4.13.2011

What Kind of State Does Florida Want to Be?

Bob Graham, a former United States senator and governor of Florida, wrote what seems a very prescient op/ed piece about assessing the past to better guide the future of our state. Over the last year or so, it's become pretty clear to me that Florida is an undesirable place to live for at least four groups of people: children, the elderly, the disabled and workers who lack a college education.

Florida's economy--service, agriculture, tourism--has lagged far behind many other states in the region (North Carolina and Virginia being the two most visible examples) in transforming in a way that is positioned to excel in the information age. There was a spike in investment in the hi-tech industry, most commonly focused on Central Florida and the Orlando area, in the late '80s and early '90s, but that momentum has fizzled.

From 1960-2000, the population grew by around three million in each decade. Those new taxpayers fed the construction and infrastructure segments of the economy while contributing to the tax foundation. But that growth also fed urban sprawl and put extreme pressure on our natural resources. That growth levelled out in the past decade; since 2006, we've actually been going in reverse and that, coupled with the real estate collapse, has left Florida in a tough economic bind.

So why are folks leaving this Garden of Eden?

Well, as Graham points out, the deregulation of industry has negatively impacted our environment. We see that pretty clearly here in Jacksonville, where Georgia Pacific continually releases discharge into the St. Johns River. There was a two-month fish kill last year in the waters of our city's greatest resource. You can't swim in it, you can't eat the seafood that comes from certain portions of it, and it stinks to the high heavens in August and September with the algae blooms. There was serious discussion by the Rick Scott administration earlier in the year of shuttering almost fifty of our state parks (Florida has one of the finest systems in America). A study done by the state found that the parks have a direct economic impact of 1.9 billion on the economy. The savings gained by shuttering these parks was minuscule (some estimates pegged the savings at just a few million dollars) in comparison with the loss of access to natural Florida.

Under new guidelines proposed by the Scott administration, seniors will be paying more for health care; he has proposed cuts on the state's disabilities services funds (although he has indicated that he'll sign an emergency order to restore those funds as of yesterday) that will leave our most vulnerable citizens in a hard place.

And our education system is in shambles. We rank near the bottom in K-12 per-student spending. We have one of the lowest percentages of college-educated adults in the nation. In Jacksonville, where Scott's proposed budget cuts will be felt very deeply, there is talk of abolishing all extracurricular activities to square up a $97 million dollar shortfall for the next school year.

No sports mean even fewer opportunities to attend college for many of Duval County's most vulnerable students (that's not to mention all the other benefits organized after-school activities have on our youth).

All of this while Scott is trying to slash four billion in taxes (the majority of tax relief will be realized by affluent individuals and corporations). His will be the third consecutive administration that has sought to reduce or hold steady the tax burden to pay for programs and services. How, with every other aspect of the economy experiencing inflation, are we to pay for things? Health care and education will take the largest hits, of course, but so will investment in infrastructure and preservation of natural resources.

The past three administrations have sold tax cuts on the idea that they stimulate job growth. As Graham opines in his piece, the job creation credited to these policies has been far slower than in previous decades, and the quality of jobs has been degraded.

All of this comes to light at the outset of the tourism season in Florida, which suffered a terrible blow last year as a result of the BP oil spill. Now we see that gas prices are nearing $4.00 per gallon, and I doubt that will make it attractive for many folks up north to pack up the wagon and strike out for the beaches or Disney.

Graham's piece is a wake-up call. Do we want to be a state that invests in attracting research and hi-tech firms? Do we want to educate our children so that we have a workforce that can, with agility and competency, move into those positions in the coming decades? Do we want to look out for the elderly, who flock to Florida for its climate and cost of living? Do we want to be known as a state that lacks resources for the disabled?

Or do we just want to do everything on the cheap? Do we want to let our children fall through the cracks? Do we want to encourage a service economy filled with McJobs and stake our fortunes to an industry that can be seasonally destroyed by things like storms or environmental disasters?

There are opportunities here; there are far more strengths than weaknesses. But, I fear, our state's recent voting habits and the national political tide are making it expedient for our leaders to ignore the things that we did well in the past to push forward with policies that will make things more difficult for our future.

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