What they're saying

SUNSET STATE

In case you missed it, Time magazine recently did a number on Florida. At least that's how tourism and chamber of commerce officials probably see it. I thought the story was a badly needed reality check in this state of denial.

This is how the piece, written by the magazine's Miami-based Michael Grunwald, opened:

"Greetings from Florida, where the winters are great! Otherwise, there's trouble in paradise. We're facing our worst real estate meltdown since the Depression. We've got a water crisis, insurance crisis, environmental crisis and a budget crisis to go with our housing crisis. We're first in the nation in mortgage fraud, second in foreclosures, last in high school graduation rates. Our consumer confidence just hit an all-time low, and our icons are in trouble — the citrus industry, battered by freezes and diseases; the Florida panther, displaced by highways and driveways; the space shuttle, approaching its final countdown. New research suggests that the Everglades is collapsing, that our barrier beaches could be under water within decades, that a major hurricane could cost us $150-billion.''

So baby boomers, you still want to retire to the Sunshine State, which Time suggested is in danger of becoming the "Sunset State''? Oh yes, Time forgot to mention that while the state has no income tax, its property taxes, coupled with ever-increasing insurance costs, are enough to send many homeowners to the poorhouse.

If you are more interested in quality of lifestyle than in the quality of public schools and higher education, Florida is the place for you – if you can afford to live here, that is.

As Time put it, "The land of Disney dreams for the middle class is now a high-cost, low-wage state with Mickey Mouse schools and Goofy insurance rates, living beyond its environmental and economic means.''

To hear its worst detractors tell it, Florida is on its way to becoming a Third World state. However, Gov. Charlie Crist, the eternal optimist, will hear none of that talk. "How can you not be optimistic about Florida?'' he told Time. "Is there a more beautiful place on the planet?'' (Hey governor, have you ever been to Italy?)

Crist is not worried. If the old Florida disappears, he said, "we're going to make a new Florida.''

Crist's optimism is offset by the concerns of Bob Graham, the state's elder statesman, a former two-term Democratic governor and three-term U.S. senator. As Graham knows, Florida has seen its share of "Trouble in Paradise'' stories over the years. This time, however, something feels different about the state's mounting woes.

"This may be our tipping point,'' Graham told Time.

The Good Book says where there is no vision, the people perish. If that's true, Florida is in real trouble. Our zippity-doo-dah governor has good instincts, but more often than not he just follows the state's regressive Legislature, which has neither the vision nor the political will to address the state's most pressing problems.

Time's Grunwald wrote: "The GOP-controlled Legislature has responded to the state's woes with protracted arguments about evolution and other Terri Schiavo-style social issues as well as legislation proposing crackdowns on bikers who pop wheelies, students who wear droopy pants and truckers who hang fake cojones on their rigs.''

That's our Legislature, all right, and it's one of the main reasons why there is trouble in paradise.

Florida has a tattered social contract with its citizens. It clings to a scandalously unfair property tax system where your neighbor, thanks to the Save Our Homes amendment, may be paying half of what you're paying in property taxes on a comparable house. Lawmakers refuse to consider closing a single sales tax exemption or to tax Internet sales. Prisons are a growth industry. To lure businesses here, Florida offers tax favors and other taxpayer-funded subsidies instead of investing in schools and higher education. Its universities are suffering from a "brain drain'' as some of their best professors and researchers accept jobs in other states that put a greater value on education.

Okay, I'm not naive. Florida isn't the only state in trouble. The whole country is reeling from soaring oil prices and the housing crisis, and for all its problems, Florida is still a more desirable place to live than many other big-population, high-tax states. California is burning and struggling with a $15-billion budget shortfall. New Jersey, where the word government is synonymous with corruption, is facing a painful day of reckoning as the bill comes due for its underfunded public sector pensions. And I certainly would not hold up the Georgia legislature as an example of the kind of leadership Florida needs to move forward.

None of this should come as comfort to Floridians who are concerned about their state's cloudy future. For now anyway, about the only thing to look forward to is the coming of winter. Boy, do we know how to do winter.

SUNSET STATE 07/19/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 22, 2008 4:35pm]

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