Guest Author - 2/16 - SaintPetersBlog

Guest Author

Christian Ulvert: A presidency remembered for tearing down walls of injustice

As I traveled back from Thailand to the United States earlier this month, I watched “Southside With You” and was once again in awe on the deep-rooted bond between our now former President, Barack Obama and first lady, Michelle Obama. The movie also depicts the devoted love President Obama has for his community and his sense of urgency to move strategically on solving problems.

The movie was as a reminder of why so many of us feel a deep connection to this president. I never worked on his campaigns, but was moved to volunteer often. Every one has a personal story on how President Obama has marked their life in a positive way. In Miami-Dade, you hear stories of families reunited with their Cuban relatives, residents who have insurance because of the Affordable Care Act, Dreamers who feel their government is on their side and couples like Carlos and I who were able to marry because this President believed in us.

You see, this President looked to his heart every day to find ways to make this country better and stronger. President Obama governed with a bold agenda that was guided by his belief that government should tear down the injustices in our country that held back so many from achieving their full potential.

In many ways, my ability to live by our nation’s credo, “in the pursuit of happiness,” was fully realized when President Obama declared that marriage equality was going to be his fight and one that he was not going to back down from, regardless of who stood in his way. I am able to live a life full of love, joy and complete happiness because our government didn’t stop me from marrying the person I love.

Like so many, I have watched the final days of President Obama’s presidency with hope and sadness. He encourages us to remain hopeful while our hearts weep because we know he accomplished so much and stayed true to his campaign motto of Hope and Change. We don’t know what President Donald Trump’s administration will bring to our nation, but I have to believe in President Obama’s words that our nation will be OK.

For me, one thing is certain, President Obama has shifted my view on how to stay engaged. On this Jan. 20, I will reflect on President Obama’s legacy and use it as a call to action. Let us live by the hope to fight injustices, the will to change them and the freedom to marry the one you love.

 ___

Christian Ulvert is a Florida Democratic political and public affairs consultant based in Miami.

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Steve McFarlin: St. Pete Beach pays, but ‘rampant litigation’ far from over

Steve McFarlin

The City of St. Pete Beach recently paid nearly $500,000 to settle one of many lawsuits brought by Ken Weiss and Tim Weber in their quest to halt development on the barrier island. City officials believed the payout would finally help put an end to the rampant litigation that has plagued St. Pete Beach for nearly a decade.

There’s one problem – even after the payment, the lawsuit is far from settled.

The city’s attorney did not obtain a judge’s final settlement order, creating a loophole that Weiss and Weber are now exploiting to continue their costly crusade. This is the latest volley in a battle that has involved more than a dozen lawsuits; consumed more than $2 million in taxpayer money, and has prevented the city from implementing its voter-approved comprehensive land use plan.

Empowered and, ironically, financed by St. Pete Beach taxpayers, Weiss and Weber have taken their anti-growth battle to Treasure Island and Madeira Beach, mounting similar legal attacks against those cities’ comprehensive plans in more attempts to stop development.

The recent victory in Madeira Beach exemplifies the approach needed to prevail against these unending attacks. Judge Thomas Minkoff found that the city properly passed ordinances that paved the way for the multimillion Town Center project. The city of Madeira Beach now has won two of four lawsuits brought by Weiss and his group.

I’ve been proud to call St. Pete Beach home for more than two decades and was honored to serve as Mayor from 2011-2014.

Amid the legal maneuvering spread over the tenures of five St. Pete Beach mayors and more than a dozen commissioners, the underlying problem is simple: St. Pete Beach is built out. Allowing business owners, most of them locals, to redevelop their properties would bring much-needed revenue to city coffers and sustain our position as a tourist destination.

As city leaders, we came up with a comprehensive land use plan that was a compromise for both sides, limiting new development to 12 stories of height in an area already occupied by large hotels.

