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Human trafficking cases increase 50 percent in Florida

Officials say the number of human trafficking cases have increased more than 50 percent in the state from the previous year.The Florida Department of Children and Families says Florida received 1,892 reports of human trafficking. That’s a 54 percent increase from the previous year. The increase in reported allegations of human trafficking was due in large part to increased training and a new screening tool developed between DCF, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice and the attorney general.

The Statewide Council on Human Trafficking also implemented specialized training for first responders and other child welfare professionals to help recognize the signs.

DCF tracks human trafficking by three primary categories: sexual exploitation by a non-caregiver, such as an adult entertainment club or escort service; sexual exploitation by a parent, guardian or caregiver; and labor trafficking.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Florida Blue Foundation symposium to focus on health care, poverty and community

Purpose Built Community President Carol Naughton

The Florida Blue Foundation will hold its 2017 Community Health Symposium and Sapphire Awards April 19-20 at the Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center in Kissimmee. The two-day event will feature speakers from leading health professionals, and focus on a variety of issues facing the industry.

The event kicks off at 9:45 a.m. April 19 with a keynote address from Carol Naughton, the president of Purpose Built Community. Naughton is expected to discuss how to create healthy neighborhoods to help break the cycle of poverty.

Several panels are scheduled for April 19, including presentations about building a culture of a healthy community, meeting future needs in the industry, strategic planning and health care reform. Mark Brewer, the president and CEO of the Central Florida Foundation, is also scheduled to facilitate a session titled “How to Engage a Community After an Attack.”

The event continues April 20 with a keynote address from Dr. Daniel Dawes, a health care strategist and attorney. Dawes is scheduled to give a presentation titled “Health Equity for All: Looking Back & Moving Forward with Health Reform in America.”

Dawes is also scheduled to moderate a panel titled “Affordable Care Act: Where Do We Go from Here – The Politics of Health Care.” Panelists will include Tom Feeney, the president and CEO of Associated Industries of Florida; Dr. Antonia Novello, the former U.S. Surgeon General; Jason Altmire, the senior vice president of public policy and community engagement at Florida Blue; and Susan McManus, a distinguished professor of government and international affairs at the University of South Florida.

The Sapphire Luncheon and Awards ceremony is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. April 20. Patrick Geraghty, the CEO of Guidewell Holding Company, is scheduled to be the keynote speaker during the luncheon.


Bob Graham: Daughter Gwen Graham hasn’t told him her plans yet

Like much of the rest of Florida, former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham said he’s waiting to hear what his daughter former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham will decide about running for governor.

The younger Graham has been talking about it for months, and even told FloridaPolitics.com that she wants to run for governor of Florida in the 2018 election, a job her father held while she was in junior high. But she also said she would not make that decision until after she left office as a member of the U.S. Congress.

She’s also dealing with the health of her husband Steve Hurm, who is being treated for prostate cancer.

Her last day in Congress was last week.

“She’s only been out of office for a few days. And she’s thinking about what to do. She’ll let her friends, and I hope parents, know when she makes the decision,” the former senator told FloridaPolitics.com during a stop in Orlando Friday.

“She hasn’t closed the book yet.”

Regardless of when she does, the elder Graham expressed keen interest in the 2018 gubernatorial election cycle, particularly because of the issue of protecting Florida’s natural resources — a passion he and his daughter have shared. He said he’s been very concerned about what recent administrations.

“Over the last few years, we’ve had a very distinct orientation towards the role of government in lives of Floridians. I’ve been particularly concerned about the role in protecting the natural resources that distinguish Florida,” he said. People are going to essentially have a referendum on the question of is this the way we want it to be permanently, or are we going to go back to a government we had at the end of the 20th century? That will be a very significant and with long-duration impacts, that decision Floridians will make.”

Tale of 2 parties: Florida GOP high, Dems low ahead of 2018

The state Republican and Democratic parties met two miles from each other Saturday, their first meetings since Donald Trump carried Florida in November’s election, but the atmosphere and enthusiasm were worlds apart.

