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And it's the dawn of a day of reckoning

There are undeniable links — coastal, climate, political, economic, cultural and, of course, sun worshipping — between the palm tree-filled states of Florida and California. Some state watchers go so far to say that what happens in California is often Florida's destiny a few decades later.

Better be careful what we wish for.

"Our wallet is empty. Our bank is closed. Our credit is dried up," declared California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to lawmakers earlier this month. "California's day of reckoning is here" — an ominous quote from the "governator" that sounds like a line right out of Arnold's 1999 apocalyptic movie, End of Days.

That's cold comfort to Florida, whose long-term strategy looks a lot like the Golden State's.

Parallels between Florida and California can seem uncanny. Both are big sunshine states with big coastlines. We suffer hurricanes and California endures earthquakes. California is in the midst of a fiscal disaster while Florida narrowly escaped one, this time. California fights increasing threats of coastal oil and gas drilling. So does Florida.

Both states used to peddle sunshine but are trying more upscale wares. Both have huge and diverse populations compared to most other U.S. states. Both now have extreme water scarcity issues and both have started to rely on desalination plants.

Both have property insurance problems. Both have massive home foreclosure problems, plummeting housing prices and above-national-average unemployment rates. Both have state university systems that are suffering huge budget cuts. Both are relying on the giant federal stimulus package to shore up state budgets and spur job creation.

Heck, they have Disneyland. We followed with Disney World.

Gov. Schwarzenegger is a known role model for Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a fellow moderate Republican who patterned some of Florida's charge into cleaner climate, green and alternative energy initiatives after California's policies.

"He's a hero to me," Crist said of Schwarzenegger in a 2008 interview about climate change in the eco-magazine Grist.

While that's a ton of stuff in common, let's not get too carried away with this premise that "if it happens in California it will surely happen later in Florida." But there are lessons for Florida leaders to learn and policies to avoid in order to evade any similar day of reckoning here.

Lesson No. 1: Do not aspire blindly to what California is today. Schwarzenegger is threatening to shut down state government if the Legislature can't close the yawning $21 billion-plus budget gap in the next few weeks.

Unfortunately, Florida's show this spring of fiscal brinkmanship may not put the state too far behind. To make ends meet, Tallahassee legislators grabbed $2.2 billion from trust funds intended for other purposes and swiped $1.1 billion from the Budget Stabilization Fund, a key reserve account. That does not include the federal gift of $5 billion in stimulus funds also counted in order to cover the state's underfunded budget.

Florida, which so far has failed to deal with its fiscal problems with any long-term vision, could view California as an object lesson in the pain of putting off tough decisions. Sooner or later they have to be made. If they are made sooner, perhaps the pain can be stemmed and a "day of reckoning" averted.

Parallel states?

"The premise that there have been a number of similarities between the two states, and that things have happened in California before they have occurred in Florida. … That would be valid," says Stan Smith, professor of economics and the director of the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida.

But calling California a "role model" whose footsteps Florida dutifully follows may be a stretch, he adds. In this recession, many of California's budget woes also can be found in states other than Florida.

Still, the California-Florida parallels are intriguing, notes Gary Mormino, USF St. Petersburg history professor and author of Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A History of Modern Florida.

California and Florida, he says, are America's great "dream states."

"Florida was, for decades, the dream state option for the installment plan migrants," says Mormino, who e-mailed me some of his thoughts last week before heading out on vacation.

California's economy resembles more of a nation state, Mormino says, with a "still extraordinary defense/aerospace industry," reinforced by world-class universities.

"Alas," Mormino notes in contrast, "Florida's economy rests, as it has for many decades, on a flimsy three-legged stool of tourism, agriculture and construction."

Clearly, California's economy and runaway state spending have created massive problems, the USF professor says. But he predicts California will rebound — thanks, "in no small part, to national spending directed toward the state with the largest Democratic base."

Sand, then silicon

There are any number of slices of California's economy and culture that Florida would love to transplant here.

Silicon Valley, the technology center of the universe, is first and foremost. A powerhouse public university system, now diminished by budget cuts and bureaucracy, still commands the intellectual (not just sports fans') respect of the nation and world. (Private universities like Stanford and CalTech don't hurt, either.) Even some spinoff of California's enormous film industry is on Florida's wish list.

What these niches all have in common is the capacity to create better paying and more dynamic jobs. In California, the average job pays more than $48,000 annually. In Florida, it pays less than $39,000 — almost 20 percent less.

Florida has tapped role model California in the past to raise its economic bar.

In 2003, then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush envisioned a 21st century industry for his state with higher wages and lots of potential growth. So he tried to jump-start an anemic biotech industry in Florida by wooing California's prestigious Scripps Research Institute to expand and build a life science facility in Florida. To seal that deal, Bush waved half a billion dollars in federal, state and local incentive funds at Scripps.

The premise was that such a blue chip organization as Scripps would prove a magnet for others.

Today, more than five years later, Scripps Florida has opened its own commanding facility in Jupiter on the state's east coast. And since Scripps' arrival, what other high-end medical research firms have migrated to Florida? The Burnham Institute is now in Orlando. The Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies opened in Port St. Lucie. SRI International is building its own facility near USF St. Petersburg.

Where is each one of these premier organizations based? California.

Now it's up to Florida. The biotech pump is primed with government subsidies and imported expertise from California. But is there enough momentum, commitment and quality educational capacity here to make the state's life sciences industry blossom?

That's not yet clear. Since Gov. Bush left office, Gov. Crist has chosen to emphasize and nurture other projects. Is that good diversification or another case of Florida's chronic attention deficit disorder?

Soon after taking office, Crist opted to align himself with an emerging hot button largely ignored by predecessors: global warming. He held a clean climate summit that drew 600 participants and earned him attention in Time magazine and on national TV networks.

Even Schwarzenegger, who shared the Miami podium with Crist and whose climate policies Crist closely copied, called him "another great action hero."

Califlorida?

Certainly one area Florida hopes not to resemble California is in the migration patterns of its residents. For decades, California was a mega-magnet for Americans wishing to start over and, later, for immigrants (Hispanics and Asians, especially). In recent years, however, discontented Californians have been leaving to other less crowded states where housing prices and taxes are lower.

Florida, too, enjoyed huge and rapid population gains for decades, largely fueled by cheap housing, low taxes and the dream of sunshine and starting anew. It was a retiree's delight.

Florida's inflow has largely stopped in the past year or two. Fewer job opportunities, the stagnant housing market (making it tough to sell homes up North) and even fears of more active hurricane seasons and our dysfunctional property insurance market all combined to slow relocations to, and speed departures from, Florida.

Is this a long-term and onerous trend, like California's? University of Florida professor Smith's best guess is this is a short-term blip. Over the next 10 years, he expects to see a pickup in new people coming to Florida, certainly more than the numbers who leave.

"If that is the case," says Smith, "that would be different than California."

That's encouraging. Cherry-picking the best of California makes sense for any ambitious state. But a wholesale mimicking California? That's a sure ticket to one's own day of reckoning.

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

And it's the dawn of a day of reckoning 06/13/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 13, 2009 4:30am]
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