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Blake Dowling: Senate Bill 772 — Time to help

Blake Dowling and the team at Gretchan Everhart

One of the first columns I ever put together was on assistive technology for those who need it for communication. It was based on a 60 Minutes expose highlighting the power of a tablet to open doors to those who, for most of their lives, have been unable to communicate.

Since then, I have written on the topic several times.

But for that first one, it was about six years ago; I was just married and had been sitting on 30A eating stone crab claws. On the TV, Tebow and the Broncos were pulling a miracle win against the Dolphins.

Dave Hodges, my editor at the time, texted me suddenly; he needed my column that night.

So, I pulled out my iPad and hammered something out.

The color and functionality of the tablet crossed boundaries, offering something truly powerful to a part of our community in need.

I recently reviewed some testimony and information on Senate Bill 772, sponsored by Lorraine Ausley, sent over the weekend — I would love to put it out there so our elected officials can make this bill a reality.

If you have ever spent any time at a school like Gretchen Everhart in North Florida or get to know kids with special needs, you understand how valuable these tools are in their lives.

If you have seen how these tools change lives, you would easily make this effort a reality.

I was emailing James Harding, Instructional Specialist at Florida State University’s College of Business who also serves as the Chair of the Public Policy Committee for the Florida Alliance of Assistive Services Technology (FAAST).

Harding had this to say about the revisions to the legislation: “Technology has been a game changer not only for business but has been vital in tearing down barriers for work, fun, and independence for persons with disabilities.”

This bill is simply a natural extension of existing law; it will empower the next generation to secure their place in an ever-changing world and to ensure that they have tools they need to maintain their independence.

To gain a better understanding of why accessible technology is so important, he urges everyone to watch the recent testimony provided by members of the disabled community using text to speech technology.

The message was profoundly heard.

It is simply good public policy, and we are very grateful the leadership of Ausley and our other elected officials.

Below is some recent testimony from individuals that use assistive technology.

A link to Jennifer‘s testimony: https://youtu.be/ABwQNBrPMs0

A link to Michael Phillips‘ testimony: https://youtu.be/NYaaaLMPKvs

If you made it this far I would like to thank you for reading about this important issue and if you have the ability to do something about it, make it happen because helping others be able to help themselves should always be our top priority.

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Blake Dowling is CEO of Aegis Business Technologies and writes for several organizations. He can be reached at dowlingb@aegisbiztech.com.

Florence Snyder: VISIT clueless tourism officials in Brevard County

If there’s one thing a $113,000 a year Florida tourism executive urgently needs, it’s a $26,000 raise.

Otherwise, says the Brevard County Director Compensation and Job Performance Committee, its Office of Tourism Executive Director Eric Garvey might leave the Space Coast — where the median household income is $48,483 — for greener Florida tourism pastures, where “the average salary for his counterparts” is $154,792.

Last week, the Brevard Tourist Development Council endorsed the committee’s recommendations, which include an added $90,000 to be divided up among nine of Garvey’s “best in class” staffers.

Don’t these people read newspapers?

Florida tourism’s marketing honchos have a target on their backs, fronts and sides, along with incomes that vastly exceed what average Floridians will earn in their best years, or their wildest dreams.

This is a bad week to be bearbaiting legislators and taxpayers who think the tourism czars should pay their publicists out of their own pockets. Garvey’s bosses might want to reVISIT their strategy.

John Couris: Open letter to the community from Jupiter Medical Center

John Couris

This legislative session, a group of lawmakers with a shared free-market philosophy are working to eliminate an important health care planning process called the Certificate of Need (CON) program. They believe by deregulating health care, costs would be reduced and quality would be improved. We disagree.

While we believe our legislators want to do the right thing, eliminating this program is not good for our community or state. It currently requires health care providers to obtain state approval before offering services in Florida. But eliminating CON and deregulating health care could trigger a chain reaction that reduces quality, increases costs and makes it harder to obtain necessary services.

At Jupiter Medical Center, we are passionate about caring for your health and wellness. As a community hospital, we invest in many unprofitable services and heavily subsidize others because they are essential to you, our patients. This includes services like obstetrics, diabetes care and our free clinic. CON helps ensure that we are able to continue to provide these vital services.

