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Town Hall Spotlights Voter Frustrations in Tampa

April 15, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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As part of a series spotlighting public opinion of government, Judy Woodruff moderates a town hall meeting on the economy, politics and more in Tampa.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We came to Tampa, Florida, to throw a spotlight on what Americans think the role of government should be and how their tax dollars are being spent.

To that end, we asked our local PBS affiliate, WEDU, to help us round up the people you see behind me, all residents of this area.

Joining us to answer questions from this audience are the former Republican U.S. Senator from Florida Mel Martinez, former Democratic Congressman Jim Davis, Republican Mark Sharpe, a Hillsborough County commissioner, and the Democratic mayor of Tampa, Pam Iorio, plus, from Washington, Christina Romer, the chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Thank you all for being with us.

Thank you, everyone in the audience.

And, Dr. Romer, I am going to start with you. We appreciate your joining us.

There have been several good economic reports out of Washington and out of New York this week. But out here in the country, as I have talked to people around the state of Florida, the question everybody has is, that’s all well and good, but when are we going to see the jobs come back?

How long do they have to wait?

CHRISTINA ROMER, chairwoman, Council of Economic Advisers: Well, I think you’re — you’re right on both accounts. So, we have certainly seen some encouraging indicators, including we got the news that, in March, we actually added 162,000 jobs. So, that was certainly something that the president has been waiting to hear.

But it is important to realize that is just the beginning. I think the truth is, it — you know, it took a long time to get into this mess. It will take, certainly, a while to get out. I think what we’re all focused on is, what — what can we do to make it faster? What can we do to help the private sector come back even more strongly? And that’s going to be a — a big priority in this work session of Congress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dr. Romer, we’re going to get right to the questions now.

And I’m going to ask Sharon Calvert to stand. She is a businesswoman and, am I right, a member of the Tea Party here in Florida?

SHARON CALVERT, Tea Party supporter: Yes. I’m one of the leaders here in Tampa, Florida.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you have a question about the stimulus, the Recovery Act that was passed last year, and how well it’s worked.

SHARON CALVERT: That’s right.

Is there a time when we look at the stimulus — we have spent $900 billion, and it didn’t stimulate — where we look at broad-based tax cuts to give Americans the money in their pockets to get the engine of our economy going again?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dr. Romer?

CHRISTINA ROMER: What we have found is that the Recovery Act so far has saved or created some 2.5 million jobs relative to where we otherwise would have been.

The other thing is, I think it’s important to realize the Recovery Act had a lot of tax cuts in it. And we estimate that there have been some $200 billion so far of tax cuts and payments to people — to families in need that we think has actually been incredibly important to the recovery, accounting for as much as half of the total jobs saved or created.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dr. Romer, we have two — at least two people here who have questions about the health care reform law just enacted. And I’m going to ask them to stand.

It’s Laura Woodard, who’s right here with us.

And, Carlos Rodriguez, you’re next to her.

Ms. Woodard, you first.

And then I’m going ask you.

LAURA WOODARD, Republican: OK.

Dr. Romer, I’m a small business owner. And I speak with small business owners on a daily basis. And a frustration that we have had is that the bill was so large and included so many different things, and it felt like the administration was really pushing through the bill so quickly, that we didn’t have time to really talk about it and — and understand how it was going to affect how we would run our businesses.

And, so, my question to you is, why did it have to be pushed through so quickly?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I want you answer that, but let me — let me combine that with a question from Mr. Rodriguez, which is related.

CARLOS RODRIGUEZ, Independent: Dr. Romer, my — my question is simple.

I have got 40 employees that I have been trying to give health insurance to. The question for us is, now that we have the mandate, how is it going to be implemented, one; and, two, more importantly, realistically, is, how are we supposed to pay for it?

CHRISTINA ROMER: I think it’s important to realize we were working on the health care legislation for more than a year. And so there was a lot of discussion, especially of the small business question.

We were certainly very aware, and — and certainly both houses of Congress were working very carefully to make sure that health care reform was a win for small businesses.

So, to go to the second question, the first thing you said, you talked about the mandate. Well, one of the things that’s really important is that the bill exempted any firm less than 50 employees from any kind of the employer responsibility provisions. So, that was — we heard small business owners. We didn’t want to put restrictions on them. We wanted to help them.

