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Sunshine's shadows

Published Sep. 16, 2005

One summer morning 50 years ago, aboard a Florida-bound Pullman car, a 9-year-old boy from upstate New York awoke to profound disappointment. No bright, sandy beaches lay beyond the train windows, no glistening blue water, no palm or orange trees. Everything in sight was gray, the trees as well as the sky.

"This," I thought dismally, "is Florida?"

I have since learned to appreciate the beauty of Spanish moss. But I have often recalled the moment over the past 50 years whenever something else disappointed me about the Sunshine State. One should never expect too much of it.

The problem begins with the fact that nearly two-thirds of us were born in other states. Elsewhere, it's the other way around. Lured by warm weather and low taxes, too many of our residents have come not to build or contribute but to get by as cheaply as possible. They seem never to care who's going to train those who will keep their bodies, cars and air conditioners in good repair. Florida made a fateful mistake in 1924 when it decided to lure Yankee investors by promising not to tax their incomes or their estates.

Says Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay: "Millions of people are here who were invited to come on down and escape responsibility, and took us up on both invitations."

We came not to live cheaply _ though we needed to _ but for my mother's health. Safety Harbor, our destination, wasn't the upscale address it is now. Except for three resort hotels catering seasonally to Yankee tourists, it was _ and I say this fondly _ "Cracker country." I didn't know what to make of kids who went shoeless to school. I suspect they didn't know what to make of me either. But it was also the kind of place where the town's police chief _ a one-man department _ was willing to shut down for the day to drive a desperately sick child to a doctor in Clearwater because her mother couldn't afford a taxi. That's how my sister Carol's life was saved.

We didn't know it, but we were part of a historic migration.

In Safety Harbor, there were 1,023 people when we arrived; there are now 15 times as many. In Florida, the transformation from a mostly rural population of fewer than 2-million to an urban sprawl housing 13-million has been as dramatic as the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterly.

If only the result had been as pretty.

Have you seen the billboards on I-75 lately? Or look at Boca Ciega Bay and Clearwater Harbor and try to imagine them without the artificial islands, high rises and traffic jams. I remember them as God made them. I was covering the story the day a developer's consultant told the Pinellas County Commission there was no environmental reason to disapprove yet another fill because the bay already had been ruined beyond repair.

A few years later, I watched Florida's "Golden Age" Legislature put a stop to the rape and ruin. But the Golden Age gave way to the give-me-mine age. The developers who used to mint new waterfront land are now making their bundles from urban sprawl while the inner cities decay physically and socially _ with scarcely a nod from the Legislature.

The "new" U.S. 19, now a semi-permanent traffic jam, hadn't been built in 1946. Largo was a farm town. Miles and miles of strip malls now stand where oranges used to grow. Why didn't someone insist on making the road a freeway without stop lights?

The school system I entered in 1946 was shabbily supported from Tallahassee, but one at least felt that the home folks were proud and protective of them. At one time you could count on Pinellas County's voters to tax themselves to the legal limit in referendums that were held every two years. But because some other counties wouldn't or couldn't, Tallahassee decided to make things "equal," and it's only the parents whose kids are still in school who seem to care any longer. That's a big problem, considering that nearly as many Floridians are over 65 as under 18.

Only too late did it become clear that growth couldn't pay for itself forever, and I'm not sure that enough of our leaders know it now or even care.

We were so naive. Even LeRoy Collins, our greatest governor, would be chagrined at some of the things he said at his first inauguration in 1955.

"Florida has come a long way over a relatively few years," he said. "It wasn't long ago when this area represented a fringe on the antebellum plantation system of the South. Peninsular Florida, without adequate transportation, was regarded generally then as a valueless waterlogged wasteland. It is a different story today. The miracle of modern Florida is self-realization. The handicaps of nature have been defied. Wastelands have been turned fertile for crops and pasturage, cities have arisen from coastal swamps, vast stretches of water have been spanned and constantly new uses are discovered for old or hitherto unknown resources."

Today, we're spending millions to save what few "wastelands" are left.

But of course there has been progress.

In 1946, Florida was still an "open range" state. Livestock didn't have to be fenced. Your car hit a cow, you paid. To the end of his life, Gov. Fuller Warren boasted that it was he who had fenced the cows.

Pinellas County had only one first-class department store, the Maas Brothers in St. Petersburg. There were no concert halls, no symphony orchestras, no public radio stations.

