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News Service Of Florida

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

Dorothy Hukill to be remembered Sunday

The family of state Sen. Dorothy Hukill, a Port Orange Republican who died this week, will host visitors Sunday in Volusia County.

People may pay respects from noon to 2 p.m. Sunday at the Volusia Memorial Funeral Home in Port Orange, Senate President Joe Negron said in a memo to lawmakers and staff members.

Negron said a formal memorial service will be a small, family gathering.

Hukill, 72, died after battling cervical cancer. She had served in the Senate since 2012, after eight years in the House.

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Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Rick Scott says health care a ‘right,’ but questions remain

In trying to distance himself from a multistate lawsuit that could eliminate insurance protections for people with pre-existing conditions, Florida Gov. Rick Scott said this week he believes health care should be a “right.”

Scott’s statement, which came during a debate against U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, is at odds with other Republican politicians and followed years of Scott fighting against heavy government involvement in providing health care. Even before he launched his first campaign for governor, Scott ran television ads decrying the idea of having a “public option” as part of the federal health care overhaul pushed by then-President Barack Obama.

In the middle of this week’s heated debate in their U.S. Senate race, Nelson sharply criticized Scott for his health-care stances, which have included flipping back and forth on Medicaid expansion, and for Florida joining a lawsuit to overturn the federal Affordable Care Act. If the lawsuit is successful, it could end a part of the law that protects people with pre-existing conditions who seek insurance coverage.

Scott said little at the time the suit was filed but is trying to distance himself from it, saying that Attorney General Pam Bondi initiated Florida’s involvement without his input. He further chided Nelson by reminding him that Bondi was a statewide elected official and added, “So I completely believe, just based on my own family’s background, that you should have a right, whether you have a pre-existing conditions or not, to be able to get health care.”

Scott’s Senate campaign reiterated the statement in press releases sent the night of the debate, saying health care was a right.

But the talking point of health care as a right has been embraced by Democrats this year, not Republicans. And Scott’s comments came just weeks after a GOP gubernatorial primary debate between Ron DeSantis and Adam Putnam where they both denounced the idea that it was a right.

What, exactly, having a right to health care means, though, is different to different people, said Tallahassee attorney Anne Swerlick, who has long worked on health-care policy issues affecting low-income residents.

“People need to get beyond the political rhetoric, they need to get behind those words to know exactly what they mean,” Swerlick said.

Jodi Ray, director of Florida Covering Kids & Families at the University of South Florida, said some people contend universal access to health care already exists because hospitals are required under federal law to treat people with emergency conditions and stabilize them.

But, she said, without health insurance, it would be difficult for people to follow up with orthopedic care. For Ray, a key is that health care must be accessible and affordable. Moreover, it has to be high-quality.

“Health care as an entitlement has to take all those things into account,” said Ray, whose group is the lead “navigator” for Florida and works to ensure that residents have access to health care, whether it’s through the Medicaid program or through access to an Affordable Care Act plan on the federal insurance exchange.

The James Madison Institute is a conservative think tank in Tallahassee that promotes free-market health care solutions. Sal Nuzzo, the institute’s vice president for policy, said for health care to be a right, it means the government either is providing the care or is enforcing that it be provided.

“When a politician says that, any politician comes out and says that, it’s a dog whistle for government involvement,” Nuzzo told The News Service of Florida.

When pressed for what Scott will do to ensure that Floridians have access to health care, campaign spokeswoman Lauren Schenone touted, among other things, Scott’s legislative push for a claims database.

The goal of the database was to lower health-care costs by enabling consumers to “shop” in advance to see what payments hospitals and ambulatory surgical centers accepted for certain health care services, such as having babies.

Scott, a former hospital-company executive championed cost “transparency” and the establishment of the database after hospitals in 2015 supported a proposal to expand Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act. Scott, a fierce critic of the federal law better known as Obamacare, opposed the Medicaid expansion proposal, which died in the Legislature.

But nearly two years after the Legislature authorized such a database, facility-specific information still isn’t available, and some of the state’s largest insurance companies aren’t submitting data as required.

