The Florida roller coaster can be exhilarating one moment and terrifying the next. The ride never has been smooth, from the land boom and depression early in the last century to the housing bubble and recession that define the opening of this one. But this is a particularly rough stretch, and Florida has veered off track. • Unemployment remains at 12 percent, and housing values are still falling. Many workers have gone without raises for years, and new jobs often pay less than ones that disappeared. The state has cut billions in spending and still faces a $3.6 billion budget shortfall. More than one in five residents are considering moving out of state. There is a crisis of confidence in Florida's future. • Creating jobs is Gov. Rick Scott's top priority. But his plans to cut spending on education, social services and state workers' benefits to help pay for tax breaks are destructive. Florida cannot cut its way to prosperity. The best approach would be a combination of new revenue, practical spending reductions and smart investments. Lawmakers do not have the courage to tackle tax reform. But they should invest in this state instead of starving it to death. • Nearly two of three Floridians are from somewhere else. They came for the sunshine and a bright future. It is up to the governor and the Legislature to renew their faith and give them reason to believe better days are ahead.
THREE investment plans
Spending $1 billion on transportation is worth up to 30,000 jobs, the federal government estimates. Yet Florida has delayed or killed $10 billion in road projects in the last five years. Reverse that trend and stop raiding a transportation trust fund to pay for other programs. The state is billions of dollars behind in road improvements, and it's time to start catching up.
Invest more in ports, including the Port of Tampa — the state's largest. Jacksonville and Miami make good arguments for deepening their ports to accommodate larger cargo ships, which would increase trade and help the economy.
Florida should not give up on rail, despite the rejection of high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando. The state should create better ways for regions such as Tampa Bay to create and fund light rail that would spur economic development throughout the area.
Nothing is more crucial to Florida's future than strong schools and quality higher education. Yet, the state has cut base funding for state universities 24 percent in the past five years and all but frozen public school teacher salaries. Excellence won't happen as long as Florida's teachers remain among the worst paid in the country and the higher education system is among the poorest funded.
Key opportunities: Implement a fair teacher merit pay plan that provides strong incentives to attract the best to teaching. Find $13.5 million to encourage stronger standards for teachers in the state's prekindergarten program, where creating a strong foundation pays huge dividends throughout a student's career. Give school districts flexibility on implementing the class-size amendment so they can spend money more wisely. Provide state colleges the resources they need to retrain workers and pay for enrollment growth. Fund the State University System's New Florida Initiative that targets research with commercial applications.
Social programs — money spent on individual Floridians — are investments that save cash in the long run. For example, legislators are wisely poised to finally consider alternatives to prison that have a better chance of rehabilitating criminals into productive citizens.
Do not be penny-wise and pound foolish in controlling health care costs. Save the Medically Needy Program, which serves 40,000 poor people who don't qualify for Medicaid but cannot afford health care. If the program is cut, those costs will be passed on to public hospitals, taxpayers and insured patients. Finding another $177 million in state funds to cover another 300,000 children who qualify to receive Medicaid or subsidized health insurance would enable Florida to collect another $271 million in federal dollars. Keep coverage for eyeglasses and dentures so thousands of Floridians have the tools to find work and function independently.
Finally, keep unemployment compensation at 26 weeks to avoid swelling the ranks of the state's homeless population and increasing the demand for social services.