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Associated Press

Bill to rebury Dozier victims, create memorial, on way to Rick Scott

The Florida Legislature has voted to rebury the bodies of children whose remains were found on the site of a now-shuttered reform school.

The Florida Senate voted unanimously for a bill Friday that would also set aside money to build two memorials regarding the boys who lived and died at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. The bill heads to the desk of Gov. Rick Scott.

Nearly 100 boys died between 1900 and 1973 at the school located near Marianna, some 60 miles (96 kilometers) west of Tallahassee.

The bill authorizes creation of a memorial at the state Capitol and one near Marianna. It also calls for reburying victims of a 1914 fire at the school cemetery in Marianna and to rebury other remains in Tallahassee.

The legislation would also allow portions of the shuttered campus to be turned over to Jackson County.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Legislature passes anti-terrorism bill

A bill that would create new criminal offenses to combat terrorism is heading to Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

The Senate unanimously passed the bill Friday that would create five new criminal offenses for people who work with terrorist groups or commit acts of terrorism. The House passed it unanimously last week.

Acts of terrorism themselves would be a new first-degree felony offense under state law.

Another new offense would make it a first-degree felony to use “military-type training” provided by a foreign terrorist organization to harm someone or disrupt critical infrastructure.

Another would make it a first-degree felony to provide resources to terrorist groups.

It would be a second-degree felony to join a foreign terrorist group.

And it would create the offense of agroterrorism, or intentionally spreading contagious diseases among crops or livestock.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

House puts fate of fentanyl trafficking bill at risk

The Florida House has rejected a Senate proposal to loosen mandatory-minimum-sentence requirements in a bill that cracks down on synthetic drug traffickers, putting the legislation in jeopardy with only one day left for it to pass.

The bill’s primary sponsor, Republican Rep. Jim Boyd, said the purpose of the bill would be defeated without the three-year mandatory minimum sentence for someone caught with at least 4 grams of fentanyl. He said the bill is meant to jail “scumbag” drug dealers, not drug addicts.

“I’m all about the minimum mandatory sentences for users and addicts, but this particular issue — because it is such an epidemic in the state — I just don’t think I can budge,” Boyd said.

The Senate amendment would have given judges the discretion to depart from mandatory minimum sentences when the circumstances allowed it. By rejecting the compromise, the state may have to wait to see a tougher drug-trafficking statute. The measure called for imprisoning those caught with at least 14 grams of fentanyl for 15 years, and those caught with 28 grams to 25 years.

While all lawmakers agree action is needed to combat the opioid-addiction crisis — including Gov. Rick Scott, who declared a public health state of emergency on Wednesday — legislators were very much divided on whether people caught with at least 4 grams of fentanyl should face mandatory minimum sentences.

Rep. Joseph Geller, a Democrat who supports tougher sanctions for fentanyl traffickers, said he is uncomfortable with mandatory minimums because there are often extenuating circumstances.

“We’ve taken away a valuable tool that judges and prosecutors would have had, and in doing so we’ve put a good bill at risk,” Geller said. “That amendment made it a better policy.”

Boyd, however, said people who are in possession of 4 grams of fentanyl are “not some poor person who needs help.”

Under current state law, there is no criminal penalty for trafficking fentanyl, but the state is bolstering its response to combat the rise in opioid overdoses. The deadly drug can be 100 times more potent than morphine and is often mixed with another drug such as heroin. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2015 the drug was associated with more than 700 deaths in Florida.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Florida’s building boom threatens wildlife-rich lagoon

The most biologically diverse waterway in America is seriously ill.

The Indian River Lagoon is repeatedly being choked with oxygen-robbing algae, its surface increasingly dotted with thousands of dead fish, manatees, birds and other creatures.

The culprits: farm runoff and a huge influx of people that has sent lawn fertilizer and other pollutants into the lagoon, which runs 156 miles along Florida’s Atlantic Coast, almost to Palm Beach, and includes the Cape Canaveral area.