As both parties chose their leaders, it was easy to see which has more confidence heading into an election cycle when the governor’s office and all three Cabinet seats will be open. Republicans were aglow in victory after Trump stunned many political observers by winning the state Barack Obama carried in 2008 and 2012. At the same time, Democrats held a contentious election to choose a new chairman with little talk about this past election.

“How good does this feel? We defied the mainstream media, we defied conventional wisdom, defied the pollsters,” Republican Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam told GOP county chairs. “Right across town, Democrats are having their election and they’re not feeling near as good.”

As both parties prepare for 2018, Republicans are focused on how to build off the momentum Trump built with voters who traditionally haven’t been part of the political process while Democrats elected wealthy real estate developer and major party donor Stephen Bittel as chairman in hopes of ending two decades of futility at the polls.

“Donald Trump got a lot of people off of the couch and got them involved. It is our job at the Republican Party of Florida to harness all of that passion, all of that energy, and keep them in the game,” said state GOP Chairman Blaise Ingoglia, who was easily re-elected. “And when we do, and mark my words we will do it, we will cripple the Democrat Party for a generation.”

After the Democrats elected Bittel, a group of protesters stood outside the meeting room holding signs that read, “SHAME,” ”This is not the party of the people” and “People over $$.”

Still, Bittel tried to paint the best picture of the party’s future.

“We have had an under-resourced operation in Florida for a long time. That changes, starting today, and we will build a different kind of party, I’m a different kind leader and we will change things,” Bittel said. “I grew up in Florida in an era when we won everything. I’m looking forward to that era again.”

But Bittel, 60, grew up more than four decades ago, and there’s a new generation of Democrats who have rarely seen victory.

Florida hasn’t elected a Democrat as governor since 1994. They’ve lost 14 of the past 15 Cabinet races. And despite Democrats’ success in passing a ballot initiative that requires political districts to be drawn in a way that doesn’t favor parties or incumbents, Republicans maintain huge majorities in the Legislature and hold 16 of Florida’s 27 U.S. House seats.

Republicans appear better situated heading into a critical state election. Republican Gov. Rick Scott and the three GOP Cabinet members, including Putnam, are leaving office because of term limits. Also in 2018, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson is seeking a fourth term, and it’s widely thought Scott will challenge him in what could be Nelson’s toughest re-election yet.

But despite under-performing again in 2016, Democrats think 2018 can be different. Democratic strategist and former state party political director Christian Ulvert pointed at several pluses. First, Nelson, the one consistently successful Florida Democrat since 2000, will be on the ballot.

“This year, we have a potential for Bill Nelson setting the tone, to really set the stage from the top down,” Ulvert said.

He also said the party has a rich field of popular city mayors who could be on the ballot for statewide races, including Fort Lauderdale’s Jack Seiler, Tampa’s Bob Buckhorn, Miami Beach’s Philip Levine, Orlando’s Buddy Dyer and Tallahassee’s Andrew Gillum.

Putnam, who is likely to run for governor, warned Republicans that despite their successes, the party cannot become complacent.

“We can’t get arrogant and cocky and lose our way,” Putnam said. “We can’t take anything for granted.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Ringling Bros Circus to end its 146-year run

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is folding up its tent, ending nearly a century and a half of performing the Greatest Show on Earth.

A combination of declining attendance, increasing operating costs, along with changing public tastes and prolonged battles with animal rights groups caused the downfall of the American icon.

Circus employees were told Saturday night after shows in Orlando and Miami.

“After much evaluation and deliberation, my family and I have made the difficult business decision that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey will hold its final performances in May of this year, according to a statement from Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, which produces the circus.

Feld added that ticket sales dropped dramatically after the circus retired elephants from its shows last May after a 14-year fight with animal rights activists over allegations that circus employees mistreated the elephants.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), one of the circus’ most vocal critics, took credit for the demise.

“After 36 years of PETA protests, which have awoken the world to the plight of animals in captivity, PETA heralds the end of what has been the saddest show on earth for wild animals, and asks all other animal circuses to follow suit, as this is a sign of changing times,” Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, wrote in a statement.