Weiss and his group failed to convince voters to reject the plan in 2008. Soon after it was approved, their legal challenges began. The city stood its ground, and we eventually prevailed in 2011 and reapproved the plan. But the litigation didn’t stop.

The lawsuit related to the $500,000 settlement was undertaken in another effort to disrupt the city’s land use planning. The lawsuit alleged that the city violated the Sunshine Law by discussing Weiss’ ongoing legal challenges to the comprehensive plan in closed-door meetings. The city, and its attorney at the time, Bryant Miller Olive, believed the city was correct in doing so because case law at the time supported holding “shade” meetings that involved strategic discussions with counsel about legal issues.

In 2012, a trial judge agreed and ruled in the city’s favor, but Weiss and Weber appealed and won at the appellate level. In a case that more narrowly defined how a strategy session held under the Sunshine Law is interpreted, an appellate court in 2014 said the city should have had parts of its discussions in a public forum.

The city decided not to appeal – and has been approaching other battles with Weiss with the same reluctance. Commissioners and the city attorney believed they could reason with Weiss, a tack that they hopefully now realize was a mistake given he has continued a lawsuit he was paid to “settle.”

Meanwhile, the city is suing its former attorneys at Bryant Miller Olive over advice provided in the case about the Sunshine Law – advice based on case law at the time. The shade meetings were needed in order for us to develop a cost-effective strategy with our counsel to deal with the wide-ranging legal attacks on the city’s comprehensive planning process.

The frustrating thing for me is that this legal harassment is undermining the democratic process and holding up implementation of a comprehensive plan that establishes reasonable parameters for growth. Instead of moving forward, the city is being held hostage by lawyers using the courtroom to accomplish their own personal objectives.

With city elections coming in March, voters need to elect candidates who will stand up to this small but disruptive anti-growth contingent.

Well-intended negotiations have proven to be a failed strategy. The leaders of our beach cities must have the fortitude to fight this form of legal harassment, as demonstrated by Madeira Beach.

___

Steve McFarlin, a local businessman, is a longtime resident of St. Pete Beach and served as its mayor from 2011-2014.

 

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J.P. Sasser: Environmental activists rewriting history, fraudulently manipulating data to sell land plan

J.P. Sasser

It’s incredible how foggy some people’s memories are when it comes to past efforts to restore the Everglades, buy farmland and build a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee.

Time and again, environmental extremists are quick to blame the sugar industry for every ill in the region, past, present and future, without any regard to science or the truth.

And speaking of the truth and science, recently, they were caught by the South Florida Water Management District manipulating data to show a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee is preferable to one to the north. The real science shows it is not.

For starters, no one is arguing that the discharges do not create problems for coastal communities due to the infusion of fresh water (up to 80 percent of which is later filled with nutrients in the local basins) to the estuaries.

The simplest way to capture and clean this excess water is to put it in a reservoir where it originates: north of the lake. This is the thinking behind the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) that — combined with the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP) — is scientifically designed to reduce the discharges plaguing the area.

No part of CERP or CEPP calls for buying additional land. The land for a southern reservoir was already purchased before both plans were developed.

Would-be land grabbers label the sugar industry as an opponent of storage south of Lake Okeechobee, but it was the sugar industry that gave up 120,000 acres of farmland over the last 20 years for Stormwater Treatement Areas (STAs), flow equalization basins (FEBs) and other projects.

The first of two reservoirs, the A1, has already been constructed. Additional reservoir construction was halted not by the sugar industry, but by environmental special interests, including the Everglades Trust. Following a ruling in 2010 by U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno forcing the completion of the reservoir, Everglades Foundation attorney Thom Rumberger wrote this in his opposition to the reservoir: “The reservoir is unnecessary and expensive … It is our opinion and that of the scientists … that it’s more advantageous to have the property.”

The gamesmanship involved in the construction of this reservoir shows that the motives of the groups funded by Paul Tudor Jones II, including the Everglades Foundation, Sierra Club and Audubon Florida, are less about fixing water quality problems and more about taking land from sugar farmers. Because buying land is their answer to everything.