Ensuring access to health care is far different than political theater of proclaiming that health care is a right, said Matt Childers, co-founder of Florida Health Justice Project, a South Florida think tank.

Voters on both side of the political spectrum think Medicaid expansion when they hear right to health care, said Childers, who has doctorate degree in political science.

“It’s ironic he believes it’s a right now that he’s running,” Childers said.

Florida and Georgia renew ‘water wars’

Florida and Georgia have renewed their fight over the impact of Georgia’s water consumption on the Apalachicola River system.

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in late June that Florida be given another chance to prove its case that Georgia’s overconsumption of water is damaging the Apalachicola region, the states filed a joint legal pleading this week before a federal appellate judge who will act as a special master in the case.

Not surprisingly, the two states — which have spent years and millions of dollars litigating the issue — can’t agree “on how this case should proceed,” according to a memorandum filed Tuesday.

Georgia maintains there is enough evidence generated by the proceedings before a prior special master to move forward.

Georgia wants to hold a “summary-judgment-style proceeding,” in which the states would file briefs responding to the questions raised by the Supreme Court when it sent the case back to a special master earlier this year.

“Those briefs would rely on testimony and evidence that is already in the record,” the Georgia lawyers said, citing the five-week trial, 7.2 million pages of documents, reports from 28 experts and 69 depositions that were part of the prior proceeding.

“The existing record refutes Florida’s allegations of harm and fails to provide the clear and convincing evidence necessary to justify the extraordinary remedy of an equitable apportionment (of water). Florida therefore wants a second bite at the apple,” Georgia said in its portion of the memo.

The Supreme Court’s opinion “did not provide a license to re-litigate this entire case, years after the parties have already spent significant time and tens of millions of dollars developing a record,” Georgia’s lawyers argued.

In Florida’s portion of the memo, the state’s lawyers said the existing record is sufficient on a number of issues, including Florida’s contention that Georgia’s overconsumption of water is harming the Apalachicola system.

But Florida said there needs to be more evidence-gathering on key issues, including the role of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates a series of dams in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system. The river system starts in Georgia and flows south to Florida.

“Florida believes that additional evidentiary hearings are unavoidable regarding the timing and extent of additional flows into the Apalachicola that reduced consumption in Georgia would produce,” the state argued.

Among other issues, Florida wants to gather more evidence on the impact of the Corps’ operating guidelines, known as a “master manual,” for the river system. And Florida wants to explore “reasonable modifications” to the Corps’ procedures that could lead to increased water flow in the Apalachicola region.

“For decades, Florida has warned that the river, bay, and entire Apalachicola region are already suffering significant harm and face a still worse, catastrophic and irreversible change in conditions unless something is done to control the run-away growth in upstream water consumption in Georgia, particularly for irrigation along the Flint River in southern Georgia,” Florida argued. “And for decades, Georgia has recognized that truth — but has been unable to muster the political will to do anything about it.”

There are a number of other points of contention between the two states.

Ralph Lancaster, a Maine lawyer who acted as the former special master, rejected Florida’s original plea for relief, which began with a lawsuit filed in 2013.

But his decision was overturned in a 5-4 ruling by the Supreme Court, which said Lancaster “applied too strict a standard” in rejecting Florida’s claim.

Lancaster was replaced in August by Paul J. Kelly Jr., a senior judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, who resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Kelly is a former Republican state legislator and served on the federal appellate panel that upheld the conviction of Timothy McVeigh for his role in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

In the new proceeding, Florida cites a number of “key statements” in Lancaster’s report that the state said bolsters its argument that water caps in Georgia are necessary because of the harm being caused in Florida.

Florida noted Lancaster said “there is little question that Florida has suffered harm from decreased flows in the river,” including an “unprecedented collapse” of the oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay in 2012.

But Georgia, in its portion of the memo, said it “strongly disagrees with the preliminary statements” made by Lancaster, arguing that his assertions are not supported by the record.

Georgia said the evidence showed many of Florida’s claims were “unproven and unsubstantiated.”

