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Top Ten News Stories Of 2018

The top news story of 2018  was an unprecedented three statewide recounts during the midterm elections.
The top news story of 2018 was an unprecedented three statewide recounts during the midterm elections.

As the year comes to an end, WMFE is counting down Central Florida’s ten biggest news stories of 2018. The list was compiled and curated by the WMFE news team.

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10. Brightline gets closer to creating a rail line from Tampa to Orlando.

The private rail company Brightline is already running a higher speed service between Miami and West Palm Beach and has plans to extend the service to Orlando International Airport.

In November, Brightline announced a partnership with Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and that it will change its name to Virgin Trains USA.

The company wants to build a rail line from Tampa to Orlando, traveling at speeds of up to 125 miles an hour and making the trip in one hour.

The company was awarded the right to negotiate right of way leases to build the rail line, but it would still need state approval to actually lease the land, and Federal approval to operate the service.

It’s not the first time a high speed rail service between Tampa and Orlando has been proposed. In 2011, Governor Rick Scott rejected $2.4 billion in federal funds for high speed rail between the two cities.

9. The state budget's dramatic funding cuts to Florida arts and cultural organization.

The state slashed its arts funding by a staggering ninety percent for the fiscal year that began in July to $2.6 million.

For comparison, the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs received $24.5 million in 2017 after a steady four-year decline.

Few if any of Florida’s nearly 500 registered arts and cultural groups depend on state money alone, said United Arts of Central Florida President Flora Maria Garcia, but the cuts most profoundly affect projects aimed at community enrichment instead of ticket sales, like outreach and education.

"These programs in general that the state funds are really focused on programs that reach the underserved and rural communities," said Garcia. "Those are programs that go into areas where in many cases they would have no arts at all."

Some county governments like Orange have bumped up arts funding in response, but they can’t close the gap. Garcia said Florida’s arts community is pressing state lawmakers to reverse the cuts in next year’s budget.

8. An investigation by WMFE and ProPublica found the Orlando Fire Department didn't go into Pulse nightclub to save victims.

The Orlando Fire Department drafted a new plan to respond to a violent event like a mass shooting years before the Pulse nightclub shooting. The department even purchased bulletproof vests with medical gear in 2015.

But at the time of the Pulse nightclub shooting, the plan had stalled under Fire Chief Roderick Williams and the vests sat untouched.

Emails obtained by WMFE showed administration officials were warning the department’s policies - which hadn’t been updated in more than a decade - no longer met national standards.

During the shooting, Police can be heard asking to get paramedics into the club to help with getting gunshot victims out of the club.

A peer-reviewed, independent analysis of autopsy reports found 16 victims died with potentially survivable wounds - that’s if they had gotten basic medical care and made it to the hospital sooner.

7. Walt Disney World Resort raises employee starting pay to $15 an hour.

Under the contract ratified in September, starting pay for more than 37,000 Walt Disney World Resort employees represented by the Service Trades Council Union will increase to $15 an hour over the next three years.

Union President Matt Hollis said the wage increase will be life changing for some employees, while Walt Disney World Resort president George A Kalogridis called it a powerful boost to the local economy.

In July, Disneyland Resort in California struck a deal with unions to raise starting pay to $15 an hour for more than 9,700 employees. In November, Universal Orlando announced it would raise minimum pay to 1$2 an hour.

Union leaders had been calling on Universal to match Disney’s pay raise, and celebrated the announcement as a response to union power, but Universal said the pay raise had been long planned.

6. SpaceX launches its Falcon Heavy rocket.

Back in February, 27 rocket engines fired almost simultaneously launching the Falcon Heavy on a demonstration mission from the Space Coast.

Strapped to the top of the three-booster rocket: Founder Elon Musk’s cherry-red electric car and a dummy in a space-suit named "Starman."

SpaceX landed two of the boosters back at Cape Canaveral, but missed the landing of the center core on a barge at sea.

The launch brought thousands of spectators to the space coast, causing traffic delays near the space center.

The private company touts the rocket’s ability to launch heavy payloads into space at a lower cost. As NASA eyes a return mission to the moon, SpaceX said the rocket could help bring supplies and spacecraft to lunar orbit.

SpaceX plans to launch another Falcon Heavy in early 2019.

5. The trial of the Pulse gunman's widow Noor Salman.

Salman was charged with providing material support to a terrorist organization and obstruction of justice. Prosecutors say she knew about her husband’s plans for the 2016 mass shooting.

Salman was tried in an Orlando Federal Court in March. A jury found Salman not guilty on both counts after an eight-day trial. The trial marked the only charges filed in the wake of the shooting.

Her husband, Omar Mateen, was killed by police in a shootout. Forty-nine people died and more than 50 people were injured in the attack.

In May, an interim memorial at Pulse opened to the public. Owner Barbara Poma says a permanent museum will follow after planning wraps this year.

4. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in South Florida.

Fourteen students and three staff members died in the shooting on Februart 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School near Fort Lauderdale.

Students and activists marched on Tallahassee, and the Legislature quickly raised the age for buying a rifle from 18 to 21, formed a panel to investigate shortcomings in law enforcement and at the school and allowed school districts to train and arm employees.

The Florida Education Association, a state teacher’s union, oppose those measures, saying teachers are hired to educate, not be police officers.

Laws went unchanged two years ago, after a gunman killed 49 people at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. But a law expanding workers’ compensation coverage for first responders with PTSD - which started after Pulse - ultimately passed after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting.

3. Florida voters approved Amendment 4, restoring voting rights to convicted felons who have completed their sentences.

About 65 percent of Florida voters supported the amendment.

About 1.5 million people who have completed their sentence for a conviction other than murder or a sex crime should be able register to vote starting January 8.

But Florida Governor-elect Ron DeSantis is calling on the legislature to pass an implementation bill before supervisors of elections can enact the amendment. This would create a two-month delay in the registration process as the new legislative session doesn’t begin until March 8.

In many counties, people affected by the amendment would miss out on voting in municipal elections.

In Florida, felons have to wait five to seven years after serving their sentence before they can go before a commission to ask for the right to vote.

2. Toxic algae.

Two separate species of toxic algae gripped Florida waterways: blue-green algae and red tide.

Beaches were vacant, businesses suffered and sickened Floridians turned up in emergency rooms. Dead fish washed up, and manatees, sea turtles and other wildlife went belly-up.

The toxic algae was among the most contentious issues in Florida's Senate Race. Republican Governor Rick Scott defeated Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson after a bitter recount.

Meanwhile Republican Ron DeSantis was elected governor after his strong stance on water quality earned him an endorsement from the influential Everglades Trust.

The outbreak came two years after toxic algae prompted a legislative reform of water standards.

1. Midterm election margins prompted statewide recounts.

Florida faced an unprecedented three recounts in statewide races.

The most contentious was the Senate race between Republican Governor Rick Scott and Central Florida's Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson.

Some 13,000 votes separated the candidates as the race underwent a chaotic recount that involved a litany of litigation, malfunctioning machines and questionable ballot design.

Nelson conceded nearly two weeks after Election Day, ending a 40-year career in public service. The races for governor and agriculture commissioner also underwent recounts.

Republican Ron DeSantis beat Democrat Andrew Gillum in the governor's race. In the agriculture commissioner race Democrat Nikki Fried won over Republican Matt Caldwell.