Three of Florida's most powerful business groups — Enterprise Florida, the Chamber of Commerce and the Council of 100 — have offered 250 recommendations to the Legislature about how to respond to the economic recession. But their prescription reflects the self-interests of big business and developers rather than the welfare of all Floridians. It approaches the future by embracing the worst excesses of the past, and it would move Florida backward, not forward.
Under the cover of economic emergency, the business groups mount a frontal assault on growth management and the environment. They want to loosen the state's oversight of large development projects and put it in the hands of local governments — where developers are more likely to get their way. They propose placing a three-year moratorium on school impact fees; lifting restrictions on rock mining; and overriding a Florida Supreme Court decision that granted injured workers greater access to redress. Lawmakers should not be fooled. This plan is aimed more at resuscitating an unsustainable growth economy, not building a new one. It would do little for Floridians struggling to make the mortgage, buy health care and educate their children. It would make it easier for developers to carve more scars into a state that already has more than its share.
Some of the business groups' ideas have merit. They encourage the Legislature to minimize cuts to public schools and higher education. They make the link between a strong education system and luring high-paying industry. They support collecting the sales tax on Internet sales, which could go a long way, eventually, toward creating a fairer, stronger tax base. Nonetheless, the real priorities of the groups' wish list were apparent last week as the annual legislative session opened.
A House panel, with little debate, unanimously approved a bill that would cut in half the time regulators have to respond to water requests from companies considering relocating to Florida. The bill, HB 73, was approved despite the Department of Environmental Protection's warning that the proposed 45-day limit might be too short to study the impact of a massive industrial development. Another House committee approved HB 227, which would make it easier for developers to challenge a city or county's impact fees on new construction. Also gaining traction is a plan to roll back requirements in a 2006 law that new developments pay for needed transportation improvements. And business lobbyists lined up before a House committee to defend sales tax exemptions that benefit their clients. The line was not nearly as long to speak before an education committee.
Government always can be more efficient. The environment can be protected and growth can be managed without leaving businesses hanging indefinitely. Many cities agree the 2006 rules on transportation concurrency need to change to encourage construction in urban areas. But business leaders are disingenuous to suggest these protections are to blame for Florida's economy — or that by reversing them jobs will be plentiful, houses will sell and shoppers will return. Most of these rules were in place during the past decade's boom. They did not stall growth. Developers, with the help of the lax financial markets, overbuilt, leaving the state with 300,000 vacant homes. Subdivisions and strip centers continued to stretch far beyond urban centers; many of them are empty now. Lifting environmental protections and growth management rules will not lift the state out of this recession.
The business groups argue they have mapped a path to a better, modern Florida economy. They are really asking lawmakers to turn back the clock to try to recreate the type of development boom that helped land Florida in trouble in the first place. That's in their interest, but not Floridians'.