Want to solve local water quality problems in communities 60 miles north of the Glades? Buy the land. Want to stop red tide? Buy the land. Want to fix Florida Bay? Buy the land.

All of these claims are made without science or any regard for the people living in these communities.

Clearly, the people of the Glades communities have done their part. In addition to cleaning water every year by an average of 55 percent, they gave up 60,000 acres of the Talisman sugar-cane property in 1999, which shut down at least one sugar cane processing mill. They’ve also spent more than $250 million through an agricultural privilege tax and another $200 million or so that is a combination of the $5 per acre to fund research on BMPs and restoration efforts and the estimated cost of performing on-farm BMP. All of this despite the fact that the communities north of Lake Okeechobee are contributing more than 95 percent of the nutrient load and water flows to the lake. What have these communities given us other than dirty water and the headache of calling for the purchase of our land?

The Glades communities are more united against current proposals in the Legislature to buy their land than at any point in recent memory. Predictably, environmental groups such as the Everglades Trust are rallying behind this plan as if it’s Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Floridians should be skeptical of this plan for a variety of reasons. Why is more land needed when plenty of land has already been taken? Recent revelations about the Everglades Foundation’s fraudulent manipulation of the modeling used to calculate their reservoir is another cause for concern.

The Everglades Foundation’s fraud was called into question by a South Florida Water Management District scientist in a recent journal article where they were peddling more lies.

The sales job involved in pushing this misguided policy tells you everything you need to know: It stinks to high hell. When the history of Everglades restoration and Lake Okeechobee has to be rewritten, and numbers have to be made up to sell it, it’s clear those pushing for it are becoming more and more desperate by the day.

___

J.P. Sasser is the former mayor of Pahokee, Florida.

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Steve Bahmer: Nursing home care in Florida has come a long way in the last 30 years

Steve Bahmer

Since the early 1980s, when the state Agency for Health Care Administration conducted its last major overhaul of the Medicaid payment system for nursing homes, the quality of care in Florida nursing homes has vastly improved.

Although there are still exceptions, Florida is no longer home to the flood of nursing home horror stories that Sunshine State residents heard so frequently, and from so many homes, in the early ‘80s.

Improved regulatory oversight at AHCA and a payment system that rewarded nursing homes for providing high-quality care, among other factors, combined to slowly move Florida into the top tier of states in terms of nursing home quality.

In 2014, the organization Families for Better Care gave Florida nursing homes an ‘A’ grade, one of only 10 states to receive that grade, and it rated Florida fifth overall in the country in terms of care quality. In its 2015 rankings of the nation’s best nursing homes, US News & World Report listed Florida behind only California and Ohio for the number of 5-Star nursing homes in the state.

This may all be about to change.

Earlier this month, AHCA submitted a plan to the Governor and the Legislature for a new approach to nursing home Medicaid payments. The plan was intended to establish an equitable payment system that includes incentives for high-quality care, that simplifies the payment process, and that ultimately controls costs and makes legislators’ budgeting for Medicaid spending on nursing homes more predictable.

What the plan will actually do is penalize the nursing homes that for the last three decades have invested in delivering the highest quality of care possible, while rewarding homes that have remained at the bottom of the quality barrel.

Under AHCA’s proposal, 143 nursing homes that are rated as 4 or 5-star homes would lose significant funding. Meanwhile, 86 nursing homes that received a 1 or 2-star rating would receive additional funding. In fact, a single nursing home chain would reap $16.5 million of that unearned windfall.

Clearly, this is neither equitable nor fair. Moreover, the proposal does nothing to control Medicaid spending on long-term care, or even to make budgeting meaningfully more predictable. The Legislature decides when to fund a rate increase for nursing homes, something it has not done since 2011, and the current payment system includes caps and limits on payments.

