The Florida Chamber of Commerce talks a good game: Invest in education, restore infrastructure, improve transportation, attract high-paying jobs, protect the state's quality of life. But don't be hoodwinked by the feel-good message chamber leaders espoused this week at their conference at the Disney Yacht Club Resort. Actions speak louder than words, and for years the chamber has touted the same lofty goals only to undercut them with their lobbying efforts during the annual legislative session. It's time for the chamber to act like a leader for Florida's future, not just talk about it.
During this week's spiel, chamber CEO Mark Wilson evoked the 2-year-old Wall Street Journal headline "Is Florida Over?" as a call to arms for reshaping Florida from a low-wage tourism and construction-based economy to one where an educated work force commands high wages. Florida needs to make some hard choices and key investments, he told the group, to grow beyond our "cheap" economy.
Wilson is right about that long-term goal. Florida's growth-fueled economy isn't coming back. The state needs a new plan. But exactly when is the chamber going to step up and call for public investment to reach those goals?
The chamber, through its political activities, has been one of the major stumbling blocks in Tallahassee to overhauling the state's outdated tax structure so it can help spawn a new economy. By staying silent or by direct assault, it has pushed repeatedly to narrow Florida's tax base, prohibiting any sustained quality investment in education. Its annual awards are showered on legislators doing the chamber's short-term, special interest bidding — such as weakening workers' compensation laws — rather than on those who strive to alter the state's economic landscape. It acknowledges the tax structure is flawed, but it will not embrace taxing Internet sales in a meaningful way or extending the sales tax to services.
The tension between the chamber's laudable goals and its opposition to investing in Florida's future was on full display this past session when it properly championed allowing the state's 11 public universities to implement different tuition rates to enhance offerings. But the chamber has been reluctant to attack the bigger problem. The reason? For 20 years, the state's contribution to higher education has been in decline. State investment will need a fairer tax structure that raises more revenue, and the chamber does not want to champion changes that would cost its members money.
The same is true for K-12 education. Lawmakers could find only $6,873 per student to spend this year compared to $7,126 two years ago — and they relied heavily on federal stimulus money to do that. Where was the chamber's outrage or action then?
Even worse, the chamber helped exacerbate Florida's problems this year instead of laying groundwork for a new economy. It joined with home builders and developers to back Senate Bill 360 over the objections of cities and counties. The law decimates the state's growth management laws and lets developers off the hook for paying for road improvements to handle the traffic their projects create. The chamber expected it to jump-start growth even as 300,000 homes sat empty. High-tech industries and the employees they attract are not lured by the notion of urban sprawl, clogged roads and more strip shopping centers. It would not be surprising if the chamber's next brainstorm for job creation is oil drilling that risks the tourism industry.
The next legislative session won't be any easier. Lawmakers will face another $2.6 billion shortfall. If the chamber truly wants to reshape Florida's future, it should push lawmakers to modernize the tax structure, including collecting sales taxes on Internet sales and other transactions. Otherwise, those lofty goals are only so much hot air.