For several years, Florida and Tampa Bay have been focused on short-term decisions to weather a tough economy. Now the worst appears to be over, and Floridians have many opportunities in the new year to look beyond the immediate issues and plan for the long term. Resolutions made now can lead to smarter investments in time and talent to ensure a brighter future. Here are six areas that should receive particular attention in 2012:
1 Downtown plans. Tampa Bay's two biggest cities have a chance to make their improving urban centers even better places to live, work and play. St. Petersburg is in the midst of deciding on the next-generation Pier and will start developing a voter-required comprehensive plan for the waterfront. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is undertaking a first-ever master plan for downtown to wed the urban core with its surrounding neighborhoods. Both cities should think big, contemplating not just today's needs but also the future for transit, pedestrians and public space.
2Education funding. After years of rising scores, test results in Florida public schools are stagnating right along with the state's commitment to funding education. The full impact of this year's 8 percent cut for public schools still isn't known, but Gov. Rick Scott is already lobbying to find $1 billion in 2012-13 to buy back part of that loss. And he's seeking no additional cuts to state universities and colleges. That's a good place to start the discussion, but it shouldn't be the end. Quality education costs money, and until Florida finds a way to invest more in education, it won't realize its potential.
3Civic engagement. Elections matter, and this year is a big one. Voters should commit now to stay informed and go to the polls to cast ballots for president, a U.S. Senate seat and other offices. Every U.S. House seat and every seat in the Florida Legislature, where races should be more competitive due to congressional and legislative redistricting, is up for grabs. So are local offices from school board to county commission. Floridians have an opportunity to shape the direction of the nation, the state and their local communities by voting.
4Regional approach. Counties in the Tampa Bay region already take a cooperative approach to managing the drinking water supply, and they have taken some promising if halting steps toward doing the same with transportation. Leaders on both sides of the bay also were instrumental in landing the Republican National Convention. Next up: more teamwork on economic development, tourism efforts and a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays.
5Job creation. With the economy still struggling, local leaders need to be especially creative in attracting new industry to Tampa Bay. The University of South Florida is exploring new commercial ventures in the health care field. Tampa International Airport is getting aggressive about landing more domestic and international flights. The beaches, new arts venues, MacDill Air Force Base and growing bioscience industry give the region rich opportunities to diversify and add quality jobs.
6Future investment. In Pasco County, voters are expected to be asked to renew the Penny for Pasco sales tax. Some of its earlier critics have endorsed its benefits after seeing the 1-cent tax generate a projected $441 million to build roads and schools, preserve environmentally sensitive land, buy public safety equipment and finance a school property tax reduction. In Pinellas, voters will be asked to renew a tax of 50 cents for every $1,000 in taxable property value for public schools. Most of the money goes for teacher salaries, and some is spent on the arts, technology and reading. In both Pasco and Pinellas, these local taxes are essential investments in the future.