Another feature is that it has tax credits to help small business owners pay for health insurance for their workers. And then the third thing has to do with the cost of health insurance, because, if you’re a small business owner, you absolutely know how expensive health insurance is in the small business market, and if you’re an individual, also.

And one of the things that the health legislation does is set up a marketplace where small businesses can go and buy health insurance with some of the purchasing power of big businesses. And that — that health insurance exchange, as it’s being called, we think will absolutely be lowering the — the price of health insurance for small businesses.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dr. Romer, we have a question from Jennifer Fenn, who is — if you would stand up — you have — you’re an attorney.

JENNIFER FENN, Democrat: Mm-hmm.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You were dealing with an unemployment — you were unemployed for a time; is that right?

JENNIFER FENN: Right. I am a homeowner in Hillsborough County. And, late in 2008, I lost what I thought was going to be a stable long-term job, and was unable to find full-time employment again for about a year.

So, now I’m dealing with the fact that I may lose my home. So, how would you propose to help someone like me, who is a responsible homeowner, but just, you know, suffered some ill effects from the economic downturn?

CHRISTINA ROMER: Well, the first is, yours is a story that, you know, keeps me up at night. I know it’s kept the president up at night. There just — there are millions of Americans like you who, for no fault of their own, were caught in this financial crisis that brought down, you know, production and raised unemployment.

And, you know, we have been struggling to come up with a housing plan that helps responsible homeowners — homeowners going through a rough period, you know, stay in their homes. It’s, you know, something that is an evolving process.

I hope you will look into the — the program that we have through the Department of Treasury and through the FHA at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, see if those programs can help you, because we absolutely want to be modifying the mortgages for responsible homeowners, so that you can stay in your home.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dr. Romer, we have a question now from a minister. I’m going to ask him to stand, Reverend Henry Porter.

REV. HENRY PORTER, Independent: When I look at the passage of the American Reinvestment Act and the health care legislation, both of those pieces of legislation came down along very partisan lines. How does the Obama administration propose to govern going forward?

CHRISTINA ROMER: You know, I think the main thing is, we all just have to — to keep trying. I mean, the president was trying today. He met, as he said he wants to do repeatedly, with leaders from both parties in the Congress.

He had them come to the White House to talk about financial regulatory reform and how important that is to get done. And — and it’s going to be something that has to be done in a bipartisan manner. And I hope that will be a chance for the two parties to work together and really give a sense that — you know, because we are all in this together.

We all love this country. We’re all trying to deal with a terrible financial crisis with some lingering problems. We’re going to have to come together.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dr. Romer, I know we only have a couple minutes left with you.

And I want to turn now to someone who formerly served in government in the state of Florida, former President of the state Senate Tom Lee.

TOM LEE, Republican: We talked earlier about the frustration that people are experiencing here in America right now, and particularly this area. But they’re also afraid.

And my question is, how do we stop the massive growth of government? How do we limit the size of government, the mission creep of government, so that our kids can grow up in an America that they can actually afford to live in, without having to have everybody, including the kids, working to pay the mortgage?

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s an easy one to end on, Dr. Romer.

CHRISTINA ROMER: So, it — it is — it is a fundamental issue about, what is your vision for the country and what do you think the — the appropriate role of government?

I think the place where we absolutely have complete agreement is, whatever the role of government, we need to pay for it, because we don’t want to be spending now and burdening future generations.

But, you know, I do want to say one thing about the size of government, because, you know, the president often — I have heard him lament many times of, you know, that: I never wanted to own a car company. I never wanted to have to deal with a financial crisis.

You know, this was the hand that — that he was dealt, that the country was dealt. And he has done his best to deal with this problem. And I think, you know, the record is very clear that, because of the actions — and they were often very tough, very unpopular choices — we are in a very different place this March than we were — or this April — than we were this time last year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Dr. Christina Romer, the chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, thank you very much for joining us at this town meeting here in Tampa.

We know that your time is up. You are going to have to leave. But we thank you very much for being with us. And I know everyone here appreciates your participation.

Thank you.

CHRISTINA ROMER: Well, it was — it was wonderful to be with you all.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you. Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, so, now we want to turn to our panel of Florida special guests, former Congressman Jim Davis on the left, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, former United States Senator from the state of Florida Mel Martinez, and the current county commissioner for Hillsborough County, Mark Sharpe.

I want to come to you first, Senator Martinez.

