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In Florida's grim economic landscape, politicians court business groups

Capture our state economy in a TV series and November 2006 was Florida: Heroes. November 2009 is Florida: Lost.

That's how much the Sunshine State's economic landscape has changed — I should say cratered — since the last major election three years ago.

Fast forward from 2006.

We are struggling through a historic whammy of a super-severe recession and a dual-bubble bursting of housing and stock market prices.

The latest grim economic blowback can be found in the results of a telephone survey of 600 registered Florida voters conducted Oct. 25-28, for the St. Petersburg Times, Bay News 9 and the Miami Herald. Asked if they are better or worse off than a year ago, only 7 percent said "Better" while 44 percent stated "Worse," and 48 percent indicated their situation was about the same.

Asked to pick their top concern from a list of six issues, those polled picked health care (39 percent), followed by unemployment (19 percent), the Afghan and Iraq wars (16 percent) and, in single digits, property taxes, education and foreclosures.

In this climate, campaigning political candidates are busy courting Florida's beleaguered business community. Among the most visible are Gov. Charlie Crist and former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, who are pursuing a Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat. State CFO Alex Sink and state Attorney General Bill McCollum are neck and neck for the governor's mansion, and others are chasing key positions of state leadership.

Florida's strapped industries, eager for less regulation but also pro-incentives, now pay much more attention to the affairs of Tallahassee and Washington. Through groups like the Florida, Greater Tampa and St. Petersburg Area chambers of commerce, Associated Industries, and regional organizations like the Tampa Bay Partnership, businesses have sharpened their lobbying sticks and back them up with growing political action committees or PACs.

Most business groups, for instance, applauded Gov. Crist's controversial decision earlier this year to override growth management laws in hopes of kickstarting more development and, in theory, creating some jobs. But Florida is an increasingly complex state with environmental, education and quality of life issues soaring in importance, too.

It's tough to gaze at so many declining state economic indicators. It's worse to cite the dramatic rate of their decline. How did Florida not only drop out of the fast lane back in 2006 but so quickly fall off a cliff in shedding so many jobs in so little time?

Call it The Case of the Missing 700,000. In round numbers, that's how many more Floridians are unemployed now than in November 2006.

No less alarming is the stunning loss of wealth in Florida since 2006 caused by sharp declines in home values. If the same house that cost $229,000 in 2006 now sells for $137,800, where did the difference — $91,200, some of it home equity — go? It evaporated in the great resetting of hundreds of thousands of home values across Florida and, to a lesser extent, the entire country.

At the same time, Florida was the only state where median household income actually declined from 2007 to 2008.

Since fall 2006, Florida's economy has not only stalled but shrunk. Three years ago, the state's economic output totaled $613.5 billion. It was flat in 2007 but by 2008 had dropped to $603.5 billion, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Not all seems cursed. Pockets of growth and new life can be found. In recent times, financial service provider USAA said it will add 200 jobs in Tampa, bringing its corporate employment in the area to 2,000. Nanotechnology expert Draper Lab last week opened new facilities both in Tampa and St. Petersburg with a promise of 165 good paying jobs, and possibly more, for biologists, engineers and support staff.

And in Odessa, filter specialist Dais Analytic Corp. this fall signed a $200 million dollar international trade agreement with a Chinese state-owned company that could bring over a thousand new "green" jobs to Pasco County in the coming years.

There's a slight silver lining in the reports of Florida's heavy job losses. The flow of bigger cuts is slowing. Early this year, we saw big hits like 720 jobs cut at the Smithfield meat packing plant in Plant City or the closing of Continental Airlines' reservation center in Tampa, which cut out 685 workers.

Now the losses continue, but they are not so big and involve smaller companies. Like 39 jobs lost at the Flying J Travel Plaza on State Road 52 in Dade City. Or the seven jobs cut at eldercare software provider MDI Achieve in Tampa.

Is this a bigger trend? Are Florida's heaviest job losses behind? I'm optimistic. I say yes — as long as the bigger economic picture is for gradual improvement.

The bad news is those few economists who tend to see gloom more easily than others are starting to speak up again. They say the recession is "over" only because Washington wants it to be. They say massive federal spending — think big bank bailouts, TARP, Cash for Clunkers, the $8,000 first-time home buyer's subsidy, the $3.4 billion in federal grants to replace the creaky U.S. electricity network with "smart" grids, and much, much more — is doing what was promised.

Federal support is goosing the economy, as shown by last week's announced 3.5 percent gain in national GDP for the third quarter. It's also helping fuel the run-up of the stock market since March from a Dow under 7,000 to one near 10,000.

But all that federal support inevitably must wind down. Former Merrill Lynch economist David Rosenberg and New York University economist Nouriel Roubini are both warning about too much short-term stimulus money and the threat of it creating a new mini-bubble.

This much we know and it will greatly influence the elections next fall. Florida's economy was harder hit than most of the country. And it is expected to take longer to recover than the bulk of the United States.

Given such challenges, I know one TV series with which Florida most wants to avoid any affiliation: Florida: The Biggest Loser.

I'm betting that won't happen.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

In Florida's grim economic landscape, politicians court business groups 10/31/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 31, 2009 6:11pm]

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