Florida is a state in deep trouble. A boom-and-bust decade of red-hot growth has given way to disturbing conditions that threaten the well-being of our people and our future.
Florida can regain sound footing, but only if we draw the right conclusions and make wise choices.
In its first examination of key economic indicators, the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy found that per-person income growth in Florida has fallen to 45th in the country. The income gap between the most affluent Floridians and those on the middle and bottom rungs of the economic ladder is among the biggest in the United States — and is widening. Then there's this double whammy: Florida suffers one of the nation's highest unemployment rates, and almost half of the jobs pay wages too low for many families to get by. In addition:
• The state ranks 47th in real rate of growth in gross state product — the value of goods and services produced.
• The number of people in poverty is up 180,000 in one year.
• About one in 10 residents receive food stamps.
• Foreclosures have quadrupled over the past three years.
Of course, economic problems are not unique to Florida. But Florida's ability to recover is in peril. In the past, we prospered in part by attracting hordes of new residents with weather, natural beauty and low taxes. They stimulated homebuilding, related commercial construction and service jobs.
But now Florida's population growth is stagnant. Future increases will likely be much more modest — not enough to fuel the kind of boom Florida enjoyed during the six decades since World War II.
Furthermore, the huge supply of existing houses on the market will depress homebuilding and associated activity in the next few years, which will lower tax revenue and continue budget pressures on state government.
Florida's problems are compounded by the poor job the state did making investments in prosperous times. During the boom, when there were more resources to meet priorities, like education, Florida did not distinguish itself in the quality of life afforded its residents. The state's high school graduation rate is 45th in the country; so is its health system, according to a recent national study. Tens of thousands of residents are on waiting lists for services for seniors, the disabled, and those with mental health and substance abuse problems.
Florida's state government spending per capita is 44th. We're 49th in combined state and local government spending on education. Our state spends proportionately less on education than most states, but more on corrections than all but two.
These gloomy statistics suggest that we may be getting exactly what we're paying for. The current recession is exacerbating a problem deeper than outside forces; a state's economy doesn't occur in isolation from government actions.
But the future need not be dismal. Good choices are available.
First, we need to pay more than lip service to the fundamental truth that a well-educated citizenry and workforce are required to prosper. That means investing in public schools, community colleges and universities.
Second, as lawmakers in Tallahassee balance the state's budget, they should remember the millions of middle- and lower-income Florida residents having trouble making ends meet. Yes, increased efficiency and effectiveness are proper goals when deciding how much to spend on state programs. But neither should we forget those Floridians eligible for often-critical services who go unserved because of underfunded state programs.
Finally, choosing wisely means undertaking a serious, long overdue effort to modernize Florida's tax structure to make taxes and tax exemptions fairer and produce a structure that generates revenues to provide quality services. Tax modernization is essential to improving the well-being of residents and creating strong, sustainable economic growth in the years ahead.
As Floridians, we can engage in robust debate over exactly how to modernize. But economic conditions point to a clear conclusion: Florida is a state where big changes are needed.
John Hall is executive director of the nonprofit Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy in Tallahassee, which conducts independent research on state fiscal and economic issues. Its recent report can be found at www.fcfep.org.