“It’s the death by a thousand cuts,” said Bob Knight, an environmental scientist with the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute who has studied Florida’s waters for 40 years.

The lagoon’s woes threaten the region’s $2.5 billion recreation, fishing and tourism economy, alarming kayak tour operators, charter boat captains, restaurateurs and organizers of bird-watching festivals.

Environmentalists are distressed to see the lagoon’s rich variety of life threatened in a crisis similar to what has happened in recent decades in such places as the Chesapeake Bay, Lake Erie and the Gulf of Mexico.

The map above highlights the population increases around the Indian river lagoon. Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Although the federal and state governments have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to heal the lagoon in recent years, an Associated Press examination found that pollution spiked, algae blooms spread and fish kills worsened over the past decade and a half as central Florida’s population swelled faster than that of anywhere else in the state.

Water quality data analyzed by the AP showed that the average level of phosphorous — a byproduct of fertilizers and human waste that algae thrive on — rose nearly 75 percent between 2000 and 2016. Average chlorophyll readings, used to measure the presence of algae, almost tripled.

Home to more than 2,900 species of plants, birds and fish, the waterway has been polluted since the mid-20th century by fertilizer runoff from the sugarcane fields and other farms around Lake Okeechobee, which drains into the lagoon during heavy rains. Nevertheless, parts remained largely healthy until the recent building boom.

Since 2000, more than 1.5 million people moved into the six counties along the lagoon and three Orlando-area counties that drain into Lake Okeechobee or directly into the lagoon. More than 500,000 new homes were built in those counties over the same time period.

Source: Florida Fish & Wildlife

Paved-over expanses such as roads, driveways and parking lots have allowed runoff to make its way into the lagoon more easily. It has also been fouled by wastewater treatment plants that discharge into the lagoon, sewage spills from the plants during heavy rains, and leaky septic tanks.

Source: St. Johns River Water Management District

In 2011, an algae “super bloom” killed more than 1 million fish and other animals there, according to state data. Intense algal blooms have returned each year since then. Last year, toxic algae killed more than 100,000 creatures, including manatees, or sea cows.

Now the increased algae are inflicting new types of damage, researchers say. Last year, baby oysters died en masse for the first time because of the brown tide. That is doubly alarming, because oysters filter the water.

Last year “was the icing on the cake because the fish kill didn’t happen in remote parts of the river where people don’t see it,” said Laurilee Thompson, whose family owns the 465-seat Dixie Crossroads, a seafood restaurant on the Space Coast, as the Cape Canaveral area is known. “So now you have a very upset, influential populace that’s going, ‘Do something. Do something.’”

The reported number of marine creatures that have died spiked to 1.2 million in 2011, compared with 7,000 in 2000, and experts blame the algae.

“In 2011, the world seemed to shift and we suddenly got chlorophyll levels we’d never seen before,” said Charles Jacoby, a water scientist with the St. Johns River Water Management District, a state water agency. “The system has been overloaded.”

The housing boom was made possible by state water agencies and other state and local authorities that permitted development and allowed the filling in of wetlands.

“Going forward, our permits aren’t going to repeat mistakes of the past,” Jacoby said. “If you build something, you have to hold water on that property … so it doesn’t just flow everywhere.”

Water full of algae laps along the Seweall’s Point shore on the St. Lucie River, Fla. (Richard Graulich/The Palm Beach Post via AP, File)

In the past 20 years, the annual value of the clams, oysters, crabs and shrimp caught along the lagoon has dropped from more than $20 million to $4.3 million, according to regional planners. The lagoon’s problems, along with a voter-approved ban on large nets, played a big role in the disappearance of commercial fishermen.

Gloopy green algae often surround Capt. Rufus Wakeman’s charter fishing boat at the dock. He said the sight scares off customers.

“When I first moved here, the river was a pristine environment that was pretty much second to none on the planet,” said the white-bearded fisherman. “Over the last 30 something years, the degradation of the Indian River Lagoon has just been horrifying.”

