Romano: We're big but we're oh so bad

One by one, Florida has chased them down and picked them off. Massachusetts? Long gone. New Jersey? A distant memory. Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania? Relics of a time and place appropriately known as the Rust Belt. At various points in the past 50 years, Florida's population has blown past a half-dozen states. To be exact, Florida has grown more than all six of those states combined during the last five decades.

And now it looks like we have another within our grasp. Experts say by this time next year, Florida will have likely replaced New York as the third most populous state in the union, trailing only California and Texas.

Like it or not, the state of palm trees and retirees is now one of the big boys. The number of Florida place settings in the U.S. House of Representatives has grown from 12 in 1960 to 27 today, an expansion matched only by California and exceeded by no one.

Day by day, resident by resident, Florida continues to get larger.

So why don't we ever get smarter?

Let's face it, Florida has the girth of the Yankees and the ambition of the Astros. We bungle elections. We pass ridiculous legislation. We elect loons and acquit goons, and seem strangely proud of both.

And so here, on the eve of another legislative session in Tallahassee, I ask our honorable and distinguished lawmakers to consider this humble request:

Please grow up.

Stop with the knee-jerk laws. Stop with the pay-for-play legislation. Stop holding up a handful of chuckleheads in your district as an excuse for keeping Florida stuck in a 1970s time warp.

Trust me, this isn't journalistic angst or superficial snark. There's a Census-full of examples of Florida's backward policies, miscalculations and misguided priorities that have conspired to turn paradise into purgatory with condos.

You think I'm kidding?

Look at any list of the nation's top universities. Better yet, look at a compilation of those lists. California has eight of the top 30 schools in the country. New York has three. Even Texas, which is no one's idea of erudite, has a school on the list. Florida has none.

Look at the 2013 Fortune 500 list. Predictably, the states with the largest populations have the greatest number of desirable companies. California has 54. New York and Texas each have 52. Florida? It has 15. A dozen other states have more.

We have more people living in poverty than the national average. We have a lower percentage of people with health insurance. In the most recent Census figures, we spend less money per capita on education than 48 other states. We lag in mass transit and we're pretty high on the list of violent crimes.

Somehow, a state with beaches, terrific weather and nearly 20 million residents has trouble producing strong businesses, smart students and common sense.

Why is that?

Perhaps because our lawmakers are obsessed with pushing puerile agendas.

One of the bills ready to captivate Tallahassee this spring has to do with insurance companies discriminating against gun owners, which is already illegal under statutes and is rarely an issue according to staff analysis. Still, this bill will essentially make it double-super-inarguably illegal for insurance companies to squawk about guns.

And from the same corner of the Legislature that brought us "stand your ground'' comes a bill that would prevent children from being punished for playing with simulated weapons in schools. We are apparently in desperate need of this reform because a student in Maryland got in trouble for eating his Pop Tart into the shape of a gun.

We have a bill that would allow the state to ignore the EPA if it tries to restrict greenhouse gas standards, and another bill that will make it easier for developers to build in areas lacking existing roads and utilities, making infrastructure costs a new problem.

And after years of groveling and pandering to for-profit interests in the charter school industry, we are now returning to the school voucher debate, which would redirect your tax dollars into private schools that are largely exempt from public oversight.

The common theme in this type of lawmaking is powerful lobbying groups and big-money campaign donors who have not only purchased influence but actual legislation.

It's tempting to sit back and poke fun of every one of these ridiculous schemes as they come out of Tallahassee, but the cumulative effect is far too grievous.

Being a punch line is bad enough.

What's worse is Florida is a hopeless underachiever.

And we will remain that way as long as our lawmakers are shortsighted, ideologically driven and devoted more to benefactors than constituents.

John Romano is a Times columnist. He can be reached at romano@tampabay.com.

Romano: We're big but we're oh so bad 02/28/14 [Last modified: Friday, February 28, 2014 2:23pm]

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