JD Alexander is the face of what is wrong with Florida. First the Senate budget chairman demands that the University of South Florida campus in Lakeland immediately become independent and earmarks millions for the new university. Now the Lake Wales Republican stands to get millions for a toll road that would run near the new university and one day benefit his company's ranch. Alexander's self-interest is exceeded only by the cost to taxpayers, destruction of public policy and further erosion of public confidence in state government.
Florida cries out for vision and leadership. Its state universities are overflowing with nearly 330,000 students as the Legislature cuts spending on higher education. Not one public university ranks in the nation's top 50, yet there is no grand consensus on moving forward. Beyond quality higher education, modern transportation and smart growth are other keys to a vibrant quality of life and a strong economy. Yet the Legislature uses money dedicated to roads to patch other holes in the budget, decimates growth management and overturns decades of water policy.
Florida is floundering because of legislators like Alexander, a one-man Pork Chop Gang. That's the nickname given to powerful rural legislators in the late 1950s and early 1960s who controlled Tallahassee and focused on their self-interests rather than the broader needs of most Floridians. Several generations later, Alexander represents that same narrow mind-set. Only the cost to taxpayers has risen.
Alexander defends the budget language that would grant USF Polytechnic its immediate independence, and he inserted $33 million for the new university. He ran over the Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system and had approved a more deliberate approach. He ignored the USF Poly faculty and students, who want to remain part of USF. And he threatened to decimate USF's budget if he did not get his way.
But a new university is not enough for Alexander. Now the proposed budget also includes $34.5 million for a toll road to go with it. The Heartland Parkway was Alexander's previous pet project, and it would promote exactly the suburban sprawl that has spoiled too much of Florida. The road has been on hold for years because there would not be enough traffic without major new developments — and a new university would help generate that traffic. There's not enough money to widen roads in clogged urban areas, and light rail is out of favor in Tallahassee. But apparently there are millions for a toll road to please one state senator.
Alexander isn't the first state legislator to leave Tallahassee with big parting prizes. A Panhandle senator once tried to build a football stadium for a college with no football team. There are university buildings and civic centers named for state lawmakers all over Florida. Alexander isn't even the first to pursue a road project to nowhere. In the 1990s, a House speaker insisted on building "Bo's Bridge'' in the Panhandle based on inflated traffic projections and creative financing. The tolls did not support it, and the bridge authority went broke last year.
But Alexander's spoils break the mold with a new university and a new toll road that cannot be justified and will cost taxpayers untold millions for decades. His Senate colleagues and a public outcry from Tampa Bay prevented him from gutting USF's budget. But unless something changes in the last week of the legislative session, lawmakers appear ready to give in to the bully. They would build a new university while cutting thousands of kids from subsidized after-school care and reducing Medicaid payments to hospitals treating the poor. They would build a new toll road but spend no money to buy environmentally sensitive lands or match private donations to build university buildings. The priorities are upside down.
Floridians deserve better. Sens. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, have stood up to Alexander. They need more help. Gov. Rick Scott campaigned as a political outsider, and he can demonstrate his independence by refusing to let Alexander's projects become law.
Alexander represents only his own interests. The question is whether the governor and other state lawmakers will represent the greater interests of every other Floridian.