Instead, Georgia argued, the evidence showed Georgia’s water usage “is reasonable and equitable, particularly when evaluated against the fact that Georgia is home to the overwhelming weight of population and economic activity” in the river basin.

State investigates sexual abuse by priests

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has launched a statewide probe into sexual abuse by Catholic priests, following a Pennsylvania grand jury report this summer that found more than 1,000 children were molested over decades by hundreds of priests whose wrongdoing was covered up by church leaders.

Bondi, whose office is investigating all seven Catholic dioceses in Florida, said Thursday she launched a tip site “to allow victims and anyone with information about priest abuse to report what they know.”

“Any priest that would exploit a position of power and trust to abuse a child is a disgrace to the church and a threat to society,” she said during a Tampa press conference.

Victims or people with information about past abuse can contact Bondi’s office through a special hotline or submit information on the internet.

“If you call in, please know, we want to help you. We want to counsel you, and we want to get to the bottom of anything that could have happened in our state,” said Bondi, who has made combating human trafficking and protecting victims among her top priorities during eight years in office. “Please share your story with us. Even if you’ve previously reported it to the church, to anyone, report it to us now.”

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is assisting Statewide Prosecutor Nick Cox with the probe, Bondi told reporters.

Bondi said she ordered the Florida statewide inquiry after the August release of the Pennsylvania grand jury’s chilling report of decades of child sexual abuse by priests whose crimes were protected by church leaders.

“When the case about Pennsylvania aired, I couldn’t sleep that night. The next morning I talked to my statewide prosecutor and said, ‘We have to look into this,’ and he wholeheartedly agreed,” said Bondi, adding that she has five lawyers working on the investigation.

The grand jury report revealed that 300 Catholic priests abused more than 1,000 identified child victims, but thousands more may have been affected. Senior church officials, bishops and monsignors “helped cover up priest abuse,” Bondi said.

“The citizens of Pennsylvania played a major role in reporting this by providing investigators vital stories about past abuse and potential coverups. We have reason to believe there are similar stories in Florida. I know it’s painful for you as a survivor to discuss past abuses. But your story will help bring justice to prevent future abuse,” she said.

Bondi, who is leaving office in January due to term limits, said it is too early to know how many Floridians, former residents or visitors may have been molested.

“As far as how widespread this is, frankly we have no idea right now,” she said. “We love the Catholic religion, the Catholic church. We love youth organizations and we love schools. But abuse is abuse.”

The seven Catholic dioceses in Florida “have been in dialogue with the statewide prosecutor and are cooperating with the investigation,” Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops spokeswoman Michele Taylor said in an email.

Several bishops issued statements expressing support for Bondi’s inquiry.

“This has been a very painful period for all Catholics. I hope the outcome of this investigation and other acts of transparency by the dioceses in Florida will bring about greater trust in the Church. Our goals are similar — to ensure the safety of all children and vulnerable adults and to prevent perpetrators of abuse from serving in active ministry,” Bishop Felipe Estévez, who heads the Diocese of St. Augustine, said.

Bishop Gregory Parkes of St. Petersburg said he welcomes the investigation “and want to assure the public that the Diocese of St. Petersburg has been and continues to be proactive in its efforts to keep children safe, which should be a priority for everyone.”

“We denounce all forms of sexual abuse by any person or any institution as a reprehensible crime and believe that perpetrators should be punished to the fullest extent of the law,” Parkes said in a statement.

Bondi said her office is issuing subpoenas and conducting interviews.

“We’re moving very fast, because, again, if this is going on in our state, we want to know and we want to know now,” Bondi said, while assuring victims that information will be kept confidential. “Getting the word out there is what it’s going to take.”

Bondi’s office said tips about past abuse can be reported at MyFloridaLegal.com/StopAbuse.

Tampa Electric pitches proposal to protect employees

Pointing to a need to protect employees, Tampa Electric Co. this week filed a proposal that would allow it to disconnect or refuse service to customers who threaten the utility’s workers.

Tampa Electric is seeking permission from the Florida Public Service Commission to move ahead with the proposal.