Quality care costs money, and those costs are largely driven by staffing levels – the number of nurses and nursing assistants who are available at any given time to care for a frail senior in a nursing home. The best way to ensure that nursing home residents receive quick, consistent, quality care is to ensure a sufficient number of skilled, caring, long-tenured staff to provide that care.

Under the AHCA proposal, however, nursing homes with the highest staffing levels would lose funding, while those with the lowest staffing would gain dollars.

Nursing home care is not improved, or even sustained, by stripping funding from those that have invested in delivering high quality and shifting it to those that, for whatever reason, have not chosen to make that investment. Despite claims in earlier news reports, the plan does not require that the low performers spend any of their new money on care, nor is there any mechanism in the plan to ensure that quality improves.

AHCA’s proposal is not likely to achieve any of the agency’s stated goals.

It is likely, however, to reverse 30 years of progress in improving quality in the homes that care for Florida’s most vulnerable seniors, and the Legislature simply must reject it.

___

Steve Bahmer is president and CEO of LeadingAge Florida, a nonprofit organization that advocates for quality senior care and services.

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Claudia Rodriguez: Motorola Solutions salutes Florida first responders

This week, Floridians are taking pause to recognize and thank the men and women who protect us as we celebrate First Responder Appreciation Week. First responders make countless sacrifices and put their lives on the line every day to keep our communities safe. Motorola Solutions Florida employees salute them for their endless support to those in need each day and during times of crisis.

At the same time, our hearts go out to the families and friends of Master Sgt. Debra Clayton of the Orlando Police Department, and Deputy First Class Norman Lewis of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, who were killed in the line of duty this week.

Our thoughts and prayers are also with the families that were impacted by the shooting last week at Fort Lauderdale International Airport. Our hearts go out to the victims and their loved ones. We are thankful that through the cooperation of first responders across city, county and state agencies, many lives were protected during this time of tragedy and chaos.

Police officers, firefighters and emergency medical personnel have gone above and beyond not only to educate the public about safety risks but also to protect us from harm during several major emergencies over the past year, including Hurricane Hermine. We thank first responders for their actions during the state of emergency declared by Gov. Scott for this hurricane. With their hard work, lives were protected and communities were able to recover quickly.

Not a day goes by when we don’t hear about the bravery of one of Florida’s 125,000 first responders across the Sunshine State. There are not enough thanks we can give our men and women who risk their lives on a daily basis to keep us safe.

 ___

Claudia Rodriguez is a corporate vice president of Motorola Solutions in Plantation.

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Kevin Hernandez: Donald Trump’s dream team for economic success

The American public has long been yearning for a drastic change to the status quo.

Sadly, the past eight years have brought onto us sluggish economic growth, a wave of overregulation that drastically hurts the viability of our small businesses and, overall, an out-of-touch administration. It’s no surprise that Americans are fed up, and this year’s election proved that.

What has been needed, now more than ever, is for someone to shake up D.C. and repair an inefficient and inflated federal government.

With Republicans retaining the majority of both chambers of Congress, and a Republican president in the White House, it’s now time though to put rhetoric aside and demonstrate that there’s truly “A Better Way” for Washington to govern.

The burdens inflicted upon our nation’s entrepreneurs by an administration infatuated with bigger government, more taxation and overregulation can no longer be dismissed. After all, it’s those same entrepreneurs who are risking their own capital and, most importantly, creating roughly two-thirds of all U.S. jobs.

Thankfully, President-elect Donald Trump’s business acumen and pro-growth agenda has already translated into the outstanding selection of three key members who will serve on his Cabinet. It’s important to also note that these officials will be critically important in complementing the efforts of Speaker Paul Ryan’s Better Way agenda, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady’s efforts on tax reform and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling’s efforts to roll back the Dodd-Frank Act.

Those key players of Donald Trump’s triangle offense for economic growth and small-business success are:

Steven Mnuchin, secretary, Department of the Treasury

With almost 20 years of experience working as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, Mnuchin will bring a wealth of knowledge regarding economic and financial issues. Mnuchin also brings a particularly keen understanding of the importance of lending and access to capital, which entrepreneurs and business groups alike unequivocally prioritize as a key issue.