You listened — you — I saw you listening very carefully to what Christina Romer was saying. That last question about the growth of government, you heard her talk about health care. You heard her talk about jobs, the stimulus package.

What did you come away with? How much of that — how do you assess what she said?

MEL MARTINEZ, R, former U.S. Senator: I would start by saying that, at some point, the statute of limitations runs on what you inherited. And we should stop talking about what this administration inherited. So, that should be put aside, first and foremost.

But, secondly, I would say that the growth of government began with a stimulus bill. The stimulus bill wasn’t stimulative enough. And, in fact, it grew government a great deal, because of the funding of many government programs that was within that bill.

And the bottom line is that, when you look at the results, it just hasn’t been there. The unemployment rate in the state of Florida today is 12.2 percent — 12.2 percent. So, the stimulus has not created the jobs that we were promised would be created through the stimulus.

I would say, on the issue of health care, that there, again, we have…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me stop you on the stimulus.

MEL MARTINEZ: Well, OK. Sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … and turn to — to Jim Davis or Mayor Iorio, and ask you, what — what would you comment on that?

JIM DAVIS, D, former U.S. Congressman: Well, the benefits in Florida to the stimulus have been that we have been able to keep our classrooms with teachers, and not have to cut. That’s one of the reasons that Governor Crist supported the stimulus.

Commissioner Sharpe’s wife is my son’s schoolteacher. And our schools have been intact, even though the economy has sunk deeply. But we really do have a problem here in Florida. And some of the stimulus dollars did go into road construction. Some of them went into hospitals and medical care. But we still have a big hole that we’re going to have to fill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator, we have a question from someone. It’s Christina Thomas.

CHRISTINA THOMAS, Democrat: As elected officials, I would like to know why, after being elected by the people of the state of Florida, people would go to Washington and choose to vote on the party line, rather than what’s best for their constituents at home?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Martinez, you want to take a crack at that first?

MEL MARTINEZ: Well, first, I would tell you that I — I really don’t think that most members vote on a party line because someone instructed them to.

What happens is that, at times, Republicans think one way about a problem, and Democrats think in a different way about a problem. And I don’t think it is because people are following a mandate to just vote as they’re told. They’re following their conscience that — what they believe is the right thing for the country. We just have very different views at times.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I see Mayor Iorio squirming a little bit.

PAM IORIO, D, mayor of Tampa, Fla.: There is a terrible partisan divide in Washington, which is why I so enjoy the local level, because it’s very nonpartisan. And we look at, pragmatically, how to solve problems. And we get a lot done locally because of that.

And, as soon as you get to Washington, it does become totally party-oriented, very ideological. And it’s preventing us from solving problems that our country faces.

I don’t believe the stimulus package was anything that was radical. A third of it went to tax cuts. A third of it went to extend unemployment benefits for families that were hurting. A third of it went for infrastructure. Our nation is sorely behind in keeping up with our capital needs.

There’s nothing — there shouldn’t be a partisan divide about infrastructure. Infrastructure is a practical approach. It’s what government ought to be doing. I think almost everyone can agree that one of the chief roles of government is to build roads and bridges and maintain pipes and — and do the kinds of things that keep our country going and keep our citizens safe. And that’s been the focus of the stimulus package.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right.

We have a question from Tom Gaitens.

Mr. Gaitens, thank you very much for being here. A Tea Party member, is that correct?

TOM GAITENS, Tea Party supporter: Organizer, member, yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Organizer here in Florida.

And you have a question about the debt. It’s something that’s been mentioned before, but I want to let you expand on it. And we’re going to pose it to Congressman Davis.

TOM GAITENS: One hundred percent of tax revenues by 2020 will go to the new health care entitlement and the other three major entitlements, including the interest on the debt. The infrastructure you seek, the infrastructure you seek is not possible under the current spending pattern we have in this nation, $12.4 trillion current debt, and all it’s going is higher. How do we get out of this?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim Davis?

JIM DAVIS: Well, on the spending, we have security, which, after 9/11, increased dramatically. We have the interest on the debt, Tom.

But the programs you describe have to do with our demographics. We’re getting older every year. It’s driving up the cost of health care. Thankfully, a lot of people are living a lot longer. The cost of medicine, the cost of keeping people alive is increasing dramatically.

One of the best things this health care bill can do is help us manage those costs, help us reduce the price of medicine. As Christina Romer alluded to, that’s going to come very slowly. This bill didn’t make any radical, abrupt changes in how care is delivered, because that would bother people a lot and would create problems.