“The fish we see suffering here the most is the speckled sea trout,” he said. “We used to be able to go out and catch 20, 30 a day, and now if you catch one or two or three you’re doing really well.”

Dead fish clog the Banana River in Cocoa Beach, Fla. (AP/Malcolm Denemark/Florida Today via AP)

In Brevard County, which stretches along nearly half of the lagoon, the fish kill in March 2016 prompted voters to approve a sales tax to raise more than $300 million over 10 years for cleanup efforts, including upgrading wastewater treatment plants and removing thousands of old septic tanks. Florida environmental officials say they are pitching in $24 million in grants.

Local governments and universities are trying to restore mangroves to help filter the water and reduce erosion. And authorities are considering constructing several reservoirs that would hold polluted overflow water from Lake Okeechobee and keep it from flowing into the lagoon.

A group of kayakers explore a canal in the Indian River Lagoon, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

“The things we saw last year, that was a wake-up call,” said Austin Mahan, who owns A Day Away Kayak Outfitters in Titusville. His business gets as many as 9,000 customers a year for kayak tours to see manatees and glow-in-the-dark plankton.

Mahan said he hasn’t seen many cancellations, but for the first time last year customers from around the world called to ask about news reports of the algae and the fish die-offs.

Thompson, the restaurant owner, is embarrassed to no longer serve Florida oysters.

“I’m serving Chesapeake oysters in my restaurant,” she said. “I would love to sell Florida oysters … but I can’t get them.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Busted: Cocaine found in 5 greyhounds at Derby Lane

State officials revoked a racing greyhound trainer’s license after five dogs tested positive for cocaine after a race in January.

According to records from the state’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation, Malcolm McAllister’s racing license was permanently revoked April 24.

Urine samples for the dogs were taken by state employees following races at the St. Petersburg Kennel Club — known as Derby Lane — in January.

McAllister, who did not return calls to a number listed in public records, didn’t dispute the findings and waived his right to a hearing. He wrote in a note to the agency that someone he’d hired either dropped or administered the drug, and that it wasn’t him.

“It is with great sadness and disbelief this very serious charge has been brought against me,” McAllister wrote, adding that the incidents happened while he was hiring a new trainer and had four different helpers during that period. “One of these undesirables had to have either dropped or administered the cocaine.

“It was not me.”

Records show Florida’s greyhound industry has had 46 cocaine positives since 2008. It’s unclear how the dogs ingested the drug or whether it was intentionally administered.

Carey Theil, the executive director of GREY2K USA, a nonprofit industry watchdog group, said regulators never investigate how dogs get cocaine in their systems.

“There’s really only two scenarios,” said Theil. “An outright attempt to fix races, or the individuals who are caring for the dogs are using cocaine and the dogs came in contact with it in some way.”

Theil said there have been other positive cocaine tests of racing dogs, but never five at a time.

McAllister has a 40-year career in dog racing and is well known in the industry.

A woman answering the phone in the marketing department of the St. Petersburg Kennel Club — which bills itself as the “oldest continuously operating greyhound track in the world” — said she had no comment on the dogs that tested positive for cocaine.

The Tampa Bay Times first reported the story Thursday.

Florida Blue health plan resolving multiple withdrawal error

Florida Blue says it’s resolved an error that caused multiple withdrawals to be taken from the bank accounts of nearly 10,000 consumers to pay their May health insurance premium.

Florida insurance officials said Wednesday that Florida Blue consumers were seeing multiple withdrawals instead of the scheduled one-time payment. Florida Blue blamed the error on a third-party vendor.

The overdrafts caused some clients to have their bank accounts frozen.

Attorney Kristin Longberry tells the Orlando Sentinel she paid her monthly premium of $2,000 on Friday. She later discovered they’d billed her 71 times, withdrawing $142,000, causing the bank to freeze her account.