“In recent years, Tampa Electric’s field employees have experienced a number of threats, assaults and harassments made by customers,” said the request filed Tuesday. “Tampa Electric’s Corporate Security Department has documented numerous incidents, including verbal threats as well as threats of physical harm or worse.”

Tampa Electric said the Public Service Commission approved a similar proposal for Florida Power & Light in 1996.

“Tampa Electric does not take disconnection of its customers or refusal of service lightly; however, the company believes it must take every precaution to safeguard its employees from threats made by customers,” the filing said. “To assure against unwarranted disconnections, Tampa Electric will take steps to verify that a dangerous condition actually exists. Tampa Electric’s Corporate Security Department will investigate threat incidents and verify whether the actions or threats made by the customer have created a dangerous condition warranting disconnection. Tampa Electric’s head of corporate security will notify the company’s Customer Service Department of valid incidents and will decide whether or not a disconnection notice will be issued to the customer. Disconnecting or refusing service will be considered an extreme event that will follow other efforts first, up to and including law enforcement or security escorts.”

If the proposal is approved by regulators, it would join a series of other circumstances in which service can be disconnected or refused, such as failure to pay bills and tampering with meters.

State adds two Zika cases

With Collier County continuing to have the largest number, Florida is up to at least 74 cases of the mosquito-borne Zika virus this year, according to the state Department of Health website.

The 74 cases had been reported as of Monday and were an increase of two cases from a week earlier. Collier County has had 30 of the cases, followed by Miami-Dade County with 19 cases and Orange County with nine cases. Other counties with reported cases have been Broward, Palm Beach, Lee, Osceola, Hillsborough, Pinellas, Hernando and Walton.

The department website said 72 of the cases are classified as “travel related” — generally meaning people were infected with the virus elsewhere and brought it into the state.

The other two cases were classified as having “undetermined” origin. Both of the “undetermined” cases involved people in Miami-Dade County.

The disease, which caused major concerns in 2016, is particularly dangerous to pregnant women because it can cause severe birth defects.

Judge blocks medical marijuana license process

In what could be another delay for Florida’s burgeoning medical-marijuana industry, a Tallahassee judge agreed Wednesday to block state health officials from moving forward with the application process for highly sought-after medical marijuana licenses.

Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson’s verbal order during a hearing came nearly two months after he found that a state law, passed during a special legislative session last year, runs afoul of a constitutional amendment broadly legalizing medical marijuana.

In August, Dodson ruled that a cap on the number of medical marijuana operators included in the law “directly contradicts” the amendment, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2016.

Dodson also decided that the 2017 law is unconstitutional because it requires marijuana operators licensed by the state to cultivate, process, and dispense medical marijuana — something known as “vertical integration” — as opposed to breaking the activities into separate parts for licensure.

And the judge ruled that the state improperly restricted who could get licenses. The law ordered health officials to grant licenses to operators who were already up and running in Florida or who were involved in litigation as of Jan. 1, 2017. The law also required a license for a black farmer who meets certain conditions and set aside a preference for applicants with certain ties to the citrus industry.

The citrus and black-farmer provisions amounted to what is known as a “special” law, Dodson ruled in August. The judge found the 2017 law restricts rights granted under the Constitution and that plaintiff Florigrown LLC “has a substantial likelihood of success” in its claim that the law conflicts with the amendment.

Despite multiple findings in his August decision that the statute is unconstitutional, Dodson waited until Wednesday to issue the temporary injunction sought by Florigrown, a company that was turned down for a license. Florigrown is partly owned by Tampa strip-club operator Joe Redner, who recently won another ruling against state health officials in a case in which he is seeking to grow his own marijuana to “juice,” something the 77-year-old’s doctors recommend to prevent a recurrence of lung cancer. The state has appealed the ruling in the earlier case.

“It’s good news for me. It’s good news for Florigrown. It’s good news for the patients and the Constitution of the state of Florida,” Redner said in an interview following Wednesday’s hearing.

In August, the judge set a Wednesday deadline for health officials or the Legislature to resolve the deficiencies with the law. Wednesday marked one year after a deadline imposed by the constitutional amendment for health officials to begin issuing identification cards to patients who qualify for medical marijuana.

