Fresh from South Carolina, the Republican candidates for president will debate tonight in Tampa with the Florida primary just eight days away. Every major issue in Washington touches the nation's fourth-largest state and Tampa Bay. This is an opportunity for Florida voters to hear directly from the four candidates on issues affecting their lives and communities. Here are 10 questions the Republicans should be prepared to answer:
Florida is the home of NASA and the launching pad for trips to the moon, the space station and beyond. Now that the shuttle program has ended, thousands of jobs have been lost on Florida's Space Coast and the Russians are ferrying passengers and equipment into space. What is your vision for NASA and for America's manned space program, and how would you encourage private investment in space travel and exploration that could create new jobs?
2. The Everglades
The Everglades is a national treasure that provides the drinking water for 1 in 3 Floridians. But the restoration of the River of Grass is far from complete, and the federal and state partnership paying for the work has ebbed and flowed. Do yo u support a continued 50-50 effort, and how would you balance the interests of the Everglades, agriculture and development?
One of you will accept the Republican nomination at the GOP convention in Tampa in August — the middle of hurricane season. Luckily, Florida has been hurricane-free in recent years, but neither Floridians nor our neighbors in other gulf states can pay for the damage that would be caused by a major hurricane. Would you support the creation of a regional catastrophe fund backed by the federal government to help spread the burden for paying for those extraordinary costs?
Tampa Bay boasts the nation's third-largest community of Cuban-Americans, and tonight's debate takes place a few miles from the nation's second most popular airport for flights to Cuba. Yet some South Florida members of Congress object to President Barack Obama's decision to relax travel and remittance rules. Would you roll back this progress for Florida's immigrant families and Tampa Bay? And how would you help Florida prepare for the day when the Castro brothers are no longer in power?
In Florida and most of the country, brick-and-mortar merchants who collect sales taxes are at a competitive disadvantage because of Congress' failure to force Internet-only companies such as Amazon.com to collect sales taxes on online sales. That's costing Florida about $450 million a year. As president will you push for passage of the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement so locally based businesses have a level playing field?
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has frequently trumpeted Winter Park's for-profit Full Sail University — owned by a campaign donor — as an example of how such institutions offer alternatives to public or nonprofit colleges. But these businesses depend heavily on government-subsidized financial aid programs to underwrite student tuition, and their graduation rates are frequently subpar. How should the Education Department ensure students don't waste their money or end up with debts they can't repay?
One of every $5 in federal spending is for national defense, and a significant amount of it flows to Florida's military installations, including CentCom here at MacDill Air Force Base. In light of deficit reduction demands, how do you envision the military evolving and Florida's role in its future?
Tampa Bay is the largest metropolitan area without a regional mass transit system; its roads are overcrowded; and its busiest bridge is not scheduled for replacement for years. Federal stimulus money, which all of you have criticized, is paying for a critical highway connection to Tampa's port. What is your plan for investing in better roads and new transit systems that would create jobs and boost the economy in Tampa Bay and other metro areas?
New research by the University of South Florida has found disfigured fish in the area affected by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and particularly in North Florida the tourism industry was financially harmed by the disaster. Do you favor lifting the current restrictions on oil drilling in the eastern gulf, and how would you protect the beaches that are so critical to our state's economy?
10. Health insurance
All of you have spoken against the Affordable Health Care Act, and the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on a challenge from Florida before the next president takes office. If the court throws out the law or you persuade Congress to repeal it, what is your plan to help 4 million uninsured Floridians get access to health care and avoid trips to hospital emergency rooms that are paid for by taxpayers and insured patients?