On Monday, Florida Blue reversed all the transactions, but noted it may take extra time for some banks to complete the process.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Florida bolsters response to opioid-addiction crisis

Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency Wednesday to combat opioid abuse in the state, where he said the number of overdose deaths has reached epidemic proportions.

Scott’s executive order will free up nearly $30 million in federal funds for prevention, treatment and recovery services. And it comes as a series of workshops focused on addressing the opioid abuse crisis launch in the state’s hardest-hit areas.

“I know firsthand how heartbreaking substance abuse can be to a family because it impacted my own family growing up,” Scott said in a statement. “Families across our nation are fighting the opioid epidemic and Florida is going to do everything possible to help our families.”

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2015 nearly 3,900 people died across the state as a result of opioid abuse.

Scott’s declaration has bolstered the Florida Legislature’s effort this year to address the opioid abuse crisis in several proposals.

“The governor deserves credit for recognizing the immensity of the problem,” State Sen. Jeff Clemens, a Democrat from Lake Worth, said. “People are dying, and now we can all come together to work on solutions and save lives.”

Among the measures state legislators are considering is one that rewrites the state’ drug trafficking statute and puts fentanyl — a synthetic drug that can be 100 times more potent than morphine — at the same level as heroin. The measure would create tougher penalties for dealers and users, specifically those caught with fentanyl. This drug is associated with more than 700 deaths in the state last year.

The state Senate unanimously approved the bill Wednesday. If passed, drug dealers could face murder charges in cases where a buyer overdoses and died.

Opponents of some provisions in the measure say it will increase the state’ inmate population and will criminalize drug addicts who should be getting treatment instead.

Lawmakers are also trying to crack down on sober-living homes that make false marketing statements in order to draw in more patients. The fate of that bill remains uncertain after its passage in the House a week ago. With two days left in Session, the Senate has yet to put it on its schedule for consideration.

A bill that places new restrictions on how doctors prescribe painkillers has also moved along in the Legislature. Under this bill, pharmacies would have to report the dispensing of a controlled substance to a state database after the end of each business day, rather than on a weekly basis.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

 

Costs of Zika fight rise to nearly $30M in Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade County plans to hire a full-time entomologist in its increasingly costly fight against the Zika virus.

The Miami Herald reports the county’s budget to combat the mosquito-borne virus is nearing $30 million. That figure is based on a contracting request the Miami-Dade County Commission approved Tuesday.

A spokesman for County Mayor Carlos Gimenez says the county has spent about $25 million since June 2016. The request includes additional costs the county will ask the state to cover.

A Zika outbreak in Miami’s Wynwood arts district last year was the first on the U.S. mainland and lingered more than a month.

Gimenez told commissioners the county conducted nearly 51,000 mosquito inspections after the Zika infections were confirmed.

The latest request details $5 million for insecticide, including larvae-killing tablets dropped into 150,000 storm drains.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Legislature passes bill on compensating wrongfully imprisoned

A law that allows compensation to people wrongfully convicted and imprisoned in Florida could be revised to make some felons eligible under a bill going to Gov. Rick Scott.

The House unanimously passed the bill Wednesday, a week after the Senate did the same. It would change the so-called “clean hands” requirement of the compensation law.

Florida now allows compensation up to $50,000 annually for people who are proven innocent of a crime for which they were imprisoned. But anyone who committed a felony before or after the wrongful incarceration isn’t eligible.

Under the bill, a prior felony wouldn’t preclude someone from being compensated if they were imprisoned for an unrelated crime of which they were later proven innocent. Exceptions would be made if the person committed violent or multiple felonies.

Marco Rubio D.C. office to make several personnel changes, new hires

Marco Rubio is announcing several new promotions and staff hires in his Washington, D.C. office.

Lauren Reamy, a member of the Florida Senator’s staff since 2015, has been promoted to Legislative Director. Robert “Bobby” Zarate will lead Rubio’s foreign policy team after joining the staff as a Senior Foreign Policy adviser in December 2016, and Matt Wolking has been promoted to Senior Communications adviser and Press Secretary.