But, over time, if this health care bill does what it’s supposed to do, it will help reduce that cost.

TOM GAITENS: Well, I would disagree with Jim on a major issue.

And that is, the reality is, show me a government entitlement program that ever sustained the original governing cost that were implied from the beginning. Medicare, Medicaid, they never did. The cost overruns are astronomical, off-the-charts, Jim.

JIM DAVIS: But what’s driving the cost is the fact that we are living longer and the cost of health care that we want for our families and for ourselves is more expensive.

So, we’re going to have to make some fundamental changes in how we deliver health care and how we live our lives if we’re ever going to get a handle on the rate of increase in health care.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we have a question from Greg Thompson.

You are a businessman, is that right, here in this area?

GREG THOMPSON, Republican: Here in the area.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you have a question about government expansion.

Now, I’m going to let you pose this to Mr. Sharpe, Commissioner Sharpe, I should say.

GREG THOMPSON: Commissioner Sharpe.

Actually, this would be for both of the Republicans on the panel. I’m a 20-year registered Republican, and proud of it. But one of the founding principles of the platform, I believe, is limited government.

Specifically, do you, yes or no, believe that? And, also, what have you done since you have been a public servant specifically to limit the size of the government?

MARK SHARPE, R, Hillsborough County commissioner: Well, one of the things that Hillsborough County is very proud of is that, over the last 15 years, we have reduced millage each and every year, so that an average homeowner who has a house of — that’s approximately $200,000 would have seen a savings of over $400.

So, we have worked very mightily to reduce the millage rate, property taxes. We have also looked at some very difficult areas. Animal services — if you want to get a roomful of people, start talking about cutting animal services or aging services.

You know, government at the local level is not real sexy, but I will tell you what. When you talk about cutting a program, you will fill a room, because people will come in and say: Don’t cut my program.

And there’s some programs, in education in particular, where, if you make the cut, you’re going to have to pay later when you deal with the problem, and, you know, pre-K, after-school programs.

But I will tell you, as a Republican, I believe it is our mandate to limit the size of government and growth. And we’re working to do that right now at the county.

MEL MARTINEZ: Every program develops a constituency around it, and that constituency is wedded not only to maintaining it, but to growing it every year. Every year, they want more money for that program.

So, that’s the difficulty with anything you start in government. That’s why my fear is that, with the health care bill, in fact, one of the premises of it, in order for it to be revenue-neutral or budget-neutral, as the president has said so many times, is that there have to be some very significant Medicare cuts at some point in the future.

Do you really think those are going to happen? I don’t think they’re going to happen. There’s not a chance. It will probably be a Republican majority by then, and then we will be accused of wanting to put old people out on the street and not giving them health care…

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right.

MEL MARTINEZ: … because we will try to do what was proposed to be done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tim Curtis is active in the Tea Party in this area, has a question from another perspective on the role of government.

TIM CURTIS, Tea Party supporter: Tonight, we have talked about health. We have talked about housing. We have talked about achieving a lack of bipartisanship.

But the one subject that seems to be conspicuously absent in the conversations at the government level — and you can talk about a local, state, or a federal level, is the creation of jobs.

Who does a better job of it, the public sector or the private sector?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mayor Iorio, you get the first take.

PAM IORIO: Sure.

PAM IORIO: First of all, isn’t it interesting. We talk about the mission creep of government. What is the role of government?

You look at almost all the questions that are asked, and the first question posed to any of us, whether it’s local, state, or federal is now what is government going to do?

So , is it — is it a surprise that we might have mission creep in government, when the expectation in our country is that we have an activist government, that we have a government that attempts to solve problems?

Now, locally, this is my belief, that the private sector creates jobs. And it’s my role in local government to create an atmosphere whereby the private sector will come in and invest in the city of Tampa.

MEL MARTINEZ: The private sector does create jobs.

So, therefore, wouldn’t it be smart to have an across-the-board, broad-based tax cut that is then going to put money back into the private sector? Why wouldn’t we, instead of raising capital gains, rates lower capital gains rates, so that business has the money to invest?

But when you get committed to a class warfare mentality about taxing the rich and sticking it to the rich, then you get into a situation where those that are creating the jobs are not really rich. They’re just small business people, and they get pegged into that category.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We have two people here.