Ringling’s two traveling shows have 30 remaining scheduled appearances. The final shows are May 7 in Providence, R.I. and May 21 in Uniondale, N.Y.

The announcement puts most of the shows’ 500 or so employees out of a job, the Associated Press reported. Feld said some would be transferred to the company’s other shows like Monster Jam, Disney on Ice and Marvel Live! The company will help with job placement, resumes and, in some cases, housing relocation.

Ringling’s 40 retired elephants are living at the Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk County, which the company will continue to operate. Homes will be found for the other animals, which include lions, tigers, camels, donkeys, alpacas, kangaroos and llamas.

Don’s Johns a name not quite right for this Inauguration Day

It’s the great port-a-potty cover-up for President-elect Donald Trump‘s inauguration.

Workers preparing for the inauguration Jan. 20 have taped over the name of the company – “Don’s Johns” – that has long supplied portable restrooms for major outdoor events in the nation’s capital.

Virginia-based Don’s Johns calls itself the Washington area’s top provider of portable toilet rentals. But the name apparently strikes too close to home for organizers of the inauguration of Donald John Trump.

Workers have placed blue tape over the company name on dozens of portable restrooms installed near the Capitol for the inauguration.

The company’s name is clearly visible upon close inspection, but is blocked for a wide-angle view by a TV or still camera.

Robert Weghorst, chief operating officer for Don’s Johns, said he did not know the logos were covered up until The Associated Press reported on it Friday, lighting up his company switchboard and “blowing up” its social media accounts.

“We don’t know why it’s being done. We didn’t tell someone to do it,” he said in a telephone interview. “We’re proud to have our name on the units.”

A spokesman for the Architect of the Capitol, which oversees the Capitol and its grounds, said the logos were being covered or removed to comply with Capitol grounds restrictions on advertising.

Staff determined that signs for Gene’s Johns – a competitor that also is providing portable toilets for the inauguration – “can be easily peeled off,” the spokesman said in an email. The Don’s Johns logos cannot be removed easily “and are being covered with tape,” the email said.

Don’s Johns has provided portable toilets for many major events in Washington, including the 2009 and 2013 inauguration ceremonies for President Barack Obama, Weghorst said. No logos were taped over during those events, he said.

The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies and the Presidential Inaugural Committee declined to comment.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Aegis Technologies celebrates 20 years of helping businesses with all things tech

Twenty years ago, Pam Butler and Brad Mitchell saw an opportunity in North Florida.

With no qualified tech consultant to serve the region’s growing business community, the pair founded the Tallahassee-based Aegis Business Technologies to fill the gap.

Since 1997, Aegis has transformed into a one-stop-shop for all things tech – obtaining, installing and supporting tablets, laptops, servers, firewalls, wireless, email, cloud storage, websites, cabling – just about anything technological a business might need.

“We are a Managed Services Provider (MSP),” explained CEO Blake Dowling, a regular tech columnist for FloridaPolitics.com. “We manage all of your tech, including serving as a liaison to all third-party providers (software, printers, etc.)”

“We take care of it all,” Dowling said. “And act as your trusted adviser.”

Celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2017, Aegis received armfuls of awards, including a five-time Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce Technology Company of the Year. Aegis has been ranked nationally as a high-performing MSP by organizations such as Ingram Micro, Channel2Channel Magazine and MSP Mentor. There’ve also been recognized for excellence by the Jim Moran Institute, Best of Tallahassee and Tally Awards.

“I often say I have more courage than brains, and my advisers over the years have said that I am the most persistent creature they’ve ever known,” said Butler, who now serves as Aegis’ chair. “That’s why I have surrounded myself with a brilliant partner, the most skilled CEO, learned advisors, trusted customers and a supportive community.”

Butler pointed out that the company, located at 1310 Thomasville Rd. in Tallahassee, is “as vibrant as ever.”

Looking forward to the next 20 years, Butler said Aegis and her team are committed to providing the latest solutions and support for businesses of any size.

“For this, I will be forever grateful,” she added vibrantly. “We changed our stars.”