It is important that we all understand the facts surrounding this issue. Here’s how eliminating CON could affect you and your family:

Loss of Vital Services — Community hospitals across our state could no longer afford to offer many critical health care services. With no regulation, boutique health care businesses can move in and choose to offer only profitable services, instead of balancing these with the vital services the community needs. That means losing many essential programs you and your family may depend on.

Reduced Quality — It is well-documented that the more times a hospital performs a procedure, the better the outcome. Adding more hospitals spreads out the patient volume, leaving providers performing complex procedures only a handful of times. Think about it — would you rather have neurosurgery in a hospital that performs 100 of these sophisticated procedures a year, or only four?

Higher Costs — While eliminating CON is being touted to create more competition and drive down costs, the opposite is more likely to happen. We compete against other hospitals in our area every day, and that’s a good thing. But delivering health care is not like selling widgets. Bring more widget sellers into a market and sure, prices will go down. But let more health providers come into a market without any oversight or planning to determine the need for more services, and costs will rise.

CON is working in Florida. It’s an effective tool that protects the quality of your care and ensures you have the opportunity to provide your view on whether a new service or facility is actually needed in your community. Under these proposed bills, your voice would be taken away.

You should be concerned about the negative consequences of eliminating CON and the effect it could have on your health care. We encourage you to reach out to your legislators and tell them you do not support Senate Bill 676 and House Bill 7. You can find your representative by visiting

You can find your representative by visiting www.flsenate.gov/Senators/Find or www.myfloridahouse.gov/Sections/Representatives/myrepresentative.aspx.

We also welcome you to contact John Couris, president and CEO, at jcouris@jupitermed.com to share your concerns. Additionally, you can read more about his stance on this issue either through his blog (Inventinghealth.blogspot.com) or by connecting with him on LinkedIn (Linkedin.com/in/jcouris).

With Congress currently working on massive changes to our U.S. health care system, now is not the time for Florida to make wholesale changes to our state regulatory structure. Join us and make your voice heard on this harmful legislation that could critically impact you, your family and our community.

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John Couris is CEO of Jupiter Medical Center. Couris and 15 members of Jupiter Medical Center board of trustees signed the above open letter.

Audrey Brown: Long-term care key to quality of life for Florida Medicaid seniors

Audrey Brown, president and CEO of Florida Association of Health Plans, Inc.

In 2011, the State of Florida elected to move long-term care (LTC) into the Statewide Medicaid Managed Care (SMMC) program, as the escalating costs of providing care at more institutional-style settings, like nursing homes, to an aging baby boomer population was creating a looming health care crisis.

For most families, the decision to move a loved one to a nursing home or institutional setting is difficult and saddening.  Many people would prefer to be at home and not institutionalized, if at all possible; but, until the implementation of the SMMC program, the hope of transitioning out of a facility was dim and the possibility of having the necessary services to keep someone at home was slim.

The fundamental strategy to allow Florida’s health plans to coordinate long-term care for our state’s most vulnerable and frail Medicaid beneficiaries was to enhance care in institutional settings, while simultaneously reducing the reliance on nursing homes by increasing the utilization of appropriate community-based alternatives.

Since its implementation, the program has been successful, as the LTC program now works both in terms of achieving cost savings and expanding meaningful benefits.  First and foremost, this program delivers the right amount and type of care to address individuals’ needs.  Often this appropriate type of care is delivered through more cost-efficient, home-based care services, which not only offers a less-restrictive setting for those eligible, but has also resulted in more than $400 million in cost savings.

Moreover, health plans have been able to leverage their resources to offer expanded benefits, such as support to transition to the community; emergency financial assistance; dental, hearing and vision services; transportation and many more.  These expanded benefits were valued at $9.5 million in 2015 and are financed by the health plans — not taxpayers.  Further demonstrating its success, 77.4 percent of Medicaid LTC recipients recently indicated in a survey that their quality of life has improved as a result of the SMMC LTC program.

Despite these documented successes and high satisfaction rates, some have expressed interest in regressing to the old model, wherein more of Florida’s most vulnerable populations would once again remain in institutional settings, where they are often not better served, with fewer opportunities to transition to more appropriate, less restrictive settings.

The Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) also recently took a look at the impact that regressing to the old fee-for-service model would have on the state and found that the result would be calamitous.  Noting in a bill analysis, AHCA said that this move would result in additional costs amounting to $284 million for FY 2014-2015, $432 million in FY 2015-2016 and an estimated ongoing cost avoidance of $200 million annually.

Further, to demonstrate the real-world benefits Florida’s health plans deliver to patients, including in LTC, the Florida Association of Health Plans, Inc. (FAHP) recently launched a campaign, Florida Patients Matter, which showcases a series of videos focused on health plans’ commitment to being patient-centered.  In one video, a health plan member, Carol, discusses how after being diagnosed with stage four Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, she was successfully transitioned home after being in a nursing home for three and a half years. Carol, now in remission, receives in-home care and assistance with medication, setting up doctor appointments and more from her health plan.

As Florida lawmakers discuss long-term care this session, FAHP urges them to keep the current LTC program in place, as it is truly improving the quality of life for seniors and their families.

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Audrey Brown is president and CEO of Florida Association of Health Plans, Inc.

Joe Henderson: GOP’s only option now on health care could be to work with Democrats

Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives is in a position that must have seemed unthinkable after November’s election mandate. The only way they’re going to make good now on their 7-year crusade to repeal and replace Obamacare is if Democrats help them.

For that to happen, Republicans will have surrender any notion of gutting the current health care law and actually work with the opposition party to craft something that makes people happy on both sides of the political divide. Otherwise, it’s status quo.

If it wasn’t clear before Friday afternoon when the proposed replacement for the Affordable Care Act collapsed, it should be now. This what happens when the party in power can’t reach consensus and gets its butt kicked on a high-profile issue.

Republicans are a house divided on this issue and it won’t be bridged without help from Democrats. Good luck with that, right? Minority leader Nancy Pelosi was smirking and giddy in remarks after Speaker Paul Ryan admitted this was “a setback, no two ways about it.”

President Trump, even with his art of the deal skills, couldn’t convince members of the Freedom Caucus to stop drinking the tea of an all-or-nothing, no-compromise bill. And guess what? That won’t change. The Freedom folk don’t believe in compromise, especially on something like this.

And when polls showed Americans were getting extremely concerned about the proposed bill would to gut benefits they have come to rely upon, Ryan realized he had to make some concessions to keep the public from full revolt.

The problem for him is, the Freedom Caucus doesn’t concede, no matter the political cost. It wanted to get rid of Obamacare taxes and let states run their own Medicaid programs. In some places that could have included requiring work in exchange for Medicaid benefits.

Equally damaging was a widely-held belief that rooms filled with white Republican men were deciding what women’s health care would look like under the new plan.

It was a colossal mess and the plan died an ugly death.

So now what?

Short of allowing Obamacare to continue indefinitely, thus failing to deliver on a central campaign promise to repeal/replace it, Republicans need reach across the aisle. Democrats have to be involved, and that means compromise on multiple issues.

Why?

Because as tough as it might be to negotiate with Democrats on changes to President Obama’s signature achievement, there’s probably a better chance of reaching consensus there between moderate Republicans and the Freedom Caucus.

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland seemed to offer that olive branch to the GOP leadership.

“I hope we can work with the administration and with the other side and not just abandon this effort,” he said, “and not make an effort (going forward) to destroy indirectly what we did not destroy directly today.

“That’s our responsibility as Republicans, as Democrats, sent here by our people to make their lives better.”

It’s an opening if Ryan and GOP leaders are willing to take it. That could be humiliating, but it may be the only move they have left.

Blake Dowling: Legal artificial intelligence

I was meeting with the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce’s Communications Committee; there was some brainstorming about session ideas for the upcoming Chamber Conference.

There were some thoughts thrown out, and quite a few comments were made. Then someone said, “how about automation and artificial intelligence.”

Suddenly, a surge of ideas and thoughts hit the room like a vicious uppercut from Mike Tyson circa 1999. All industries went into the mix: retail, auto, construction, medical and legal.

We are on the crest of a mighty wave of disruption, the likes of which the world has never seen.

That wave, my friends, is called “artificial intelligence.”