Kindra Muntz, I’m going to ask you to stand up, and Evan Miller.

I want to ask you about — both of you — about your view of what’s gone on in Washington, the role of the media.

EVAN MILLER, Democrat: If anything gets done, it’s with one party 100 percent for it and the other party 100 percent against it.

And, so, it’s a two-part question. Do our current elected officials see this as healthy for our democracy, or do we see it as a potential danger to the future of our democracy? And, if so, what ideas do we have to get beyond it?

KINDRA MUNTZ, Democrat: What can be done to curb the inflammatory rhetoric that is all throughout our cable TV stations and talk radio stations in this country that’s tearing apart our country, that’s hurting our democracy, and potentially jeopardizing the lives of our elected officials?

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is a view that we have heard from a number of voters.

I want to give all four of you a chance to respond to this. And we will start with Congressman Davis and move on.

JIM DAVIS: It is fair to say that the extreme element of both parties have a disproportionate influence in Congress and most legislative bodies right now.

It’s particularly bad in a state that’s gerrymandered, like Florida. Florida, Texas and others are some of the most gerrymandered states in the country. And we in Florida and in many other states this fall will have a chance to vote on an amendment to the Constitution to minimize some of the gerrymandering.

Now, what that ultimately does is produce more moderates. It also produces more people that can lose elections if you don’t think they’re being accountable because they’re not representing you.

If people are forced to choose between their party and the other party, they’re going to choose their party. But what you really want people to do is go up there and create a third way.

And Senator Martinez did this on the immigration issue. He reached out. He worked with President Bush. He worked with Democrats and Republicans. It was a remarkable act of courage. And he was creating a middle ground. Both sides were mad at him.

But it was ultimately going to be a solution.

JIM DAVIS: He will speak for himself in a minute.

JIM DAVIS: But those are two things in terms of what I think the problem is and how we in Florida can fix it, as well as the country.

PAM IORIO: We have always been highly partisan. That’s been part of our history.

The difference now is that now we have all these cable outlets and all this other social media. And it just seems so much more oppressive. I guess you can just not watch the television. That would help in large part.

But, actually, I mean, we really need to elect different kinds of people to office. You need thoughtful people. I think anyone who blindly follows the party line, Democrat or Republican, should not be in office. That is not how you should conduct yourself. You should be an independent thinker.

Our problems today are too complex just to sign on to the party line. And it’s up to everyone here in the audience and beyond to look for those candidates who are thoughtful, independent thinkers.

And those are the people we need to elect. There are good people out there. And we go in cycles. And I believe we just need to get better people on the national level.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Martinez, what would happen if people were elected who didn’t follow the party line?

MEL MARTINEZ: Well, there are some consequences to that, but, at the end of the day, we have to act in the public interest. We have to act in the way that we think most of the people who elected us would like to see us behave.

The fact is that it’s deeply troubling to me to see the excessive partisanship and the fact that we seem to be losing, present company included, someone like Evan Bayh and so many others who tend to work in the middle, who tend to work across party lines, not to say that their convictions are not strong and they don’t hold them dearly, but just that, in order to get things done in Washington, you have to reach across the aisle; you have to work bipartisanly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Commissioner Sharpe, what would you add?

MARK SHARPE: Well, at the local level, we do work together.

I mean, you have the partisanship, but — but, you know, we don’t have a lot of time. There are a lot of problems that we must deal with. And I know that, you know, I work with the mayor, who’s a Democrat. We work together on a lot of very important issues for our community.

At the national level, you have got the — you know, because of the greater opportunity to be heard, you have this fraying. But I think that, as the mayor said as well, this is a part of who we are.

You know, you know, we were founded on a tea party, people angry and mad about not being listened to. And so I don’t — I have gone to Tea Party meetings where I have stood there and taken a position 180 from what they wanted to hear.

You know, I throw away the script, because I can’t remember the script. I’m just trying to do what I think is right, because I really do love this country. I love — and I think we have got boundless opportunity. And — and I’m confident for the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Commissioner Sharpe, Senator Martinez, Mayor Iorio, Congressman Davis, thank you all.

I think it’s been just a really special and extraordinary exchange.

JIM LEHRER: Our town meeting was recorded last night. What you just saw were edited highlights. You can watch the entire event on our Web site at NewsHour.PBS.org.

In addition, WEDU in Tampa will be broadcasting a one-hour version at 9:30 Eastern time Friday night.