Letters to the governor
Readers offer advice for Gov. Charlie Crist
Editor's Note: Roughly three dozen readers went to our Web site and wrote letters to Gov. Charlie Crist about the state's priorities. The idea was for readers to collaborate and to rank the letters. While that did not work out, there were some thoughtful responses. Among them:
Subsidizing health care for state workers is unfair
Dear Gov. Charlie Crist:
According to the St. Petersburg Times, over 26,000 top-level state employees have their health insurance premiums completely paid by taxpayers. This is outrageous.
My daughter (a certified teacher without a teaching job because of budget shortfalls and hiring freezes) and I don't have health insurance because we can't afford the premiums. So why are we paying the premiums for full-time state officials who, in many cases, earn more than $100,000? There's something very wrong with this picture.
My daughter works in retail and I'm in customer service. Both of our employers hire only part-time workers, so that they don't have to provide health insurance benefits. My daughter and I are hard-working employees, but according to your statements, "these public servants are at the top of their fields and lend great expertise." How great can their expertise be when so much of Florida is not functioning in an efficient and cost-effective manner?
Yet we ordinary citizens, the backbone of this state, are to believe that we are less valuable to our employers and thus should spend our hard-earned low-income dollars to subsidize health care for state employees?
My property taxes have risen, my homeowners insurance premiums are through the roof and the value of my property has greatly depreciated. I work a low-income job, I can't afford health insurance and I need medical attention. Who is going to help me?
Tax overhaul needed
Congratulations on having the courage to support the federal stimulus package. What a sad commentary on politics in America today when such an exercise in common sense does in fact constitute an act of courage. It is my hope that you can motivate our state's legislators to do the right thing by embracing the federal dollars that will forestall the financial destruction of our state for a year or two. Inherent in accomplishing this will be the move beyond the self-serving, reductionist philosophies of small-government, tax- abhoring conservatives verses tax-and-spend, big- government liberals.
We must fund basic Florida governmental services: police, fire, public education, the courts and criminal justice organizations. We must also restructure the funding mechanisms that support these basic functions, and that means taxation reform in this state.
We have no state personal income tax. Great! This ought to enable us to tax services, reduce sales tax exemptions, collect Internet sales taxes, tax corporations for Florida profits, and increase the sin taxes. Failure to address these glaring needs insures that Florida will not compete with other states that have modern, growth-oriented tax structures, and dooms us to not recover from the current crisis or ensures we will return to historic difficulties in Florida such as underfunding of public education, colleges and universities, child welfare and protection agencies, etc.
In spite of the immediacy of our current economic nightmare, I think most Floridians are ready to support politicians who are prepared to look down the road and not merely respond to the problems we create for ourselves in the immediate present. That means a dramatic overhaul of our obsolete taxation structure so that our state's economic recovery can propel us into a realistic, forward-focused political leadership model.
Don't burden working class
There are no easy solutions to solving the budget or economic crises this state is currently facing, but there are a couple of sure-fire ways to start generating revenue to avoid further burdening the average and low-income working class which is and will remain the majority in this state.
This state has been subject to a tremendous change over the last decade, going from an affordable working and retirement state to one that has become unaffordable not only to retirees but also to the average working class. Everything that affects the cost of living of working residents has skyrocketed except their wages to keep pace.
Florida, in order to survive, must stop trying to be unique in supporting the wealthy while continuing to attack the average and low-income working class by suggesting raising taxes on commodities such as cigarettes, gas and auto tags. This is not only unfair but also will not supplement the budget enough to make the difference and will only further burden these groups' struggle to meet their cost of everyday economic survival.
Yes to an Internet sales tax! Yes to closing corporate loopholes! Sure-fire ways of producing tax revenue which would be fair and just for all income classes are to raise the sales tax by a penny or two and to allow casino gambling, which would also create thousands of jobs for construction, maintaining and running the casinos.
Time for tough choices
Gov. Crist, I suggest:
1. We rectify the loopholes in sales taxes so that the wealthy pay more of their fair share. We should also make sure Internet sales return sales taxes equal to that required from a store purchase. Tax services as well as goods, which would bring in more revenue.
2. Increase the taxes on gas and cigarettes.
3. Reassign the lottery money to provide the education system with improved funding. Focus especially on higher education.
4. Limit new construction until current property is being used. Realistically plan for a future with more retirees. We are short of water now. How will it be if retirees start coming back?
5. Develop incentive programs that will encourage new businesses for the long haul.
6. Provide homeowner's insurance that really is insurance, not just a Band-Aid.
Many Floridians are ready to do some of the difficult things which are needed. If you shy away from these and other tough choices now, it will be even more difficult when the economy improves.
As we look back at the history of this period, do you want to be seen as "Mr. Nice Guy" who didn't do anything of value, or a courageous politician who took the bull by the horns and started to build a better future for Florida?
