TAMPA — All the candidates running in the special election for the District 58 state House seat agree on at least one thing: Florida's shrinking budget and struggling economy are the most pressing issues for the state.
And they all have ideas about how to solve the problem.
Gil Sanchez, a 33-year-old small-business and immigration lawyer who has lived in Tampa since 2003, proposes boosting state coffers with a sales tax on Internet transactions.
To help small-business owners, he would like the state to guarantee loans to such companies instead of relying solely on the U.S. Small Business Administration, and make it easier to incorporate multiple businesses.
He also believes the state should fund vocational training for middle and high school students who don't perform well academically.
"They'll learn to be electricians, carpenters, plumbers, mechanics, nurses' assistants," he said. "They'll learn a specific trade and have the option of opening their own businesses someday."
Sanchez says he differs from his two Democratic opponents — Pat Kemp and Janet Cruz — because he is relatively new to Hillsborough politics.
Although he did revive the county's Democratic Hispanic Caucus, Kemp, 52, has been a community activist since moving to Tampa more than 20 years ago. Among her causes: fighting an amendment to Florida's constitution that banned gay marriage, cleaning up the Hillsborough River, and protecting historic homes in Seminole Heights. She has worked as a legislative aide to county, state and federal lawmakers. Last year, she was elected chairwoman of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party.
Cruz, 53, was born and raised in Tampa, and her family has roots in Ybor City's cigar industry. She is a longtime supporter of Democratic candidates, and worked on the campaigns of Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner and former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman. She is now lending her fundraising heft to gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink and U.S. Senate hopeful Kendrick Meek.
As a lawmaker, Cruz says one of her most important tasks would be to fight those who see offshore oil drilling as a way to boost Florida's economy.
"We have to decide whether we're going to be a tourism-based economy or an oil-based economy. I don't believe the two can coexist," she said. "I've seen the dirty beaches of Galveston, Texas, and I don't think that should be in the future for Florida."
She also would like to advance some of the bills sponsored by Michael Scionti, the former state representative for District 58. He left the post last month for a job in the Defense Department.
Those include a proposal to require schools to provide disability awareness education and another to make it a misdemeanor to lie to law enforcement officers looking for criminals.
Cruz said she would also get behind a Scionti-sponsored bill that would prohibit credit card companies from sending people unsolicited blank checks, and protect cardholders from liability if someone uses those checks without their knowledge.
Kemp, 52, says one of the first things she would work on is sunsetting all state sales tax exemptions.
Florida law offers more than $12 billion in sales-tax exemptions. About $10 billion covers food, medicine, housing and necessities. Another $2 billion covers everything from charter fishing boats to bottled water, veterinary medicines, religious items and Super Bowl tickets.
"To create an exemption again, you'd have to have an affirmative vote from the Legislature," she said. "That would bring in a lot of money, and it would start to repair our budget."
Like Cruz, she sees prohibiting oil drilling off the west coast of Florida as a key to protecting the state's tourist economy.
She also would like to provide more incentives for businesses and consumers who invest in renewable energy technologies, such as solar water heaters.
"Almost every person in Florida could have a solar water heater. It would be huge leap to energy independence," she said.
Republican voters will choose between lawyer Hunter Chamberlin and accountant Jackie Rojas-Quinones.
Chamberlin, 37, specializes in civil litigation. He came to Tampa four years ago from Miami, where he was a prosecutor.
If elected to the Legislature, he said his first priority would be to create incentives that would bring more manufacturing to the state. Other southeastern states, such as Tennessee and South Carolina, have been able to woo foreign automakers. "That's an economic resource Florida has not exploited," he said.
Chamberlin also would make school voucher programs a top priority. "Parents should have a greater say in where their children go to school," he said.
He also would advocate allowing out-of-state companies to insure property in Florida. "With the increased competition, you'd get a better product for lower cost," he said.
And he supports offshore oil-drilling, saying it would create jobs and generate revenue through drilling site leases. Newer technology, he said, would protect the beaches.
Rojas-Quinones, 45, is a Tampa native who serves as president of the Tampa Latin Chamber.
She also supports a sales tax on Internet transactions to bring in more revenue to the state. To help small-business owners, she would like to reduce the filing fees for entrepreneurs who want to incorporate or create a limited liability corporation.
"Those fees have gone up. They're $150 and $125. I'd say take it down to $50 for the first year," she said.
Rojas-Quinones also proposes lowering the unemployment tax for companies with a successful employee retention rate as well as new business owners.
"Here you have a new entrepreneur, and he hires one new person, all of a sudden he has this unemployment tax he can't pay, making it unfeasible to hire anyone," she said.
Voters in District 58, which includes Seminole Heights, West Tampa and parts of Town 'N Country, will go to the polls Tuesday in a special primary election. The general election is Feb. 23.