We must approach this wave head on like the wise one Jeff Spicoli (of 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High played by Sean Penn) once said, “Well Stu, I’ll tell you, surfing’s not a sport, it’s a way of life, it’s no hobby. It’s a way of looking at that wave and saying, ‘Hey bud, let’s party!’” Indeed.

I was the first (the opening act and least knowledgeable — HA!) of three speakers for a luncheon last month hosted by the Leon County Research and Development Authority; the topic was artificial intelligence.

The most interesting part of the discussion was about the legal world. The speaker dove into AI platforms that actually answer legal questions. The conversation quickly escalated to why not have AI judges, lawmakers and police?

Think about an AI cop pulling someone over. There would be no concern for their own safety, no bias. Same with a judge, no agenda, no individual interpretation of the law. Only the facts. That is unless it was an AI judge from Iran?

Hmmmm.

Lots to ponder here. Let us move into legal AI.

Each day, our world creates about 2,500,000,000,000,000 quintillion bytes of data. This data needs review and analysis. What better way to review data, than have a supercomputer like IBM’s Watson jump on it?

For example, Watson please review every piece of legal information on the web about police use of excessive force (only cases where the suspect was perceived to have a weapon) in the United States to assist with county of Los Angeles v. Mendez. This is happening.

AI research tools like ROSS are changing the game. Firms like Salazar Jackson and Latham & Watkins are on board with ROSS.

Check out their video online, it is very cool, (and see Todd’s tiny shoes)

LawGeex is another AI platform specializing in contract law. According to a CNBC piece earlier this year, CEO Noory Bechor called it “like the beginning of the beginning of the beginning,”

The LawGeex platform, Bechor said, ” it can take a new contract, one that it’s never seen before, read it and then compare it to a database of every similar contract that it’s seen in the past.”

Legal Robot is also a very cool company, promising to ensure fairness, improve transparency and allow signups with confidence. Sounds fantabulous to me.

If you are strolling down Market Street in San Francisco, stop in and say hello to their team.

There is really no way of knowing how far this will go, what massive legislative hurdles await – I am hopeful it will lead an enhancement of the legal community, but who knows.

As Hunter S. Thompson once muttered: “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. This is the American Dream in action. We’d be fools not to ride this strange torpedo all the way to the end.”

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Blake Dowling is CEO of Aegis Business Technologies and writes for several organizations. He is available at dowlingb@aegisbiztech.com.

Darryl Paulson: Do universities discriminate? Promoting ideological diversity, free speech in U.S. universities

In the previous three pieces, I have written about how university hiring policies have led to the virtual exclusion of conservatives on college faculties. We have seen how universities have wrapped students in a protective cocoon to prevent them from hearing speech that might be offensive with the use of speech codes, safe spaces, and micro-aggressions. Finally, we have seen how the academy has abandoned its mission of exposing students to diverse views and it some cases has actually encouraged students to shout down speakers with unpopular views.

Can anything be done to encourage universities to fulfill their mission of fostering diversity in all areas, including ideological diversity? This will not be easy, especially in the age of Trump. Liberal college campuses are more likely to dig in their heels and protect the academy from the evils of Trumpism. The situation will probably grow worse, not better in most campuses.

We need to foster ideological diversity for the same reasons we need racial and gender diversity. Universities should reflect the communities they represent, and this is clearly not the case today.

Former Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell argued in a 1978 case that diversity was essential to a universities mission. The more diverse the faculty and student body, the more robust will be the exchange of ideas.

Yale University law professor Peter Schuck, in his book Diversity in America, contends that faculty have a “higher responsibility to our standards, ourselves and our disciplines that our preferences for ideological homogeneity and faculty-lounge echo chambers betray.”

Echoing that sentiment, John McGinnis of Northwestern Law School writes that “liberal ideas might well be strengthened and made more effective if liberals had to run a more conservative gauntlet among their own colleagues when developing them.”

The growing conservative attack on higher education by state legislators should come as no surprise. Decades of liberal orthodoxy have led conservative legislators to cut university funding and impose more programmatic controls. Why would any group provide financial support to another institution that constantly demeans conservative ideas and values and refuses to hire them on their faculty?

