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Are we ready for good times?

Editor's note: Columnist Howard Troxler ponders what's needed For a Better Florida and wonders why we're not angrier to be in a state …

• That paid Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway $224 million simply for the privilege of borrowing his money if a hurricane devastated Florida?

• That for a generation has reneged on its promise to use lottery money to add to education funding rather than just replacing it?

• That's so addicted to growth, it stutters and stops when people quit flocking here, even temporarily?

• That tried privatizing Medicaid nursing home diversion programs to discover that it gets only 70 cents of services for every tax dollar spent?

• Where budget cuts have forced the flagship university to make it harder and harder to get in, yet offers crowded classes and cutbacks to students who do?

• That always seems to be (over)reacting to the crisis of the moment, instead of planning for the foreseeable problems of five years hence?

• • •

As the saying goes, when you're up to your keister in alligators, it's hard to remember you were sent there to drain the swamp.

The challenge to the Florida Legislature is that there are always "alligators" swarming — the crisis of the year, the uproar of the hour. The coming year's budget disaster, for example, threatens to be all-consuming.

Yet governing a state of 18-million-plus people, with complex problems spanning years if not decades, takes a lot more than annual hole-patching.

What if 20 years ago, the state had put in place a long-term plan for using the Florida Lottery as a true "enhancement" for our education as promised — instead of letting it slide inevitably, year by year, into a mere shell-game replacement for tax dollars?

What if, after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and the collapse of the private insurance market, the state had gone all the way to take over hurricane insurance? Even if such a painful fix had taken a decade to build, we'd be seven years into it today — instead of just paying off Warren Buffett and crossing our fingers.

Here's a more recent, obvious example. What if, in 2004, the state had heeded credible warnings of the coming economic disaster and begun to reform its 1950s-era revenue and spending structure, instead of whistling Dixie and plunging right ahead?

Higher and K-12 education. Medicaid and health care. Florida's creaky, loophole-ridden tax system. When times are good, we spend what we have and feel no pressure to make reforms. When there's a crisis, we panic and grab the nearest short-term fix, whether or not it actually works, or is best for the long term.

There's a common Latin term used to describe this style of reacting in the short term, on a case-by-case basis — "ad hoc."

"Florida," concludes a recent report from the LeRoy Collins Institute at Florida State University, "continues to define the extreme of ad hoc."

The Collins Institute, named for the principled governor, deserves to be heard. That was the outfit that warned of the coming housing bust in a 2004 report titled Tough Choices. The reaction at the time ranged from indifference to outright mockery.

Now the institute has just produced an updated report — and you might be surprised at its new warning for Florida. It probably will be equally ignored in the middle of the current crisis.

Why? Because the report warns that Florida really needs to be planning now for an astonishing wave of prosperity and in-migration of baby-boomer retirees in the years to come. The Florida of 20 years hence, in 2029, will depend to a large extent on the decisions Florida makes in the short-term future.

In a way, this is a chance to get right what Florida got wrong in the last century — or to make some of the same mistakes all over again. Already, some Florida localities are talking about loosening their growth rules as an "incentive" or "stimulus."

"I do think in the long haul, we have bright possibilities," says David Denslow, a University of Florida economist and one of the authors of the report.

And yet, to a Floridian in 2009 — let alone a Florida legislator — in the middle of recession, flat home sales, lost jobs and a ridiculous budget deficit, and praying not to get blown off the map for one more year, it's awfully hard to be spending precious time planning for rosy futures.

Which is exactly the problem. In fact, a new retiree invasion poses profound questions for Florida. Do we want to evolve into a state of nothing but wealthy retirees and service jobs?

If not, what are we doing about it? What are the implications for school budgets and the demand on the health care system?

Why are we letting the higher education system, our best hope for diversity of economic development, simply wither?

"In Florida's defense, I think most states are like this," says Carol Weissert, a FSU professor, director of the Collins Institute and co-author of the Tough Choices report. "Politicians usually don't deal with long-term things very well."

A logical question is whether there is something about the structure of Florida's government that lends itself to short-term, quick-fix thinking.

One natural suspect is term limits. Florida voters imposed eight-year limits on the Legislature in 1992. Certainly, they worked; they drove longtime, old-guard barons out of the Legislature. Some needed to go.

But term limits also stripped the Legislature of institutional experience and shifted the balance of power toward lobbyists. In the House, young first-term members with ambition compete to lock up future speakerships before they learn the first thing about statesmanship, compromise or vision. (Since some House members "graduate" to the Senate, that chamber has a higher overall experience level.)

Yet structure alone is not the solution. If anyone needs proof, just look at last year's Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, which meets every 20 years and is supposed to provide exactly this kind of long-term vision.

Instead, the commission, composed of political appointees, proved to be another version of the Legislature, producing mostly small-bore, ideological ideas about school vouchers and attacks on church-state separation.

"I think it was a missed opportunity," says Curt Kiser, a former legislator and chairman of the Collins Institute. He notes that the reform commission, like the Legislature itself, was caught up in the short-term furor over cutting property taxes — a "crisis" driven by a real-estate boom that was already collapsing.

The Collins report makes several recommendations for Florida, some bigger than others:

• We should not fall back into cheap incentives and tax breaks to attract growth, which threatens simply to repeat the cycle.

• We should join the 21st century by joining an interstate compact on taxing sales over the Internet — an outdated loophole that hurts native Florida businesses and leaves billions in revenue uncollected.

• We should add new construction to the tax rolls as it comes on-line, rather than the antiquated practice of waiting until the next year.

• We should make sure to recapture "green-belt" tax breaks on agricultural property once it is sold for development.

• We must re-fund higher education in Florida, the engine of economic development and the cradle of our intellectual future.

• We should modify the requirements of Florida's class-size amendment for flexibility, and we should reform the Bright Futures scholarship program.

Ultimately, long-term vision must come from the leadership of the elected Legislature itself. That Legislature, in turn, must be chosen by voters who prize vision over quick fixes.

Sometimes that means political leadership that makes choices unpopular in the short term —a real hurricane solution, a real reform of the tax system, a real investment in higher education, and a real assessment of Medicaid and Bright Futures.

In a sense, Florida, only now recovering from decades of bulldozer-and-fire-sale growth, has begun to "knit" into a coherent culture with a sense of shared stakeholdership. This is our breathing space before the whole cycle repeats and waves of unrooted newcomers arrive, understandably more focused on their own short-term interest than vested in their adopted state's long-term future.

"There aren't very many," Kiser says, "who are willing to stand up and say, 'If we don't do this now, this is what's going to happen. I'm willing to take the gamble that we need to make this change.'

"People change their whole life to run for office. They raise and spend a lot of money," Kiser says. In a Legislature where the "veterans" begin their final term in six years, and power is locked up years in advance, the last thing anyone has time for is potentially painful or career-ending, decades-spanning statesmanship.

"I guess," Kiser says, "they just don't feel that the public can accept the truth."

And it might be, in a world driven by insta-polls, the Internet, quick fixes, a superficial media and a preference for short-term comfort enabled by ignoring long-term risk, that the public can't accept the truth.

But for the sake of the Florida of 2029, let's hope not.

Howard Troxler can be reached at htroxler@sptimes.com.

Are we ready for good times? 02/26/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 27, 2009 4:43pm]
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