Working in lockstep with Hensarling and the president-elect’s pick for the Commerce Department, Wilbur Ross, Mnuchin will play a pivotal role in the rolling back of Dodd-Frank, which has negatively affected small and medium-sized business, along with our vitally important community and regional banks throughout the country. These banks have felt the squeeze caused by the vastly complex web of one-size-fits-all regulations intended for large banks, and have thus been unable to provide the access to capital desperately needed by entrepreneurs.

Addressing Dodd-Frank and reforming our tax code are two of Mnuchin’s immediate priorities that will alleviate some of the burdensome effects of overregulation.

Wilbur Ross, secretary, Department of Commerce

At 79, Ross, a billionaire investor, never imagined he would find himself reporting to someone. That quickly changed when asked to serve his country as the secretary of Commerce under President-elect Trump’s leadership, which he humbly accepted.

Ross will be responsible for working with businesses to promote job creation and economic growth.

His experience and success in turning around failing firms is unparalleled, and so is his approach to addressing these challenging investments. In a 2008 interview with NPR, Ross explained his hands-on approach to reviving a failing steel company by saying, “we got an enormous amount of good ideas from the blue collar workers. That fellow who has been standing behind a machine for 10 years, who knows it better than the people who built it, really knows what to do.”

That very approach that Wilbur Ross has had throughout his career and will soon bring to the Department of Commerce is illustrative of not only the refreshing leadership he will bring to the agency but also of the overall theme and direction of Trump’s wishes as incoming commander in chief.

Ross told CNBC that two of his priorities will be trade reform and increasing U.S. exports abroad.

Small and medium-sized business stand to greatly benefit from trade reform and an increase in exporting as they make up 98 percent of all U.S. companies involved in exporting.

Linda McMahon, administrator, Small Business Administration

McMahon is the underrated Cabinet pick in my opinion. A phenomenal addition to Trump’s team, McMahon will without a doubt bring the necessary experience, mindset and skills to unleash the potential of our country’s small business community, while effectively serving as the leading voice for small business and entrepreneurship.

As the co-founder of World Wrestling Entertainment Inc., McMahon certainly experienced the ups and downs of entrepreneurship. Scaling a company of 13 employees to a now public traded global enterprise with over 800 employees worldwide didn’t happen overnight. Rather, she cut her teeth as one of the country’s top female CEOs by resurrecting a once failing business from its ashes and turning into the global brand that it is today.

Already an advocate for female entrepreneurs with Women’s Leadership Live, an organization she co-founded, there is no doubt Linda McMahon will ensure women, along with minority entrepreneurs, are a top priority in the Trump administration.

The agency she will soon be taking over has a budget of over $10 billion and a loan portfolio of roughly $125 billion. In 2015, the SBA approved over 70,000 government-backed private-sector loans to small business throughout the country. McMahon will without a doubt be the champion we need on behalf of the American entrepreneur.

Our sluggish recovery from the 2008 recession and 2.1 percent average growth between 2010 and 2015 should serve as a lesson that big government policies and overregulation of industries don’t work. It’s time we listen to our small business community’s needs if we want them to continue being the driving force of our economic engine, and President-elect Trump has done just that by nominating Steven Mnuchin, Wilbur Ross and Linda McMahon.

It’s going to be a great four years for economic growth and small businesses.

___

Kevin Hernandez is director of Government Affairs and Policy at the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He is also a fellow with the James Madison Institute, Florida’s premier free-market think tank.

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Blake Dowling: Tech, food and disruption: Hotels on the front lines of innovation

Like Ryan Lochte at a Rio gas station – 2017 is on.

We are 100 percent set for takeoff. Engines are roaring and what should we expect from technology in this grand year? There are three things you can always count on, breaches, innovation and disruption.