It is in the best interest of universities to improve ideological diversity for two primary reasons: it is the right thing to do, and the university will reap financial benefits.

Approaches to ideological Diversity

Some universities, including Harvard, Penn State, the University of Texas and others have adopted “conservative coming out days.” I am not sure if this means that faculty who have not come out as conservatives should declare their philosophy, or that universities should seek out conservative faculty through affirmative action. Most conservatives would reject an affirmative action approach.

Other universities are showcasing their commitment to ideological diversity by creating a specific faculty line for conservatives. The University of Colorado created an endowed chair in Conservative Thought and Policy.

One or two conservative hires hardly indicates a commitment to a diversified faculty. I am not sure that any faculty member wants to be viewed as the “conservative hire.” Will students and faculty come to his or her office to see what a conservative looks like?

Some conservatives have pushed for the adoption of the Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR) created by conservative activist David Horowitz and his Center for the Study of Popular Culture. The Bill of Rights contains eight provisions relating to faculty recruitment and hiring, free speech, research and campus speakers.

A number of state legislatures have adopted the Academic Bill of Rights over the opposition of the American Association of University Professors, the American Federation of Teachers and several other groups. Critics argue that ABOR “infringes academic freedom in the very act of purporting to protect it.”

Money, or the lack of money, is the lifeblood of a university. Some conservatives have urged alumna should withhold financial support for their university until it supports ideological diversity.

Universities must end their policies of Groupthink which excludes conservative students and faculty from meaningful participation in university life. Speech codes and safe spaces must end, as well as the coddling of easily offended students. Safe places do not foster education, but create an unreal scenario of what students will face in the real world.

Too often, universities have smothered free speech rather than fostering it. When students demand safe places, they often mean I disagree with your ideas, so shut up!

Too often, universities have become home to Orwellian offices such as the Office for Diversity and Inclusion. That is fine for groups and ideas that have the universities seal of approval, but it often means the “not welcome” sign is posted for unpopular and undesirable groups.

The election of Donald Trump has led to a surge in the sale of George Orwell’s 1984. New print runs have occurred to keep up with the growing demand for the book. I would just remind readers that Orwell’s book was not directed at any specific individual or philosophy, but at authoritarianism in all of its forms.

The clash of ideas is the real mission of a university. How can the clash of ideas be heard if not all of the parties are allowed to express their views? How can universities promote diversity in race, gender and sexual orientation, but neglect ideological diversity?

Ideological diversity will benefit the university intellectually, as well as financially. We must end the ideological homogeneity that dominates higher education and put an end to what Orwell called “smelly little orthodoxies.”

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Darryl Paulson is Professor Emeritus of Government at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg.

Joe Henderson: Gus Bilirakis keeps up fight to get medical drugs to market faster, easier

Anyone facing a dreaded disease themselves or watching a loved one go through it knows the frustration of seeking treatment. They want to know the system is on their side, but often it seems rigged against them.

I think it’s safe to conclude U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, who represents Florida’s 12th District, is on their side. He has been a champion for increasing medical options.

In 2014, along with Democrat Kathy Castor, he was part of the congressional bipartisan 21st Century Cures initiative that sought to speed up the process for getting new life-saving drugs to market.

And while all the focus has been on the fate of the Affordable Care Act, Bilirakis took the opportunity of a hearing about the over-abundance of regulations at the Food and Drug Administration to push for a measure that would provide incentives for drug companies to develop treatments for rare diseases affecting a small portion of the population.

It’s called the Open Act.

“Today, it takes 10 to 12 to even 15 years and upwards of $2 billion to move a drug or biological product from a good idea to an approved product,” Kay Holcombe, Senior Vice President, Science Policy, Biotechnology Innovation Organization, said in a statement to the committee.

“During that lengthy period, unmet medical needs remain unmet and patients wait.”

And patients die.

Bilirakis asked, “There are about 500 approved rare disease drugs, but 7,000 rare diseases affecting some 30 million Americans.  They’re taking medication off-label, not knowing if their drugs are safe and effective for their conditions, or if it’s the proper dosage, and fighting with their insurance companies on coverage of their medications.

“Does it make sense to incentivize development for a targeted population when there are clearly defined needs?”