“Another two months has passed, and I do believe now we’re at the point where Florigrown will suffer irreparable harm absent the entry of a temporary injunction and that, given the public interest that can’t be more clearly stated than the public stated in the medical marijuana amendment, that allowing this process and procedures going through by the department is not in the public interest,” Dodson said Wednesday.

Luke Lirot, a lawyer representing Florigrown, accused health officials of having “ignored this court’s observations … with impunity.”

“It’s quite candidly shocking that the court would issue an order and it would be so robustly ignored by the Department of Health after there was a clear indication that they needed to do something,” he said.

But Dodson appeared to sympathize with the predicament of state health officials, saying they were in an “unusual situation” trying to follow an unconstitutional statute.

In a video recording of an August rules hearing played by Florigrown’s lawyers Wednesday, state Office of Medical Marijuana Use Director Courtney Coppola said she was “following the law” by moving forward with the application process for four new licenses.

“What Miss Coppola was saying was, we’re following the statute, which is what agencies normally are required to do, but the statute is just unconstitutional,” the judge said. “I’m sure the Legislature was trying its best to comply with the Constitution, but they just didn’t do that in this circumstance.”

Dodson said he would issue a written order granting the temporary injunction by Friday and set a Nov. 19 hearing to consider summary judgment in the case.

Health officials said they will review Dodson’s order when it is issued.

“This ruling does not impact the availability of medical marijuana in Florida. Low-THC and medical marijuana has been and continues to be available to the more than 160,000 qualified patients by more than 1,500 qualified physicians through 14 approved medical marijuana treatment centers in 55 locations,” agency spokesman Nick Van Der Linden said in an email.

But Dodson’s ruling “blocks the Florida Department of Health from proceeding forward with the application process for additional medical marijuana treatment center licenses, over the 14 that have already been issued,” Ari Gerstin, a lawyer who represents Florigrown and who participated in Wednesday’s hearing by telephone, told The News Service of Florida.

The process of accepting new license applications is already delayed because of a rule challenge. The health agency is also fending off at least six administrative challenges filed by would-be operators who’ve been turned down for licenses.

After the hearing, Lirot accused state officials of “doing everything they can to deter access to an important medication.”

“I mean, what they’re doing is based to me more on restriction and avarice than it is on compassion, which is what this is all about,” he told The News Service of Florida.

Redner was even more blunt: “They’re like petulant children. They just refuse to do the right thing,” he said.

Rick Scott records lawsuit hearing rescheduled

The 1st District Court of Appeal has rescheduled a hearing that had been slated for next week in a legal dispute about whether Gov. Rick Scott should be required to turn over his calendar to an organization locked in a battle with the state about Medicaid contracts.

The Tallahassee-based court will hear arguments Oct. 15, after initially scheduling them for Oct. 10, according to an online docket.

The change came after a request by an attorney for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which filed a lawsuit seeking to require Scott to turn over his calendar —including information about fundraising events and where the governor will stay at night — to the group.

Circuit Judge Charles Dodson, also sitting in Tallahassee, last month ruled in favor of the group, prompting the Scott administration to appeal.

The group requested the records after the state Agency for Health Care Administration did not renew a five-year Medicaid contract with the foundation’s subsidiary, Positive Healthcare, to provide Medicaid services in Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.

The Scott administration and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement argued that releasing the information could jeopardize the governor’s safety.

Dodson disagreed, noting it “simply is information regarding the governor’s travel schedule.”

Andrew Gillum, Ron DeSantis reel in records amount of matching money

With slightly more than a month to go before the November election, Florida statewide candidates have topped a matching-funds record from the 2010 election.

Bolstered by small-dollar fundraising in the race for Governor, $6.08 million has been sent by the state to candidates this year, according to figures provided Tuesday by the Florida Division of Elections.

A little more than $400,000 was sent out on Friday to five candidates in the Nov. 6 general election.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum’s latest check from the state was for $246,965, and former Congressman Ron DeSantis, the Republican nominee for governor, received a check for $140,037.