Let’s dive into innovation, shall we? (More swimming puns, ha!)

The hotel industry is usually on the front lines of innovation. The W in DC encourages you to use your smartphone as your room key, the Grand Bohemian in Orlando texts you about all things in regards to your stay. The Epicurean in Tampa takes it to the next level. We wheeled in around 6 p.m. and the young man who took our luggage took us to what I thought was the front desk; it was a wine station.

This development was greeted with genuine appreciation from Mrs. Dowling and me as we just got out of evening traffic.

So, pinot noir in hand, I followed the hotel staff member onto the elevator. He told us all about the property and after exiting the elevator, we went straight to room 333.

He produced a tablet from somewhere and zing, mobile check-in; giving us our keys from the comfort of our room. Innovative and awesome. No lines, no hassle, no delay. If lodging is needed on our next visit to Tampa, The Epicurean is the spot.

We had to be at our Outback Bowl tailgate early the next morning for breakfast Budweisers (don’t buy aluminum bottles) and Chicken and Waffles (courtesy of Chef Iverson), but upon our return to the property later in the day we noticed some other innovative twists.

The Epicurean Theater on the ground floor offered guests actual cooking classes with a room looking like a Food Network set, with theater-style seating for attendees.

What a unique experience to dive into the foodie world.

Speaking of culinary delights, the hotel was literally built around food, as Bern’s Steakhouse is across the street. The goal was to provide out of town dining guests a genuinely overnight dining experience. Bern’s offers cut-to-order steaks (in a class of their own), and they have the largest privately held wine collection in the world.

I checked into a property a few days after the recent presidential election and within the mirror in the bathroom was a small, built-in flat-screen TV.

So, you can watch CNBC, Fox News, CNN or Sanford and Son while getting dressed. I must have this for the house very soon. Too cool.

As you travel around the great state of Florida and visit wonderful properties like the Vinoy in St. Pete, Hotel Duval in Tallahassee, the above-mentioned Epicurean, or the Grand Bohemian (check out the art there), make sure you are enjoying the technology at your disposal; it will only enhance your experience.

Happy New Year!

___

Blake Dowling the CEO at Aegis Business Technologies in Tallahassee and he writes columns for several organizations. You can contact him here: dowlingb@aegisbiztech.com.

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Blake Dowling: Hacking, weaponized artificial intelligence, ransomware and other fun just for you

Breaches, hacking, ransomware, cyber threats, weaponized AI, smart toothbrushes are but a few examples of scary tech out there to make your day less than fantastic.

Weapons systems that think on its own are in production, with governments racing to catch up on how to regulate these fast-paced advancements.

Police and military already use drones and robots to eliminate threats, but (as far as we know) it’s hardware controlled by humans.

For example, in the Republic of Texas, police this year loaded a robot with explosives and — in true Lone Star State fashion — blew a sniper from whence he came. Who knows how many lives this effort saved?

That robot was controlled by a human. What happens when the robot can think on its own?

Maybe it decides it does not identify with being a robot, turning off the explosives?

Even if governments of the world (minus North Korea, Yemen, California, and Russia) enacted bans on this type of tech, what would stop rogue nations from creating their own? What vicious circle will we see here?

If such rouge nations start deploying them, we might have to implement them ourselves as a countermeasure.

Around and around we go. Scary stuff.

Maybe Stephen Hawking knew the 411 when, back in 2014, he said: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

Moving on to ransomware.

The first CryptoLocker threat was devious. Click on a fake UPS or American Express site, and your files are encrypted. The originator of the threat then offers you the encryption keys — if you pay a ransom.

Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.

The latest version of ransomware, however, moves from devious to “Emperor Palpatine” mode. This one is called Popcorn Time.

Popcorn Time follows the same pattern as CryptoLocker, but with a twist.

In a true Dark Side manner, Popcorn Time creators also want to recruit you to become a loyal member of their version of the Sith. Once your files are encrypted, they ask you to pay the ransom or send a link containing the same virus to two people that you know.