Holcombe answered simply: “Yes.”

Bilirakis has long argued that the lengthy development requirements hurt patient care and increase costs.

“This isn’t political at all,” Bilirakis told me during an interview about the 21st Century Cures initiative. “I want to take the politics out of it.”

Well, this is Washington, where politics is the milk on morning cereal. Diseases aren’t political, though, and there has to be a way to make it easier to develop these treatments and get them to market at prices people can afford. At least Bilirakis is trying.

Rape kits delayed is justice denied, Part 3

Robert Sheridan Haar

In a few weeks or months, we will learn the name of the Volusia County woman who, in 1997, had the bad fortune to encounter one Robert Sheridan Haar.

Relying upon DNA evidence, police say Haar, 22 at the time, and two of his yet-unidentified predator pals abducted and gang raped her near Mud Lake in Daytona Beach.  She was 14 years old.

To her attackers, she was just a piece of meat, a nameless target of opportunity. Today, Haar sits in a Wisconsin jail, awaiting the paperwork necessary to bring him back to Volusia County, thanks to what turned up in the 20-year-old rape kit of a nameless, helpless victim whose attackers figured they’d never see again.

Haar and two sidekicks allegedly told the teenager she would be killed if she screamed or resisted. The trio dumped her in Port Orange the next morning, when they were done with her.

She’s not done with them. “Obviously, she was very emotional, she did recall the incident very well although it had been 20 years,” Volusia County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Pat Thoman said in a news conference.  “She was definitely willing to pursue the case.”

Haar had managed to keep his DNA out of a law enforcement database until 2016, which is, coincidentally, the first time that the 19-year-old rape kit for this victim was submitted for testing.

Haar’s arrest comes as a reminder that he’s not the only person who might be decades overdue to face a grown woman with a prosecutor at her side and account for himself to the terrified child she used to be.

We can’t be reminded too often.

Florida’s public officials love to talk tough on crime, but they won’t cough up the chump change it would take to clear the backlog of rape kits gathering dust as perps remain free to gather new victims. The number of untested rape kits now stands, roughly, at 6444.

It’s an embarrassment. It’s a disgrace.

Joe Henderson: Time for wall between whiskey & Wheaties to crumble

It’s not surprising that the so-called “whiskey and Wheaties” bill that cleared a Florida House committee Wednesday did so by a bare 15-13 margin.

Any measure that makes it easier to buy booze will mobilize people on both sides. This bill is basically equivalent to one in the Senate, which would knock down the legislative wall that requires retailers to sell hard liquor in a separate store.

That’s how you get booze stores attached to places like Publix, Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club. It always seemed silly to me. Given that you can already buy beer and wine in retail groceries, making them go next door to bring home a bottle of gin seems antiquated at best.

The primary argument that allowing so-called big box stores like Sam’s and Target to openly sell booze would put small retailers out of business is not a good enough reason to keep things the way they are.

Jim Rosica of FloridaPolitics.com quoted state Rep. Tom Goodson, a Rockledge Republican, saying the small stores already compete with the big players; the competition just happens at another location.

That’s an inconvenient truth opponents of this measure have to face. In the interest of full disclosure, it has been my experience that dropping into a neighborhood liquor store to stock up for the weekend is going to be considerably more expensive than one of the bigger places. Fewer choices, too.

This is another one of those probation-era laws that are falling by the wayside. People of a certain age can remember a time in Hillsborough County where you stocked up by midnight Saturday because you couldn’t buy beer or wine on Sunday.

Trust me on this: You didn’t want to be caught with nothing in the fridge on a Sunday afternoon to soothe the pain of watching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in those days. That didn’t apply to fans only.

I remember being in their locker room after a loss back then and listening to defensive coordinator Abe Gibron repeatedly ask a flunky with increasing volume, “Did you get the beer? The beer? Did you get the beer? THE BEER!”

Fortunately, I think Abe was able to shake off that day’s loss with some cold ones. If the messenger had given him bad news, Abe would have found a way around it. A flunky would have been driving to Pasco.

People will always find a way around these things, but they shouldn’t have to. There is a battle cry in Tallahassee these days against picking winners and losers. That’s what this bill seeks to address.

It’s time.

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