Florida Power & Light brings 3 solar plants online, 4 more planned for 2017

For 2017, Florida Power & Light became the largest generator of solar power in the Sunshine State by bringing online three new universal solar energy plants.

FPL also announced plans to build four more solar plants this year, as well as install several innovative solar systems throughout local communities. The nation’s third-largest utility, a subsidiary of Juno Beach-based NextEra Energy, is now able to generate an unprecedented amount of clean energy for millions of FPL customers statewide.

On Dec. 31, FPL officially connected three 74.5-megawatt universal solar power plants to the electricity grid. With that, FPL currently operates more than 335 megawatts of solar generating capacity, enough to power approximately 60,000 homes.

“FPL has been leading the smart, cost-conscious expansion of solar in Florida since we built our first solar power plant back in 2009,” said FPL President and CEO Eric Silagy. “By investing strategically in affordable, clean energy, we continue to improve the efficiency of our system, reduce fuel consumption, lower emissions and help keep costs down for our customers over the long term.”

FPL’s universal solar facilities, Silagy added, will provide customers affordable, clean solar energy.

“When the sun rises at one of our solar plants,” Silagy said, “thousands of homes and businesses are powered with cost-effective, zero-emissions energy. We believe in advancing solar affordably and responsibly for our customers and our state, and the coming years will be a game-changing time for solar in Florida.”

The three FPL solar plants — Babcock Ranch Solar Energy Center, Citrus Solar Energy Center and Manatee Solar Energy Center — were each completed time, under budget and cost-effectively, without a net cost to customers after factoring in savings from fuel and other generation-related expenses.

A typical FPL 1,000-kWh residential customer bill is approximately 30 percent lower than the national average, as well as being the lowest in Florida for the seventh year in a row.

Silagy announced that by the first quarter of 2017, construction will begin on four more 74.5-megawatt solar energy centers across the state, including sites that have received local approval in Alachua, Putnam and DeSoto counties.

Also in development are additional large-scale solar facilities, which will be announced in the coming months.

“Clean energy helps drive economic growth in our state,” said Brian Bergen, vice president of economic development for the Putnam County Chamber of Commerce. “FPL’s solar energy center will provide a boost to our local economy and the solar power it generates will be a draw for companies that value clean, affordable energy.”

FPL’s solar expansion offers energy production cleaner than the 2030 carbon emissions goals set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan for Florida, all while keeping the average residential customer bill among the lowest in the nation.

“Increasing clean energy production in Florida has been on the minds of many Floridians for years, and it’s great to see FPL continuing to invest in solar,” said Eric Draper, executive director for Audubon Florida. “Clean energy technology will help protect the environment, by reducing emissions and saving water, benefiting everyone who calls Florida home, as well as the millions of people who visit our state each year.”

Major FPL solar installations include:

— Space Coast Next Generation Solar Energy Center, Brevard County

— DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center, DeSoto County

— Martin Next Generation Clean Energy Center (hybrid solar/natural gas), Martin County

— Solar Circuit at Daytona International Speedway, Volusia County

— Solar research installation at Florida International University, Miami-Dade County

— SolarNow array at the Broward Young At Art Museum & Library, Broward County

— SolarNow array at the Palm Beach Zoo & Conservation Society, Palm Beach County

— SolarNow array at the Palmetto Estuary Nature Preserve, Manatee County

— Babcock Ranch Solar Energy Center, Charlotte County

— Citrus Solar Energy Center, DeSoto County

— Manatee Solar Energy Center, Manatee County

FPL, which serves more than 4.8 million customers across nearly half of the state, has additionally installed small-scale solar arrays for more than 100 Florida schools and other educational facilities.


Marco Rubio to Florida Republicans: Re-electing Donald Trump begins now

It’s still six days before Donald Trump is sworn in as president and Sen. Marco Rubio is telling Florida Republicans they have to start working now to make sure he’s re-elected.

Rubio briefly addresses Republicans at the state GOP’s annual meeting Saturday and said Democrats will be working hard to try to take Trump out.

Rubio said, “Re-election has already started.”

