Obama makes mark on Florida in first 100 days
TAMPA - Florida schools can forestall budget cuts. Cuban immigrants can visit relatives back home. Construction can start on a long-delayed Interstate 4 connector road. Some homeowners may avoid foreclosure. These are the most tangible effects in Florida of President Barack Obama's first 100 days in office. Most can be traced to Obama's economic stimulus plan, which is expected to funnel $13.7 billion to Florida over the next two years. "Our state budget would be in total collapse without it," said Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa, a Democrat and early Obama supporter. In other areas important to the state - NASA, a national catastrophe insurance fund and offshore oil and gas drilling - Obama hasn't taken definitive action. But there are hints of what may come.The need to fill Florida's $6 billion state budget deficit this year, and a likely deficit next year, has even some Republicans speaking positively or reserving judgment on the stimulus plan. State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, a member of the state legislative commission that approves state agencies' requests for the money, said it will fund delayed highway projects and fill a major void in Medicaid, which pays for long-term nursing home care as well as health care for the poor. In Tampa, stimulus money is expected, after three years of delay, to allow construction on a link from Interstate 4 to the Selmon Crosstown Expressway. The money will help prevent a new round of cuts in school funding, after a series of cuts that Hillsborough County education lobbyist Connie Milito said have taken education budgets to below 2007-08 levels. Flowing from now through June 2011, the money for Florida will include: •About $4.3 billion for the state's $15 billion-a-year share of Medicaid, which pays for nursing home care and for health care for poor families •$200 million for other social services ranging from foster care to health care for the unemployed •$3.5 billion for public schools •$1.9 billion for transportation Billions more for items including the environment, unemployment compensation, home weatherization and other areas. But will that money be the panacea Obama hopes it will be? Darryl Paulson, a political scientist at the University of South Florida and a Republican, said the verdict is still out on the effects of Obama's first 100 days in office. The stimulus package "is the one major thing we have so far ... and it's too early to evaluate that," he said. Seeking what he calls "a new beginning with Cuba," Obama issued an order this month eliminating restrictions President George W. Bush had imposed on family visits to Cuba and lifting the $1,200 annual limit on money sent to relatives there. In response, Cuban President Raoul Castro unexpectedly offered a dialogue on subjects Cuba has long refused to discuss - human rights, press freedom and political prisoners. The Obama administration, apparently caught off-guard, is considering how to respond. Obama hasn't said he wants to end the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. But Tampa port officials are discussing how to compete for the flood of commerce that would result if it ended. Fidel Castro, however, remains less than enthusiastic about improved relations between the two countries. Last week, he appeared to contradict Raul in a piece published by Cuba's official press. Still, Raoul's surprise offer could be the most important break in U.S.-Cuba relations since the Castro revolution 50 years ago, said Dario Moreno, a Florida International University political scientist and Cuba specialist. "What makes this different is that Fidel is really in the last stages of his life and the changing leadership in Cuba might be more willing to move forward," he said. Florida is No. 2 in the nation, behind only California, in foreclosure filings, with more than 500,000 in 2008 - nearly double 2007's total. The numbers kept climbing in the first three months of 2009 and appear to be on a pace to exceed 2008. Obama's anti-foreclosure program, which subsidizes deals in which lenders lower interest rates and allow payment delays, is about to take effect, said Kent Spuhler, of the nonprofit Florida Legal Services, which helps the poor. In anticipation, he said, some lenders are holding off filing foreclosure against borrowers who are negotiating toward a settlement. He expects the number of people getting help to grow as the program takes effect. During his campaign, Obama responded to public pressure by endorsing limited expansion of offshore oil drilling. But his initial actions in office have pleased those who favor preserving Florida's pristine beaches, said veteran environmental activist Mark Ferrulo of the nonprofit Progress Florida. Obama reversed an action taken in the waning days of the Bush administration that would have opened Florida's east coast for drilling. "The Bush administration never saw a piece of land it didn't think would look better with an oil rig on it," Ferrulo said. "The Obama administration clearly believes some places should remain pristine." During his campaign, Obama initially worried NASA advocates by saying he would fund early childhood education programs by delaying the start of the Constellation program, the replacement for the space shuttle, scheduled for 2015. But in an appearance before aerospace workers in Florida shortly before the election, Obama retracted that position. He now advocates speeding up Constellation and leaves open the possibility of a one-flight extension for the shuttle program, planned to end next year. NASA estimates that about 3,500 of 14,500 jobs at Kennedy Space Center will be lost after the planned retirement of the shuttle fleet, plus an additional 6,300 jobs that it estimates depend indirectly on NASA operations. There is no guarantee how many of those jobs, if any, Constellation can replace in Florida. In his campaign, Obama endorsed Florida proposals for a national catastrophe fund that would help cover insurance costs for natural catastrophes such as hurricanes. State officials are trying to find financial backing for the state's Cat fund before the start of the hurricane season. The U.S. Treasury has told Florida it doesn't have authority to back the state Cat fund with a line of credit. Florida Congress members are pushing legislation that would allow the line of credit, but the Obama administration hasn't acted.
Reporter William March can be reached at (813) 259-7761 or [email protected]