In 2010, the state doled out $6.065 million to 10 candidates in the controversial matching-funds program, which voters approved in 1998 with the intention of diminishing the importance of special-interest money.

Some lawmakers continue to push for repealing the program. But the Legislature has not put the issue back before voters since a 2010 effort failed when it only gained 52.5 percent of the vote, short of the required 60 percent for adoption.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, called the program a “gross waste of taxpayer money” in 2017 when he called for the state Constitution Revision Commission to propose a measure to remove public financing from the Constitution.

Even before this year’s Aug. 28 primary, candidates seeking the taxpayer money shot past the 2014 matching-funds total of $4.3 million.

The program matches individual contributions of $250 or less to the campaign accounts of candidates for statewide offices. Candidates do not have to take part in the program.

With the latest check, DeSantis has received $1.37 million from the state.

Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, has landed $1.1 million from the program.

In all, nine statewide candidates this year decided to dip into the fund, though four of those candidates — including gubernatorial candidates Gwen Graham and Adam Putnam — lost their primaries.

The two remaining candidates in the race for Agriculture Commissioner, Republican Matt Caldwell and Democrat Nikki Fried, have not tapped the program. Caldwell, who won his primary with 34.6 percent of the vote, decried the use of the matching-funds program as “campaign welfare.”

In the race for Attorney General, Democrat Sean Shaw got a check for $12,152 on Friday and has received $251,578 from the program. Republican Ashley Moody received $1,580 in matching funds on Friday and has received $384,026 from the state.

In the race for state chief financial officer, incumbent Republican Jimmy Patronis received a check for $840 on Friday. Patronis has received $310,600 through the program. Democratic CFO candidate Jeremy Ring has not taken part in the program.

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Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

State seeks to stamp out marijuana license case

The Florida Department of Health is asking an appeals court to block a lower-court judge from moving forward with a lawsuit in which a Martin County nursery argues it should receive a potentially lucrative medical-marijuana license.

The department went to the 1st District Court of Appeal last week in the dispute, which stems from nursery Edward Miller & Son Inc. being denied a marijuana license — at least in part because the firm missed an application deadline by 27 minutes.

Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Gievers had scheduled a trial to start Oct. 8. But the appeals court issued an order Friday that at least temporarily put the case on hold and gave Edward Miller & Son until Oct. 31 to respond to the state’s arguments that the lawsuit should be scuttled.

Attorneys for the department argued in last week’s petition that the licensing dispute should have gone through a state administrative court, rather than being filed in circuit court. The filing said the department has requested at least three times that Gievers not move forward with the case, but she rejected the department’s arguments, including turning down proposed summary-judgment rulings.

“Circuit courts are to abstain from exercising jurisdiction in matters where administrative remedies must first be exhausted,” the department petition said. “The avenue by which Miller seeks to obtain a license requires exhaustion of administrative remedies. Miller readily admits that it has not exhausted administrative remedies; it simply contends that it does not need to or that such remedies would not afford adequate relief.”

But in a filing last month in circuit court, Edward Miller & Son said it is challenging the department’s “wrongful denial” in 2015 of the application to become a marijuana “dispensing organization.” It also argued that, under a 2017 law, the department is required to grant a license if the nursery wins the lawsuit.

At least in part, Edward Miller & Son contends it was treated differently from other applicants who submitted information after the deadline.

“It is clear that this (Gievers’) court has jurisdiction to hear Miller’s claims and, further, to grant equitable relief based on the department’s improper and unequitable application of its rules as applied to Miller’s initial DO (dispensing organization) application,” last month’s circuit-court filing said.

The case is part of a flood of litigation during the past three years as Florida has started creating what is expected to be one of the largest medical-marijuana markets in the country. The industry started in 2014, when lawmakers approved limited use of non-euphoric cannabis — and exploded after voters in 2016 approved a constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana.

Much of the litigation has centered on firms trying to obtain a restricted number of licenses to grow, process and sell medical marijuana. Firms competed heavily in 2015 for an initial round of licenses with an eye toward an expanding marijuana market in the future.

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Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

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