If those people download the virus, they will give you the keys to unlock your files.

Whoa.

Talk about playing on people’s dark side (the trail of puns just keeps coming).

Security is only as good as the weakest link in the chain; generally, users have weak chains (who hasn’t come across a phishing email ever?). Ransomware is resolved relatively quickly, by relying on data backups.

It should go without saying, although you may be shocked by how many people fail at this.

Backups should also be redundant, copies of anything important both in the cloud (though a lot of malware can look for any drive associated with your computer, even Google Drive) and burned to a disc (surefire method).

Or you can go BC and chisel it into rock tablets in cuneiform (Moses knew what he was doing).

Cyber threats are out there, and if backed by a nation state with almost unlimited resources (like Russia), they will get you. Just ask former DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

It’s like hitting the town with Johnny Manziel — sooner or later, the cops are going to get involved.

As mentioned above, backups are essential. Make sure they are redundant, keep passwords long and complicated (like a letter from the IRS); use two-factor authentication with financial institutions, and don’t send anything in an email you don’t want people to see.

Also, keep your anti-virus and anti-spam solutions up to date; have an enterprise-level firewall deployed at your office. We set ours (and our clients) to block any traffic not coming from the U.S. This is a great front line of security as so many cyber threats originate in Africa, Russia, China, etc.

Be safe out there, and Happy New Year!

___

Blake Dowling is CEO at Aegis Business Technologies. His technology column is published monthly. Contact him at dowlingb@aegisbiztech.com or at www.aegisbiztech.com.

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Dennis Ross: Responsible solutions to repaying student loans

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently published a report stating that federally issued Direct Student Loans placed in Income-Driven Repayment (IDR) plans will cost the government $74 billion, which is higher than previously estimated.

According to the GAO, as of June of this year, 5.3 million student loan borrowers are repaying their loans in IDR plans. This means 5.3 million borrowers are repaying their loans with smaller monthly payments, thereby extending the time in which they will actually repay the entirety of these loans. All the while, loan interest continues to accrue, holding borrowers underwater even longer. Couple this with the usage of Public Service Loan Forgiveness, and other forgiveness programs, it is clear the federal government, and the taxpayers backing these loans, will never see the money it has lent.

I believe all who desire to obtain an education should have the opportunity to do so. Education, particularly higher education, has the ability to raise individuals and families from less than desirable situations in life and open the door to greater opportunities. Education prepares us for much more than just work. It gives us the ability to better contribute to our families and society, and enables us to more effectively help others and ourselves.

Loans are, indeed, an important component in helping students obtain an affordable education. Unfortunately, most students today are saddled with extraordinary debt and have entered one of the weakest economic recoveries in history. Such a dangerous combination limits students’ ability to start paying back their taxpayer-backed loans after graduation. This is a serious problem we cannot continue to ignore.

Throughout the past 25 years, the cost of attending college has quadrupled. About 60 percent of students take out loans to finance their education, and more than half borrow over $10,000. In fact, more than 43 million Americans owe nearly $1.3 trillion in student loans, with a repayment delinquency rate of 11.6 percent. That is more than $150 billion in student loan delinquency, not including interest.

As the cost of a college education continues to rise, student loan borrowing will continue to take place. Something must be done to incentivize and enable borrows to pay off their loans and lessen the burden on the government.

In order to do just that, I introduced the Student Loan Repayment Act of 2016. This bill adds employees with student loans as a qualifying population to the Work Opportunity Tax Credit. In order to receive this credit, the employee must be an individual with an associate degree or higher and have at least $10,000 in student loan debt.

Additionally, the Act allows for a $1,500 tax credit to employers who implement a repayment match program for their employees. This tax credit is available for each program enrollment by an employee and is spread over three years. In order to receive this credit, employers must meet a minimum qualifying match contribution of $2,000 per year.

