Welcome to Tampa Bay, Sen. Obama. We wish you would have shown up months ago to ask for our votes instead of just our campaign contributions. Now that you are here and embarking on a three-day swing through the state, we hope you come back often after you nail down the Democratic nomination and that you aggressively compete with Republican Sen. John McCain for Florida's 27 electoral votes. You will find a state that is culturally diverse, evenly divided politically and eager for a new direction.
Floridians have some specific concerns, and we look forward to hearing more thorough answers to a number of questions:
1. As gasoline prices continue to escalate, there will be increased pressure to permit drilling off Florida's coastlines. You stood up and refused to embrace suspending the gas tax. Will you also support the existing moratorium on drilling for natural gas and oil within 125 miles of Florida's coast?
2. The Everglades is a national treasure, yet the federal government has not been paying its share of restoration costs. While the state has invested more than $2.4-billion over the last seven years, Washington has spent just $360-million in what is supposed to be an equal partnership. Will you make good on the nation's commitment?
3. McCain criticized you in South Florida on Tuesday for being open to easing the economic embargo on Cuba and indicating you would meet with the leaders of countries hostile to the United States, including Cuba. You are scheduled to speak Friday at the Cuban American National Foundation. Please elaborate on your support for easing restrictions on family travel and remittance payments and what else you would do to alter relations with the island.
4. More than 3.8-million Floridians are without health insurance. We have not always been good stewards of our version of the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Please explain how your health care initiative, which requires coverage of all children but stops short of requiring universal coverage, would ensure that all Floridians have access to health care.
5. Private property insurance in Florida remains unavailable in some areas and unaffordable in many others. The state has taken on too much risk in a failed attempt to significantly lower premiums, and Congress has been unwilling to embrace a national catastrophe fund or include wind coverage as part of the existing flood insurance program. How would you help make property insurance more available and affordable, either through supporting a national catastrophe fund or another financing mechanism to help Florida after a major hurricane?
6. Florida has the nation's highest portion of elderly residents. You have said you do not believe it is necessary to raise the retirement age and pledged to protect Social Security benefits. Unlike Hillary Clinton, you have talked about increasing the maximum amount of earnings subject to the Social Security payroll tax. Do you anticipate any other changes, and how much would this change alone preserve and extend the life of Social Security?
7. More than 1-million Floridians could be forced to pay the alternative minimum tax that was originally aimed at the very wealthy. How would you address this problem and how would you pay for it?
8. Two Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals in the Tampa Bay area, the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa and Bay Pines in St. Petersburg, are the busiest in the country. They have closed their doors to paramedics for thousands of hours in recent years because the facilities already were overwhelmed with patients. What would you do to improve and expand the medical care for military veterans, particularly as more of them begin to return home from Iraq?
While you can get a start on these questions today at the St. Pete Times Forum, we don't expect you to hit them all in one speech. But Floridians are going to want some clearer answers by November.