With only three weeks to go until the new year, it's safe to say that 2009 was the Year of the Dither in Florida on too many big-picture economic matters that we need to address but love to waffle over. Here are 10 key issues where some stronger backbone would help us in 2010:
1 Leadership: Sorry, Charlie. Florida Gov. Crist started his term with great promise and an actual agenda, of sorts, that included getting a grip on the state's disastrous property insurance market and kickstarting an alternative energy renaissance in the state. And now? The property insurance market, blessed only by the absence of significant hurricanes, is no better. And alternative energy? What started with a bang is now, forgive the pun, running out of gas. Amid a wretched recession, Crist now seems to think his leadership responsibilities are merely to show he is electable as the next U.S. senator from Florida. And the next wave of gubernatorial candidates — be it Republicans Bill McCollum and Paula Dockery or Democrat Alex Sink — at this point appear numbed by budget constraints and seem better at voter pandering than offering innovative leadership ideas on this state's murky future.
2 Nuclear energy: What started with fresh appeal in Florida as the next generation of high-output electricity to meet the state's growing energy needs for decades is now simply one of the lesser evils of keeping the lights on and air conditioning running. The state's utility industry, led by St. Petersburg's Progress Energy Florida and Florida Power & Light, wins the award for sorriest public relations this year. They took a not-too-hard-to-sell concept — building a combined four nuclear power plants (two apiece in Levy County and South Florida) — and made it almost impossible to sell by a draconian series of escalating price tags and proposed customer rate hikes. Progress Energy's Jeff Lyash points out that without new nuclear soon, more than half of the electricity generated in Florida will rely on natural gas. That sounds tolerable until you look at the volatility of natural gas prices, which will probably mean violent swings in electricity rates ahead. Do we want nuclear or not? Make a choice and get on with it.
3 Mass transit: To be fair, there has been some recent and encouraging support, especially from the state Legislature, to move forward with light-rail efforts in South Florida, Orlando and (thanks to the Hillsborough County Commission) Tampa Bay markets. Critics never saw a solo-driver SUV in an area traffic jam they do not like. I can't fathom the quality of the Tampa Bay area in 20 years without a much more robust mass-transit system — whether or not Florida wins the current high-speed rail contest for federal dollars. If momentum withers this time for a basic light-rail system, Tampa Bay will slip even further behind those metro areas with which we're trying to compete for jobs, talented people and vitality.
4 Biotech: I doubt even former Gov. Jeb Bush realized that his big half-billion-dollar bet to persuade California biotech leader Scripps Research Institute to expand to Florida would prove one of the state's great tipping points in economic development. Not only has Scripps Florida, based in Jupiter, proved to be a magnet for additional biotech firms, Scripps has gone a step further and awakened a far-from-Florida venture capital industry to the idea that the Sunshine State may be worth a closer look for all types of entrepreneurial activity. Yet where is the follow-through by state leaders? Why isn't Gov. Crist pounding the national if not international message that Florida may be at the start of a biotech renaissance? Some piece of the biotech industry is sought by every metro area on the planet. If you don't sell it, they will not come. What's the old mantra? We want better-paying jobs? With inaction, this may become one of Florida's great regrets.
5 Education: Without better public education, be it K-12 or the state university system, Florida will continue to limp along. There was a brief shining moment when the state and its voters agreed to reduce the size of classrooms in public schools, but Florida, as usual, failed to budget for its costs. The good news is that the Florida business community has had an epiphany in 2009 and is in the early stages of lobbying for better schools. What we still don't know is if that means businesses are willing to help pay for the better schools they say they want. That's the $64,000 question for 2010. Don't think money will fall from the sky for education, even if Bill and Melinda Gates just tossed $100 million at the Hillsborough County school system.
6 Innovation: It's only natural that innovation follows education on this list. Real innovators might shake their heads at traditional education as more of a numbing experience than a force for nurturing new ideas. But hope springs eternal. Perhaps the most important speech in all of Tampa Bay in 2009 was given in January by Scripps Research International CEO Curtis Carlson, who argued at the Mahaffey Theater complex in St. Petersburg that the ability to innovate must be taught in schools. What are some obvious signals of innovation? The number of patents achieved in a metro area. A vibrant research tradition at area universities and companies. Solid bench strength of entrepreneurs starting new companies based on new ideas. We're minor leaguers here in all these indicators but showing some early signs of improvement.
7 Growth management: In June, Gov. Crist pushed Florida back a quarter century by approving changes to the state's 25-year-old growth laws. It was a short-term decision based on political fear and the lousy economy, one that supporters say will strengthen the state economy and opponents insist will increase urban sprawl and traffic problems (see No. 3 on this list). The changes allow developers in urban counties to add housing developments without expanding roads and by allowing counties and cities to designate new urban areas that also would be exempt from certain road-building requirements. Shame, shame, shame for not sticking to the state's longer-term goals. How many years will it take to untangle this bad decision?
8 Diversification: This is on the list because No. 7 is on the list. If Florida's economy was not so dependent on real estate development and housing construction, then Gov. Crist may not have endorsed changes in growth management making it easier to build more housing developments without adequate infrastructure. The failure to diversify the Florida economy is also why No. 3, No. 4 and No. 9 are on this list. You can attract more diverse companies and jobs with an effective mass-transit system. Biotech jobs offer diversity and superior pay. And the state tax base, discussed next, will be more balanced and less subject to volatility if it is spread over more parts of the economy than tourism, sales taxes and real estate.
9 Taxes: If Florida is booming with new people and tourism is healthy, all seems fine with the state's ability to raise enough taxes to pay for what it needs to do. When the state is not able to raise enough funds — like now — all heck breaks loose. It's a lousy financial recipe for moving the state forward in the 21st century.
10 Alternative energy: Just because gasoline prices are down, did Florida need to throw in the towel and scale down its once-energetic drive to establish a legitimate alternative energy industry? Or did Gov. Crist, who led that charge, give up because he did not want to ally himself with an industry that was fading as a political frontburner?
Come on, Florida leaders. Stop thinking short term. Stop picking the politically easy solutions. Tackle at least a few of these 10 issues. Make 2010 a better year for the state than '09.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at email@example.com.