Sunday, May 20, 2018
Opinion

Column: Federal government as enemy? Not so fast

In the last decade, a political ideology has surfaced that depicts the federal government as a millstone around the neck of the nation. If you have followed the sequester debate, for example, you will have heard this expression used so frequently that it has become almost common parlance.

But is it accurate? Let's just focus for a minute on one state — Florida — and the role the federal government has played in its development. By any measure, the evidence underscores the point that Florida's postwar growth and development would not have been possible without the active intervention of the federal government.

Take World War II as an example. The investment the federal government made in Florida to train American GIs for the war in Europe and Asia ended 14 years of brutal economic Depression in the state. Those years make the recent Great Recession seem like a cakewalk. More than 25 percent of the population was unemployed in an era when most women did not work. Florida's cities teetered on the edge of bankruptcy throughout the 1930s. Key West actually went bankrupt.

War mobilization launched the state's economic recovery — it built roads, air facilities and ports — and introduced hundreds of thousands of Americans to Florida for the first time. These federal investments in the state laid the foundation for its postwar population and economic boom.

Okay, so the naysayers among you contend that World War II necessitated federal action to protect the nation and defeat our fascist enemies. It was a unique series of developments in your view, not to be duplicated in another era.

Only 10 years later, however, the state's future was seriously tested by the civil rights revolution. A majority in the Florida Legislature opposed public school desegregation and integration in the public sphere.

Gov. LeRoy Collins urged legislators and Floridians to accept the changes ordered by the federal courts and federal government, but he got nowhere. Legislators promised to close the public school system if integration occurred. Even as Florida's economic development slowed, legislators refused to yield. Only the actions of the federal courts in the 1950s and 1960s and the federal government through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 led Florida to abandon its racial traditions and ultimately preserved its postwar economic prosperity.

If you remain unconvinced, consider the resistance of North Florida to equitable representation in the state Legislature.

From 1945 to 1967, representatives from North Florida refused to apportion the state Legislature to reflect the dramatic growth of South Florida and largely ignored the interests of residents in that region.

In a battle royal over who would control state politics and the future direction of the state, North Florida legislators refused to relinquish control for 23 years. By 1955, 8 percent of the population in rural Florida controlled a majority of seats in the state Senate and 17.1 percent controlled a majority in the state House.

It took the action of the U.S. Supreme Court in Swann vs. Adams (1967) to force the state to redraw its districts and bring about an equitable reapportionment of the state Legislature. Without such action, it is not clear when the Legislature would have reflected the will of all Floridians and particularly the needs of those in South Florida.

These actions by the federal government were essential to Florida's modernization. Without federal action, Florida would have remained mired in the politics and racial policies of the 19th century, and the dynamic population and economic growth of the post-1945 era would have been stymied.

Moreover, the federal highway system that made Florida accessible to middle-class Americans, the development of Cape Canaveral that spurred space exploration, federal assistance to Cuban immigrants that ensured their access to freedom in Florida and this nation, and the construction of military bases and ports throughout the state are just some other important examples of federal action that ensured Florida's economic prosperity.

So before we go jumping on the anti-federal government bandwagon, imagine how Florida would look today without it. Florida would certainly not be a place of nearly 20 million diverse people who have made the state a microcosm of the nation and who have extended its reach throughout North and South America.

David R. Colburn is director of the Bob Graham Center at the University of Florida and author "From Yellow Dog Democrats to Red State Republicans" (2007). He can be reached at [email protected] He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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