The new year will bring new opportunities for state and local leaders to tackle familiar challenges that could shape Florida and Tampa Bay for generations. Here are seven long-term issues where significant progress should be made in 2014:
Unless Florida can find a solution to skyrocketing flood insurance rates, the economic ripple of people trapped in homes they can no longer afford will be felt beyond the real estate market.
Congress adjourned earlier this month without fixing the crisis it created in 2012 when it passed the Biggert-Waters Act in an attempt to shore up the National Flood Insurance Program. Starting Oct. 1, subsidies for homes built before federal flood maps existed are being eliminated over the next five years, or immediately if a home sold. The rates have been so outrageous in some neighborhoods that home sales have been stopped cold. Now state lawmakers are suggesting Florida should create its own private flood insurance market. But the quickest and surest way to stave off the economic impact here and elsewhere in the country is for Congress to delay implementation of the federal law and go back to the drawing board.
The case remains strong for Florida to accept billions from the federal government to expand Medicaid. It's time for Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Will Weatherford to lead rather than continue to ignore the economic and moral arguments for taking the money. More than 800,000 uninsured Floridians make too little money to qualify for federal subsidies to buy insurance on the federal marketplace but don't qualify for Medicaid now. Their health issues won't wait, and the cost of the charity care they seek in hospital emergency rooms is passed on to taxpayers and to insured Floridians in higher medical costs and premiums.
The Legislature should take another run this spring at a concept that would enable Florida to take the federal money and help poor residents buy private insurance rather than qualify for Medicaid. That would answer critics who disparage Medicaid, and it would be supported by the health care industry and business groups. If the governor and legislators fail to act, voters should hold them accountable in November for placing ideology above fiscal responsibility and the needs of Floridians.
After years of preparation, a proposal to significantly expand bus service and build light rail in Pinellas County will be ready for voters in November 2014. Nothing will be more important to the future of Florida's most densely populated county than creating a more robust public transit network.
The Greenlight Pinellas proposal calls for a 1 percent sales tax beginning in 2016 that would pay for enhanced bus service and eventually a 24-mile rail system that would run from downtown St. Petersburg to downtown Clearwater. The sales tax would replace an existing property tax for transit, which would be repealed. This is an opportunity for Pinellas voters to make the county a more attractive place for younger residents who expect a modern transit system, and it should create jobs and redevelopment particularly along the rail route.
School officials in both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties recommitted themselves in 2013 to shrinking the achievement gap between white and minority students. Now it's down to the hard work of implementation and measuring results — and building support from the community.
Hillsborough, where a black third-grader is half as likely as a white counterpart to read on grade level, has formed a task force to explore new options for reaching students. It comes after a year of small improvements in black and Hispanic graduation rates and other measures.
In Pinellas, superintendent Mike Grego has spent the past year expanding summer and after-school programs in hopes of reaching at-risk students and saw a small narrowing of the graduation gap between white and black students. He's also pushing mentoring programs, among others.
In 2013, 40 children who were known to state child protection officials died from abuse or neglect. Some were raped; some were abducted. At least one suffocated.
State lawmakers are poised to push legislation that would ramp up protection for children. Their plan takes aim at sexually violent predators, imposes longer sentences and expands monitoring, among other changes. Those are good steps, but more help is needed on the front lines where caseworkers are overworked and underpaid. Sheriff's offices in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties are among six in Florida that have contracts with the Department of Children and Families to provide investigative services. The state should explore expanding that model.
Florida has a long record of struggling to protect children at risk of abuse, and it requires strong leadership at the top to make a difference. Yet Gov. Rick Scott has had an interim DCF secretary since David Wilkins resigned in July amid the growing scandal over the deaths of several children who had a history of contacts with child abuse investigators. And the interim secretary already has a new job lined up and will stay only until the end of the 2014 legislative session. In the absence of strong leadership from the governor, it's up to the Legislature to insist on real change.
Counties on both sides of Tampa Bay will look to make smarter planning and growth decisions as the economy recovers.
In Hillsborough County, officials are examining how to better tie together transportation and job development spending. County commissioners want to ensure they are getting a good return for job creation incentives, and they want to target road money to major employment areas. Taking a more deliberative approach to job development could drive the county's growth into areas where roads and other public amenities already exist and slow sprawl. But the county should think through its new transportation strategy. Improving the area's quality of life involves more than simply throwing money at road projects to get people to work.
In Pinellas County, officials also are preparing for new development. County Administrator Bob LaSala plans to hold a commission workshop in January that is a refresher course on zoning. In the spring he plans another session on land use planning that will include residential and retail developers as well as national land use experts. Poor planning led to sprawl and traffic issues for decades in both Pinellas and Hillsborough, and this is an opportunity to be smarter about the future.
Rays stadium stalemate
Six years ago, the Tampa Bay Rays proposed building a new stadium on the downtown St. Petersburg waterfront that would have been open for two seasons by now. Four years ago, incoming St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster suggested construction on a new stadium could start by 2016. Yet heading into 2014, Tampa Bay is no closer to building a new stadium than it was in 2007.
After four years of stalemates and failed negotiations between the Rays and Foster, incoming Mayor Rick Kriseman has an opportunity to start fresh. The Rays understandably want to look in Tampa at potential stadium sites, and it is up to Kriseman to find a creative way to let the team do that while protecting St. Petersburg's interests. It is unclear how either side of the bay would find the money to help pay for a new stadium that likely will cost more than $500 million. That's why the Rays need to look for the best site on either side of the bay so the tougher financial discussions can begin.
The Rays' lease with St. Petersburg to play in Tropicana Field expires in 2027, and every year that ticks off that deal means less negotiating leverage for the city. Six years have been wasted, and Tampa Bay cannot let another three or four years go to waste if this region hopes to keep major-league baseball here for the long term.