Rubio was highly critical of Trump when both sought the Republican nomination for president, and he avoided talking about the billionaire developer after deciding to run for re-election.

But he says he looks forward to seeing what Trump and a Republican Congress can accomplish.

He also dismissed “chatter” that he could challenge Trump in four years, saying he will serve the full six years of his second term.

Republish with permission of The Associated Press.

Stephen Bittel promises rapid growth as new Florida Democratic Party chief

Newly-elected Florida Democratic Party Chair Stephen Bittel isn’t the kind of guy who shies away from a fight.

And judging by his resounding victory Saturday, after a nasty campaign against four other candidates for the Party leadership, he doesn’t fight to lose.

“Contentious elections are reflective that there are Democrats all over Florida that are passionate, committed to coming together, moving forward together to win elections. So contentious is good. It means you care,” Bittel said after defeating some candidates with much longer- and better-known records in state party politics.

Bittel is taking over a Party that consistently has more registered voters statewide, but rarely wins statewide. Democrats now have almost powerless minorities in the Florida House, Senate and congressional delegation. The battle Bittel won, between the candidates and their backers, was one of shaking up the Party, and the question was whether that could be best done by someone claiming grassroots credentials or someone well-established in the money class.

During a break in the FDP annual meeting at the Rosen Shingle Creek Resort in Orlando Saturday, Bittel talked about building out a staff and leadership team “in a way that is reflective of all parts of our party, including people who supported my candidacy or other candidates.”

Judy Mount of Jackson County, previously serving as party treasurer, was elected first vice chair. Francesca Menes of Miami-Dade, from the county’s Little Haiti community, was elected treasurer. Casmore Shaw of Osceola County became state secretary.

Bittel said he’d be in the FDP’s Tallahassee headquarters for several days this coming week to meet staff and others.

“I have plans for enormous staff expansion,” Bittel vowed. “We’re going to grow this Party to a size and strength that has never been seen before.”

He also noted how the FDP has been under-resourced for a long time: “that changes today.”

On Saturday, Bittel said that published reports suggesting he is a billionaire are not accurate. Yet the Miami Beach lawyer and businessman with interests in real estate development [chair of the Terranova Corp.] is wealthy enough so to beg the question. Bittel is also a well-known bundler of campaign contributions, and a big donor on his own, having personally donated more than $900,000 to various Democratic candidates and party committees. He said he’s also contributed generously to non-partisan, progressive issues not related to candidates, such as voter registration, public education and health care. I’m not stopping any of that.”

“I’m not stopping any of that,” he added.

Both Bittel and one of his chief rivals, Alan Clendenin, survived challenges to their candidacies just before the election on Saturday.

And enough controversy surrounded Bittel, Clendenin and, to a lesser extent, Dwight Bullard, that Bittel found a need to defend how he came to run for the position, saying he ran because party leaders came to him. There were protesters in the hallway of the Rosen Shingle Creek, holding up signs accusing Bittel of buying the Democratic chairmanship. A Democratic activist lawyer and a civil rights leader in Miami have sued to have it overturned. Because of the sharp divide, some delegates refused to vote.

Nevertheless, Bittel drew 55 percent of the ballot, in a weighted system that gives some delegates more votes than others.

And plenty of Democrats at the event appeared happy to have him, whether they voted for him or not.

State Rep. Amy Mercado, a former chair of the Orange County Democratic Party, praised the entire elected slate of officers led by Bittel as strong and diverse.

That diversity includes the fact that they do not all represent the same factions.

“There are enough differences in that group now that they have to figure out how to balance and move forward,” she said.

Still, others expressed some anger, particularly those delegates who self-identified as Bernie Sanders Democrats.

Bruce Jacobs, a Miami lawyer who served as a Sanders delegate to the Democratic National Convention last summer, and Mae Christian, a prominent Democratic civil rights activist from Miami, sued Bittel and the Party, charging that his path to the chairmanship was rigged.

A court hearing is set for Friday with Judge Lisa Walsh of the Miami’s 11th Judicial Circuit.


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