In addition to the promotions, Olivia Perez-Cubas is rejoining the Senate office as Communications Director after previously serving as Press Secretary on the Senate staff, and Wes Brooks is joining as a legislative assistant for energy, environment, agriculture and trade issues.

“I’m grateful for everything Sara Decker, Alex Burgos, and Jamie Fly helped us accomplish in my first term, and for all of their hard work. I wish them the very best in their new endeavors and know they will be very successful,” Rubio said. “I’m proud to welcome the new staff and look forward to the work our new team will be doing to help serve the people of Florida and pursue an important and meaningful legislative agenda in my second term.”

Biographies:

Lauren Reamy — Legislative Director

Reamy has served as Rubio’s deputy legislative director and professional staff member on the Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, as well as advising the senator on energy, environment, agriculture and trade issues. Before that, she was director of government affairs at the Motion Picture Association of America, managing a portfolio that included international trade and economic issues. Earlier in her career, she served six years as a professional staff member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, serving under former Chair Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and former Ranking Members Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Chuck Grassley of Iowa. Reamy is a graduate of the University of Florida and a native of Davie, Florida.

Robert “Bobby” Zarate — Senior Foreign Policy adviser

Zarate previously served as national security adviser to U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, leading the senator’s efforts to oversee the Menendez-Kirk-Lieberman Iran sanctions laws, and to persuade Congress to appropriate and authorize full funding for IRON DOME and other U.S.-Israel missile defense programs, and to advance the bipartisan Combating BDS Act of 2016. Before the Senate, he served as policy director of the Foreign Policy Initiative (2011-2014); legislative assistant for foreign affairs to U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska (2009-2011), successfully leading Fortenberry’s effort to enact the Help Haitian Adoptees Immediately to Integrate Act of 2010 (Help HAITI Act); legislative fellow on the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade (2009); and research fellow at the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (2006-2009). Zarate earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago.

Olivia Perez-Cubas — Communications Director

Olivia began her career as a news writer at WSVN, the FOX affiliate in Miami. She first joined Rubio’s Senate office communications team as an intern and quickly became a full-time staffer. She was tapped to move to Rubio’s presidential campaign on Day One, where she served as Media Director, booking Rubio and managing his press schedule. She was Press Secretary for the 2016 re-election campaign and spent much of her time traveling the state with Rubio. Olivia is rejoining the Senate office as Communications Director. She is a graduate of Florida State University and was born and raised in Miami, Florida.

Matt Wolking — Senior Communications adviser and Press Secretary

Wolking has worked in Congress for more than five years, serving in communications roles for U.S. Representative Tim Griffin of Arkansas, Speaker of the House John Boehner of Ohio, and Chair Trey Gowdy of South Carolina at the House Select Committee on Benghazi before joining Rubio’s staff. Earlier in his career, he was Executive Producer of Laura Ingraham’s nationally syndicated political talk radio show. A native of Kentucky and graduate of Patrick Henry College in Virginia, Wolking interned for Tennessee Republican Sen. Fred Thompson’s 2008 presidential campaign and U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina.

Wes Brooks — legislative assistant

Born and raised in Miami, Brooks has handled Florida Congressman Brian Mast’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee portfolio as well as agriculture, Coast Guard, energy, environment, fisheries and water resources issues. He earned a Ph.D. in Ecological Science and a Certificate in Government and Politics from Rutgers University, where he authored 18 peer-reviewed scientific research papers on topics including invasive species, citizen science, science education, environmental economics and tropical dry forest restoration. Brooks also holds bachelor’s degrees in Biology and Political Science from Duke University. He was named an Emerging Public Policy Leader in 2011 by the American Institute of Biological Sciences, and was selected as a Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Graduate STEM Fellow in 2013 before joining Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s staff in January 2014. Wes is also an alum of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Foreign Policy Fellowship and Cybersecurity Fellowship programs.

 

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