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Florida politics as usual won't cut through the troubles

A dozen years ago, Florida Republicans took control of the House, Senate and Governor's Office in Tallahassee. To this day, they remain in control in Tally.

That might make one wonder why the Florida economy is so deeply in the tank, why the population flow to the state has slowed to a trickle at best, why the state remains a relative backwater in more sophisticated 21st century industries, and why the state's slashing the heck out of the public education system while swearing there is no greater goal than smarter students.

One political party, in the majority for so long, and we still can't seem to get our state's act together.

Perhaps we fail to recognize that politicians who say they have the answers to tough problems are often impotent in the face of more powerful forces. Florida faces pressures from global competition ranging from higher living costs and stagnant wages to the rise of a growing educated generation outside the United States that, frankly, may be hungrier than our own to succeed.

Candidates vying to become Florida's next governor have unveiled highfalutin economic platforms aimed at telling potential voters how — if elected — they will enrich this state. How they will reignite crippled job growth. And how they will diversify an economy that still relies on tourism, agriculture and, until recently, building sprawling housing developments and strip shopping centers.

Florida state attorney general and career politician Bill McCollum, the leading Republican candidate for governor, issued his initial economic plan called "Real Solutions. New Jobs: A Roadmap for Florida's Future."

Florida chief financial officer and former banker Alex Sink, the leading Democratic candidate for governor, unveiled her initial economic recommendations. It's called "A Business Plan to Revitalize Our Economy and Put Floridians Back to Work."

Put the two plans side by side. Did the same economic wonk write both of them?

To boost the struggling Florida economy in the short term, McCollum wants to cut Florida's corporate tax rate from 5.5 to 4.5 percent, exempt corporate income taxes for qualified small businesses for their first 10 years, yet again reform Florida's property tax system, give sales tax exemptions for high-tech equipment, and provide R&D tax credits to promote higher-wage jobs.

He'd also streamline our regulatory bureaucracy, expedite project permits, encourage more lending, seek litigation reform and — my favorite line — "create the nation's best climate for small businesses."

Just curious: If Republicans controlled our House, Senate and Governor's Office for 12 years, why hasn't this already happened?

Candidate Sink would boost the short-term economy in similar ways. She would encourage more venture capital, create a "small business ombudsman" in the Governor's Office and "defer" state corporate taxes for three years for qualified small businesses. She would give preference in state contracts to businesses employing Floridians, cut government red tape and push for more federal tax dollars to be invested in Florida (we're not very good at that). And she would more aggressively market Florida as a destination for tourists and retirees.

In an era of state budget deficits, neither McCollum nor Sink spends much time explaining where they will get extra funds for tax cuts or other economic incentives. Presumably, some extra funds would come from running a leaner, meaner state government. That's easy to promise, tougher to deliver.

Of course, should Sink win election, she would likely face a Republican-controlled Legislature. It would limit her ability to accomplish her agenda, just as a Gov. Sink would restrict a Republican Legislature from pushing through measures similar to those considered this spring, like giving insurance companies more free rein to raise rates.

McCollum and Sink do boast slight differences in longer-term outlooks on Florida's economy. McCollum wants to crack down on trial lawyers whose litigation, he says , drives up the costs of medical services and basic business.

Sink emphasizes opportunities to commercialize the research and development under way in Florida universities, bolstered by tax credits and a better educated work force.

The $64,000 question? How do these candidates diverge in personality and style? Both say they want to be governors who aggressively promote business. McCollum narrowly defines the governor's role as Florida's "chief economic development officer" to facilitate relations between business and state regulators. Sink tries to leverage her years as a banker and Florida president for Bank of America, saying she will be the state's "economic ambassador" by talking the talk of business, from "balance sheets" to "AAA bond ratings."

All of these McCollum or Sink ideas for the economy are safe, inside-the-box strategies. They come across as flat, just when Florida so desperately needs more imagination and muscle to raise its economic bar.

When Jeb Bush was governor, he took a big risk (aided by being the president's brother at the time) and spent a fortune in economic incentives to recruit California's Scripps Research to open a biomedical facility in Florida. Thus was born the catalyst for other biotech-related businesses to this state, including SRI and Draper Lab here. But Florida has since failed to support biotech, an industry that every state and metro area wants to recruit.

When Charlie Crist became governor, he backburnered biotech and embraced the alternative energy industry. Now that industry is fading as support wanes in Tallahassee.

It's not clear yet which industries McCollum or Sink see forming the foundation of Florida's future. Nor is it apparent yet either candidate has the fire in the belly to grab a promising industry and really make it Florida's own.

Plenty of people can serve as governor. Few can truly lead when the future of this state is so at stake.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Florida politics as usual won't cut through the troubles 04/24/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 23, 2010 7:25pm]
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