Class-size limits are in need of adjustment
In 2002, when 52 percent of Florida voters cast their ballots in favor of a constitutional amendment to reduce class size, they gave Florida schools a mandate to teach students in smaller classes. Since then, the Legislature has honored the will of voters by providing $13 billion to implement the class-size amendment.
The payoff has been seen in classrooms from Pensacola to Miami — students are now being taught in remarkably smaller classes.
But if we're going to continue to make small class sizes a priority, we must implement a common-sense fix so our students continue to have the benefit of smaller classes while giving our principals and teachers the flexibility they need to keep the focus where it belongs: classroom learning.
After first being required to meet the class-size requirements at the school district level, then the school level, next year Florida schools are slated to meet the requirements at the individual classroom level. This poses an entirely new set of problems.
The strict classroom level caps that must be imposed are inflexible and virtually impossible to implement and maintain through the school year. If the Legislature does not act, principals will lose flexibility in managing their schools, and learning will be continually disrupted as students are shuffled around to meet the unforgiving requirements.
That is why I'm sponsoring a joint resolution to fix these unintended consequences. It would hold the class-size measurement at the school average level with limits on individual prekindergarten and elementary classroom sizes.
If the Legislature approves the joint resolution, voters will have the opportunity to support this commonsense revision. As a father, small class sizes are important to me. My joint resolution will give us class sizes that are both small for our students and teachers and manageable for our schools and principals.
Will Weatherford, Republican state representative, Wesley Chapel
Our famous springs need this water bill March 8, commentary by Robert Knight
Save our springs
What a timely piece by Dr. Knight. Florida is currently in the grip of a three-year drought. Added to this lack of water from above are demands from below — that is, pumping of water not just for homes and condos but for golf courses, pools, St. Augustine lawns, lush landscaping and the excessive fertilizing that often goes with it. Our springs are the hydrological "Canary in the coal mine." As they go, so go the rivers and bays downstream.
Add another to the list of the springs mentioned: "Three Sisters" spring in Crystal River. Efforts are under way by citizens groups to purchase the land surrounding it from an owner who, though originally intent on developing it, had an epiphany of sorts when witnessing a rehabbed manatee being released there. This gentleman has now become a passionate supporter of preserving these acres, and hopefully a sale can be finalized.
Let's hope our state can help keep the acreage around "Three Sisters" safe from residential development, whose often overly fertilized yards contribute a large percentage of the nitrates and phosphorus that are turning once gin-clear springs murky.
Preservation of our springs and all our watersheds means rethinking how, and where, we permit development to take place.
For our beloved manatees, other aquatic wildlife, our waterways, and for us, regulations pertaining to landscaping may become needed to insure the health and survival of Florida's irreplaceable springs.
Ron Thuemler, Florida Master Naturalist, Tampa
High fives after bike theft saga | March 8, story
In support of Dr. Rao
I was disappointed with the comments in your article on Sunday regarding Dr. Abdul Rao. As an NIH-funded faculty member at USF College of Medicine since 1992, I witnessed Dr. Rao do more to promote quality research at USF in three years than anyone in the 15 years preceding. Before Rao's arrival, there was yearly attrition of research faculty and minuscule resources to support research. After his arrival, USF started hiring new research faculty, established several world-class core equipment facilities, and worked hard to retain our best scientists (usually successfully). Grant support within the college rose during his tenure.
On the other hand, he made the bold, but controversial, move to fuse research departments to create the critical mass needed to recruit quality faculty and department chairs. He largely succeeded in these goals. He also required faculty space assignments and research support to be justified by research productivity.
Part of the excessive vitriol regarding Dr. Rao in your pages appears in reaction to changes that were forced on less productive research faculty and Byrd center staff. Multiple good people were dismissed because the Byrd center failed to maintain funding from the state. When the Byrd center affiliated with USF last summer, Dr. Rao was the voice for these decisions, but they were not his alone. Nonetheless, as the messenger, he became the target of people's wrath.
I find Dr. Rao's actions regarding the bicycle incident to be unconscionable. However, I believe hitting a man when he is down equally unconscionable. I fear USF's research enterprise has lost its most successful advocate. I seriously worry that it will return to what existed before his arrival.
Dave Morgan, Ph.D., professor of molecular pharmacology and physiology, Clearwater
Try something wild | March 12, letter
The pay is not great
It is obvious the letter writer is not aware that state employee salaries have been frozen for a few years. Plus all state employees except upper management positions do pay a portion of their benefits.
Please, Times readers, look at the state employee pay scale before everyone starts to toss darts at our backs. We are some of the lowest salaried employees in the state. It's a misconception that state government employees are well compensated.
I've been with state government for almost 25 years and my gross pay is under $30,000, and that is the case for most state employees. Believe me, we have tightened our budgets!
Leah Lehmke, St. Petersburg