After Barack Obama takes the oath of office Tuesday, the new president will face enormous issues ranging from the economic recession to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the second Democrat to win Florida's electoral votes since 1976 also will have on his plate a number of topics that directly affect the Sunshine State. If he takes the long view, Obama can make a real difference in the state's economy, its environment and the quality of life of its residents. These are among the issues the new president should consider as priorities for Florida's future:
Create a national catastrophe fund. Florida's property insurance scheme is surviving only because there haven't been any hurricanes in the last two years. The state's hurricane catastrophe fund is grossly overextended, and the state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. charges premiums that are actuarially unsound.
If a major hurricane hits the state, the only alternative will be to look to Washington for help. A national catastrophe fund would deal with the issue up front and spread the risk of hurricanes and other major storms. Congress has failed to pass legislation, but Obama supported the creation of a catastrophe fund during the campaign.
Pay up for Everglades restoration. Gov. Charlie Crist has been bold in acquiring thousands of acres from U.S. Sugar as part of the project. While questions remain about the price and use of that land, the state already is further along than the federal government in paying for its share of the restoration. Obama has pledged to follow thorough with the federal government's promise to be an equal financial partner, and these restoration projects would create badly needed jobs.
Shift energy policy away from offshore drilling. Two of the three federal bans protecting Florida's beaches were eliminated during last year's frenzy over high gas prices. That leaves only a 2006 law, which bans drilling within about 230 miles of Tampa Bay and 125 miles of the Panhandle. Obama offered encouragement in August for a bipartisan energy plan that would permit drilling within 50 miles of Florida's west coast, but fortunately the plan never passed.
As Obama pushes for an energy plan that focuses on renewable sources, he should leave the 2006 lines in place. It is one thing to tell the oil companies to drill first in the 68-million acres they can access now but have not touched. But opening up more water closer to Florida's shores should be off the table and is an unnecessary risk to the state's economy.
Refocus the space program. Florida's Cape Canaveral has an enormous economic impact, and NASA is adrift. The shuttle fleet is scheduled to retire in 2010, and the Obama administration's support for the next generation spacecraft is less than solid. Space exploration may be a tough sell in this economic climate, but it creates jobs and fuels many Florida communities. The new president should ensure that NASA has a clear mission and realistic priorities so that the public and private sectors can plan for the future.
Loosen Cuba restrictions. The U.S. policy toward Cuba has been a failure, and attitudes in Florida — even among Cubans in South Florida — are softening. Obama should follow through on his campaign pledges to lift restrictions on the money Cuban families here can send to relatives and on the visits they can make to the island.
Preparations also should be made for lifting the trade embargo, which would have a significant economic impact on South Florida. While Obama would offer to lift the embargo as a carrot for changes such as releasing political prisoners, the embargo is an outdated relic of the Cold War.
Allow states to collect sales tax on all Internet sales. Florida loses hundreds of millions of dollars in potential revenue by failing to collect sales tax on Internet sales involving sellers who have no physical location in the state. The state could join a group of states with uniform tax definitions that works with retailers who voluntarily collect the tax, but there is an easier way.
Obama could ask Congress to overturn a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision and enable states to force companies outside their borders to collect the sales tax on Internet sales. The National Conference of State Legislatures is lobbying to add the proposal to the economic stimulus plan and estimates it could generate $30-billion nationwide for state and local governments facing severe cutbacks in public services.
This would be a tremendous help for Florida. It is a fairness issue as well as a revenue issue, and Obama should embrace it.
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