Lastly, this bill states the match program contributions made by the employer are considered income to the employee. Therefore, the employee will be taxed on the contributions made by the employer, and thus, is held accountable to our tax system.

The Student Loan Repayment Act does not provide a bailout or exempt student loan borrowers from repaying their incurred debt. Instead, this bill helps students become gainfully employed and pay off their loans while employers are benefited by hiring skilled and educated employees with a vested interest in long-term employment.

As the father of two sons and a former small-business owner, I know firsthand the important role education plays in today’s society. Students are the foundation of our country’s future, and we must ensure they have the ability to afford a college education and compete in an increasingly global marketplace without being bogged down by crippling debt.

As we focus on helping students repay their taxpayer-backed student loans, improve their credit and contribute to our communities, I will continue working with my colleagues on solutions to create jobs, boost our economy, and reduce our debt and deficit.

___

U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross represents Florida’s 15th Congressional District.

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Blake Dowling: Amazon Go storefront, the next big disruption in retail, society

When it comes to the home theater experience, we used to rent movies from Blockbuster and Movie Gallery. VHS came and went. Then DVD, which is gone (for the most part).

In regards to transportation, there are still taxi cabs out there, but everyone I know contacts Uber to get a ride.

Have you bought a CD lately? I know plenty of music execs who wish they could turn back the clock when there were huge margins on tapes, LPs and CDs.

And in the world of politics, Hillary Clinton was all set to become President, but here we are.

Granted the last one isn’t so much about technology but, for whatever reason, the experts didn’t see it coming.

Disruption can take on many forms.

We now have a new one, which is about to ruffle some serious feathers and it won’t just affect grocery stores, but retail in general.

Imagine a grocery store experience where you just walk into and grab what you need and leave. It’s opening in 2017. It’s called Amazon Go. It’s real, so to all the experts out there, take note.

Here’s how it works: After entering the store, you scan an app. Select items to put into your cart and the store tracks what you pick up. You already have an Amazon account, so it’s just a matter of sensors tracking you correctly.

The Amazon Go storefront is small; it is not a Wal-Mart type of set up. It has essentials and — for downtown residents of a major city — it seems like a perfect fit.

For example, I was shopping at Publix on Spring Street this past weekend, just before the SEC Game in Atlanta. If you could take the lines and congestion out of that place on a busy day, it would be wicked.

The ways in which this type of disruption would affect retail (and our society) seem to be endless. Where to start on the domino effect? Let’s see there are over 3 million cashiers employed in our country making minimum wage. With that wage about to go up, retail execs are bound to be thinking can’t we automate this? The self-checkout kiosks were just the beginning of a labor issue for the cashiers.

What about criminals? Those who misbehave with tech are drooling over this as well. Credit card numbers and personal info are being zapped around rampantly.

Or what about someone just walking into the Amazon Go store without scanning the app. In that scenario, I could imagine some rambunctious teens stealing beer. In this kind of world, I suppose you must have a significant security presence.

How will other stores catch up? Publix, for instance, doesn’t have your credit card info on file. And, personally, I don’t want them to have it.

In the past four years, I have had two credit cards digitally stolen. The first time it happened, American Express did an excellent job notifying me via the AMX app. Once I declined the purchase through the app, I soon received a phone call with details.

In hindsight, it was kind of funny: “Mr. Dowling, are you in Milan attempting to purchase a fur coat?”

That would be a negative, boss. Thanks for the heads up.

The other incident was more recent; the local bank involved was just as meticulous.

Hopefully, these types of stores will offer anti-skimming devices throughout the location to block the possibility of digital theft.

This is going to be a significant movement, and all eyes will be on both Amazon and this Seattle storefront to see where they succeed and where they fail.

Disruption never stops; who knows what’s next?

Personally, a grocery store with no line sounds like heaven. Clean up on aisle 4, LOL.

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Blake Dowling is CEO of Aegis Business Technologies in Tallahassee; he writes columns for several organizations. You can contact him at dowlingb@aegisbiztech.com.

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