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Florida — the sad state of our state

Bob Graham argues that the current Legislature is on a course to erase decades of investment and progress in education.

Associated Press

Bob Graham argues that the current Legislature is on a course to erase decades of investment and progress in education.

As the Legislature enters its second half, there has emerged a disturbing pattern of ignoring many of Florida's core values. Over the last half-century these values have given Florida government — whether in Republican or Democratic hands — a stability and predictability that is now threatened.

What are some of those at-risk values?

Florida is a treasure which we have the privilege of enjoying with the responsibility to preserve and enhance that treasure for future generations.

For most of Florida's history, up until the mid 1960s, our state was treated like a commodity. If you didn't like it you changed it: land into water; water into land. The business of the state was business, and our enormous natural resources were just another input. The quality and safety of our coasts, fresh waters, open lands and the Everglades were regularly and enthusiastically sacrificed on the altar of growth.

Riding over the horizon were two merging armies. Emerging Democratic leaders, such as Reubin Askew of Pensacola and Lawton Chiles of Lakeland, who were in the vanguard of the recently reapportioned Legislature, joined forces with young Republicans like Nathaniel Reed of Hobe Sound and Warren Henderson of Sarasota, who were appalled at the change they had seen in their newly adopted state.

These armies had a common mission: to reverse the damage commoditization had done to Florida and replace it with a culture of conservation and intergenerational responsibility.

The markers of success of the united armies of Florida are many.

Florida has one of America's most esteemed state park systems. Our state has seen dramatic improvements in air and water quality. The Florida Everglades are now the American Everglades with Congress agreeing to partner with the state to preserve this unique treasure for our grandchildren's grandchildren and beyond — a public-private partnership for quality development rather than lowest common denominator.

In the next month all of this will be threatened. The Florida Forever Act and its predecessor land-acquisition programs, which have saved almost 9.4 million acres of our most environmentally sensitive lands for the public is, after 44 years, being zeroed out of the budget. The proposed cuts to Everglades restoration are so deep it is doubtful the crucial goal of salvaging this world treasure and protecting the water supply for more than 6 million Floridians will be realized. If Florida walks out on Everglades restoration, Congress won't be far behind. Comprehensive planning for future land and water use, which has elevated growth to a new standard of quality, is under all-out assault.

Florida is a dynamic state which requires vision to assure that future opportunities and needs are anticipated and met.

Since World War II that vision has largely been focused on understanding and responding to Florida's incredible growth.

Florida was the least affected of America's large population states by the Industrial Revolution. Our economy today — service, agriculture, tourism — is not much different than it was a century ago. What has substituted for traditional industry and has served as the fourth leg of our economic stool has been growth. Since the 1960s Florida has grown consistently by 3 million new residents each decade. It almost did so in the first decade of this new century but stagnant growth in the last years of that decade held it below the historic standard.

This is not a blip or statistical anomaly. There are several factors that have converged to slow growth, but three should particularly concern us. The current economic recession has shaken many Americans nearing retirement as to whether their defined contribution pension will support a move to Florida. Talk of major changes to Social Security and Medicare heightens that anxiety. Other states, especially in the Southeast, have emerged as stiff competitors for the attention of families at or near retirement. Fewer young families are choosing Florida as their home.

Now, new vision is required to prepare Florida for an era in which, yes, there will be growth, but it will be likely be at a reduced rate and reduced capacity to carry our economy.

So what do we do about it? Get serious about attracting the technology industries which are shaping and will shape the world's future. This will require a dual strategy: a renewed commitment to the protection of our competitive edge — Florida's environment — and building a world-class preschool through graduate school education system. The states which have benefited most by technology industries — such as North Carolina and Virginia — have done so not by selling themselves as the cheapest places to do business but rather as states that have built the infrastructure and the educational institutions which will most help businesses achieve sustained profitability.

In addition to a potential return to the Florida as a commodity policy of the early 20th century, this Legislature is on course to erase decades of investment and progress in education. Hopefully the Legislature will reject a proposal of a 10 percent per student cut in primary and secondary schools. Less likely is a change in the downward trajectory of support for higher education. Since 1990, in inflation-adjusted dollars, per student funding of the state university system from general revenue has dropped by about $4,000. These savage cuts to education expose a lack of vision for Florida's future.

Florida aspires to fundamental fairness for all its citizens.

Traditionally Florida's tax system was based on three principles: adequacy: sufficient revenue to support education and other services to the people; resilience: a stable revenue stream matched to needs so that the effects of business cycles are mitigated; and fairness: Floridians pay taxes according to their ability to do so.

These principles have been mangled by changes in the last decade, most of which were advanced as necessary for economic growth.

Since 1999 there has been a stream of tax reductions to make the state more attractive for investment. Absent these cuts, state revenue in 2011 would be $4 billion greater. This would have avoided the need for the deep cuts now being considered by the Legislature.

The stunning truth is that on virtually all fronts — the Legislature, the executive budget office, academics — there has been a failure to subject these cuts to the basic question: Did they work?

Without specific analysis we are left to answer that question based on data reflecting the impact these cuts had on jobs: How many jobs have been created and what did they contribute to the quality of life of working families?

The increase in jobs from 2000 to 2010, after the economic development stimulating tax cuts began taking effect, was 606,798. This increase was substantially less the in the two decades prior to the tax cuts: 1980-1990: 1,998,833; 1990-2000: 1,530,936.

Those statistics describe the quantity of jobs created before and after the tax cuts. In terms of take-home pay, what was the quality of those jobs? Florida first achieved a long-sought goal of exceeding the national average of per capita income in 1983 when Floridians earned 100.3 percent of the national average. State workers reached a peak in per capita income in 1987 at 101.7. By 2010 that relationship reversed and Floridians earned only 96.8 percent of the national average.

After 12 years of tax cuts, there is no evidence in these numbers that the cuts have achieved their purpose of accelerating quality jobs.

If that is the case, what have we done? All of the tax cuts, particularly the total repeal of the tax on stocks and bonds, primarily benefited the upper 5 percent of Floridians, thus contributing to the enormous disparity in wealth in the United States: The top 5 percent of Americans claim 63.5 percent of the nation's wealth, while the lowest 80 percent get only 12.8 percent. In more recent years, Florida politicians have regressively shifted the cost of state services from the richest Floridians to those working hardest just to make ends meet. If the Legislature remains committed to adequacy, resilience and fairness as the foundation of our tax system, serious reconsideration should be given to these tax cuts and the harm they have done.

As a lifelong Florida Democrat, I consider myself to be a conservative man in my personal conduct and political philosophy. I believe in respecting traditions which have proven themselves in the real life of our state. I hope this Legislature will pause, reassess the consequences of its decisions on the future of Florida, reject extremist ideologies, and recommit to Florida's heritage of commonsense values.

Bob Graham was governor from 1979-1987 and represented the state as a U.S. senator from 1987-2005.

Florida — the sad state of our state 04/01/11 [Last modified: Monday, April 4, 2011 11:51am]
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