work and offering thousands in incentive bonuses for petition gatherers to jump ship.

The practice is know as “Blocking” and those in the industry told us they have never seen such fierce efforts to keep another amendment off the ballot.

The Seminole Tribe has put just over $10 million into a political committee tied to the blocking efforts.

But in May, during the special session to ratify the tribe’s gaming deal with the state, Senator Jeff Brandes asked point blank if the tribe would engage in blocking.

“Is that something the Tribe would then fund against?” Asked Senator Brandes.

“And the answer would be no,” responded Seminole Gaming CEO Jim Allen.

Based on that answer, Brandes is calling for a legislative investigation.

“He looked me in the eye and told me they would never do that. But I think that’s why there needs to be an investigation into what’s going on,” said Brandes.

We asked Brandes if he believed the tribes efforts were fair.

“Not if you are engaging in activities that are you’re actively trying to block the citizens of the state of Florida from making a free choice,” said Brandes.

The lawsuit asks for a speedy resolution, arguing without court intervention, their amendment won’t make it to the ballot.

So far, the effort to add new casino’s has just over 205,000 verified petitions.

The effort needs just under 900,000.

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Holidays Could Compound Overdose Crisis

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

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

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Tragic Goodbye Inspires Bill Seeking to Regulate Pet Cremations

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

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

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

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

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Family Seeks Justice in Apartment Death

December 1st, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Justice has not been served,” said Scarbriel.

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

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

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

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Lawmakers Look for Solutions to Affordable Housing Crisis

December 1st, 2021 by Jake Stofan

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile more expensive units are growing at a rapid rate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last year lawmakers committed $200 million towards affordable housing.

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

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

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

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Fried Asks for More Control Over Enforcing Agricultural Best Practices

December 1st, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 1st, 2021 by Jake Stofan

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

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

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

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

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

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Lawmakers Propose Medical Marijuana Changes

December 1st, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

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

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

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

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

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State Democrats File Texas-Style Abortion Bill, But Reversed

December 1st, 2021 by Mike Vasilinda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dozier Survivors One Step Closer to Restitution

November 30th, 2021 by Jake Stofan

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

The legislation still must overcome many hurdles before becoming law.

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are signs attitudes in the Legislature may be changing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That determination would be up to a future Legislature.

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