In the 1940s, only 4.9 percent of our adults had completed four years of college. Today, three times as many have. Three state universities have become 10, and a community college network covers the state. (But we're still among the worst five states by how many of our high school graduates obtain baccalaureate degrees. No surprise: We rank last in per-capita funding for higher education.)

Of every 1,000 children born in the 1940s, 39 would die before their first birthday. Now only 8 will. This is one of Florida's brightest success stories, yet the number is still unacceptable.

Florida in the '40s was by most measures a poor state, spending down the last of a wartime surplus built on excise taxes. The Legislature had yet to prescribe minimum standards for schools, or any way to pay for them. According to the 1940 census, one-third of Florida's adults had not gone beyond the sixth grade. Some 40 percent of teachers and principals were not college graduates, and a handful had not completed even high school. Today, the dropout rate for students 16 and older is down to an estimated 5.2 percent _ still too high.

The 1947 Legislature passed the first law offering comprehensive support to the schools. It was called the Minimum Foundation Program. The motivation wasn't entirely altruistic. According to The New History of Florida (Michael Gannon, editor, University Press of Florida), one of Gov. Millard Caldwell's purposes was to prevent federal courts from finding black schools to be unequal.

The Legislature put off figuring out how to pay for this and other things the fast-growing state suddenly needed. In 1949, special interest lobbies thwarted Warren's scheme to tax them and forced him to accept Florida's first sales tax instead. Warren, who had promised in his campaign to veto just such a thing, wasn't the last governor who had to eat his words over taxes. He rationalized that the Legislature had at least exempted groceries and medicine, which remain exempt today.

I didn't know what "regressive taxation" meant but I felt it in practice. It's a jarring lesson for a kid when a comic book that had cost 10 cents suddenly costs 11. Shopkeepers put the pennies into containers they marked "Pennies for Fuller." Politicians claimed the tax rate was 3 cents on the dollar, but even the poorest math student could see that a penny on a dime equals 10 percent.

To this day, poor and middle-class people in Florida pay up to four times as much of their incomes in taxes as the rich do. What they didn't teach us in school was that powerful people had planned it that way. But at least that Legislature figured it was better to raise taxes than ignore needs. Today's bunch would rather cut child abuse investigators and make sick Medicaid patients walk to their doctors. Florida ranks a shameful 48th among 50 states in the quality of care for its children, one of every four of whom lives in poverty. We'd rather build prisons than schools.

It doesn't have to be this way. Florida now exceeds the national average in per capita income, but we're only 25th, well below average, in state and local taxes per capita and 30th in taxes as a percentage of personal income.

We'd keep our collective house in better order (and many of us might actually pay lower taxes in the bargain) if our lawmakers weren't too fearful of taxing the rich, some of whom pay as little as 3.6 percent of what they earn to support the state and community that protects them. Florida's most shameful ranking finds it among the five most regressive states in a recent study by Citizens for Tax Justice and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

Meanwhile, there are more children to be educated, more elderly people needing nursing homes, unceasing enrollment pressures on the universities and total uncertainty as to how hard federal budget cuts will hit. Forecasters have warned that with population growth and inflation, existing state government programs by 2001 will cost $2-billion a year more than there will be money to spend.

"We really have very, very serious problems," says former Gov. Reubin Askew, "and we may think we're going to be able to finance them with the natural growth, but when you look at the demographics and specifics you will see there is no way to do that. In order to protect our environment and health, it will require some sort of expanded tax base. I don't see it on the horizon now."

The bills for neglect always eventually come due. Some citizens have taken notice. According to the Florida Commission on Government Accountability, only 22 percent of those surveyed in 1993 found Florida an excellent place to live, compared to 32 percent in 1988. Educators have become so frustrated that 45 school boards joined in an unprecedented lawsuit to force the Legislature to fund education adequately. The Supreme Court refused to let the suit proceed, but narrowly: 4-3.

"Florida has the potential to be everything that all of us have ever hoped it would be," says former U.S. Rep. Jim Bacchus, an Orlando lawyer and U.S. member of the World Trade Organization's appellate court, ". . . but we are falling far short of realizing our potential. There are many dimensions of this. One is that trade itself is most often an afterthought in plans of the state for educational development. Another is our tax base. We're trying to become a first-class, world-class state with a third-class, third-world tax structure."

It isn't that Florida has lacked for leaders. It has been my privilege as a journalist to know some of the finest and bravest any state could have hoped for.

Gov. Collins (1955-61) was the inspiration of all the rest. He believed in the schools, he helped to found the community college system, and got rid of the spoils system in state government. He fought long and hard for fair legislative apportionment, and his failure to get it helped persuade the U.S. Supreme Court that it would have to act. But above all, Collins faced down the segregationists who would have taken Florida down the ugly paths blazed by Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi. He vetoed their bill to close integrated schools and denounced as an "evil thing" their meaningless resolution declaring the Supreme Court's desegregation decisions to be void. His commitment to a modern South cost him the fulfillment of his dream to become a U.S. senator, but his example became the compass by which many others, including Govs. Reubin Askew and Lawton Chiles, set their courses.

Collins was not only a statesman but a warm and gracious human being. He had time for everyone, even young journalists with poorly formed questions.

But Collins was succeeded by a segregationist, Farris Bryant. Florida settled back into an era of reactionary government, and it wasn't until 1971 that the courts finally put a stop to stalling by local school boards. Askew, a Collins disciple who had succeeded the flamboyant Republican Claude Kirk, put his career on the line with a speech urging Floridians to accept busing as preferable to continued segregation. Though polls showed most Floridians disagreed with him on busing, they respected his courage and rewarded him with a second term.

On a more subtle level, though, racial backlash eventually contributed to the surge of Republicans in Florida and the rest of the South and thus to an eventual conservative counterrevolution in public policy. Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy" appealed openly to the resentments that Collins and Askew had managed to push into the background. Country club Republicans needed only to go along for the ride.

It was Askew's _ and Florida's _ good fortune that he became governor not long after court-ordered redistricting had ushered in the Legislature's Golden Age. Progressive, highly motivated young legislators replaced the old rural conservatives and sought to reform everything in sight, beginning with a new Constitution. And when Askew was elected on a promise to amend the Constitution to permit a corporate income tax, they gave him that, too. The biggest fight Askew lost was to rid Florida of its unique elected Cabinet, which rivals the governor for power and influence.

It was during those years that Florida declared water a state resource, began buying up beaches and other environmentally sensitive land to save it from development, stopped work on the harmful Cross-Florida Barge Canal, enacted laws to protect wetlands and to try to manage growth, reformed the prison system with halfway houses and work-release and pushed toward completion of its interstate highway system.

"Florida has made tremendous progress. It's just that continuous growth exacerbates the problems we had to begin with," says Askew.

His corporate profits tax still stands as the only successful tax reform since Warren's sales tax in 1949. When Republican Gov. Bob Martinez and a Democratic Legislature tried to extend the sales tax to personal services 15 years later, bitter opposition from real-estate agents, advertisers, media and other special interests forced them to repeal it and raise the tax rate on goods in partial replacement. The little people got soaked again as legislators gave away revenue they now desperately need for Medicaid, prisons and schools.

By then, the Golden Age was a fading memory. It is the disappointment of a lifetime to see Florida governed by a Legislature fearful of doing anything that takes more courage than cracking down on welfare mothers. The majority are unwilling to cast any vote that might cost them a campaign contribution or provide material for an attack ad. House Speaker Peter Wallace, one of the few real remaining leaders, tried to inspire his colleagues last spring by reading to them the text of Collins' interposition veto. He read also from an accurate critique in the just-published The New History of Florida:

"All of (Florida's) problems have been magnified by a weakly developed public sector _ a political and governmental system that routinely avoids important action addressing the state's social problems. . . . Political leaders in both parties seem more interested in low taxes than needed public investment in education, social services, infrastructure, growth management or environmental protection. . . . Few state leaders seem ashamed that Florida ranks at the bottom of all 50 states in per capita support for higher education, or that the state's public schools are badly overcrowded and notoriously undersupported, or that Florida ranks high among the states in the number of prison inmates per capita. . . . Getting beyond the tourist imagery, there are many shadows in the Florida sunshine."

Legislators listened but they didn't hear.

In Florida, there remains at least one thing that has not changed in 50 years: We're facing the future with no idea of how to pay for it. We're a state where many people came to escape problems, not solve them. The slogan of Gov. Chiles' 1990 campaign, that Florida should be "a community instead of a crowd," still describes a shore dimly seen.