1. The Buzz

How is Florida doing after 20 years under GOP rule?

Are Floridians better off than when Democrats were in control?
[Photo illustration by Ron Borresen | Tampa Bay Times] [[Ron Borresen | Tampa Bay Times]]
Published Sep. 21, 2018
Updated Aug. 27

Republicans have controlled Florida’s governor’s office and Legislature since 1999.

When voters consider their choice in this year’s governor’s race, how they perceive the last two decades will be critical.

Are we Floridians better off with one-party rule by the GOP?

How Florida ranked in the late ’90s, and how it does now

  • Personal income, per capita
    1998 19th$25,922
    2016 27th$45,953
  • Household income, median
    1998 40th$33,234
    2016 40th$49,132
  • Poverty rate
    1998 16th13.9%
    2016 16th$14.7%
  • Violent crime (per 100,000)
    1998 2nd939
    2016 18th500
  • State and local govt. employees (per 10,000)
    1998 43rd494
    2016 48th429
  • Number of more people moving in than out
    1999 1st 
    2016 1st 
  • Public high school graduation rate
    1999 45th56%
    2016 37th80.7%
  • Public school teacher salary
    1999 29th$35,916
    2016 35th$49,407

“Florida has a trillion dollar economy now. We have investment coming in on a daily basis,” Republican nominee Ron DeSantis said. “My opponent, Andrew Gillum, would really want to stop that and reverse all the progress we’ve made.”

Reverse the progress? Democrats say they want to reverse the damage caused by 20 years of Republican governance.

“We’re going to show up (and vote for change) because we’re in a state where 44 percent of the people — working people — say that they cannot make ends meet at the end of the month. We’re going to show up because we believe you should only have to work one job, and not two or three jobs, to be able to take care of yourself and your family,” said Gillum, who is trying to take the Governor’s Mansion back for the Democrats.

It’s a tale of two Floridas.

One Florida: Residential high rises have sprouted throughout Florida’s once moribund city centers. The unemployment rate is virtually nil, and credit rating is top notch. The crime rate is at a 41-year-low. “Flori-duh” ranks 4th in the nation in percentage of graduating seniors passing AP exams, and the center-left Urban Institute concluded that Florida’s 4th grade reading and math scores are the best in the nation when demographics are factored in.

The other Florida: Forty-four percent of households can’t afford basic needs such as food, housing, childcare, health care, and transportation, according to a United Way study. Florida is second only to New York in economic inequality; The average income of the top 1 percent earner in Florida is 40 times higher than the average income of the remaining 99 percent, the liberal Economic Policy Institute found.

Florida’s national ranking in personal income, in the percentage of families living in poverty, in residents lacking access to primary care has declined under Republican rule. Median income remains mired in bottom 10 in the country. Among the five most populous states, only Florida’s ranking in per capita gross domestic product — a common standard of living measure — has regressed.

The Tampa Bay Times set out to look at hard data to compare the state of Florida, before Republicans began their streak of holding the governor’s office and both legislative chambers in 1999 to now.

Objectively measuring changing quality of life in a state is an imperfect exercise, of course.

How and what data government bodies gather often change over time, making apples to apples comparisons difficult. And most any measurement can draw second guessing. Highlight the frugal budgeting of state leaders, and skeptics will point to local governments being forced to pick up more of the tab. Highlight Florida’s low teacher pay ranking, and skeptics will note Florida teachers have no income tax like their counterparts in most states.

Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable Mark Twain said.

One can’t judge progress without measuring, however. The data here does enable some broad stroke conclusions about the results of Florida moving from a low-tax, frugal state government to a lower-tax, more frugal state government:

• Average Florida families financially are no better off after 20 years of Republican leadership. By several key measures they are worse off.

• As controversial as many of the high stakes testing-centered education policies are that former Gov. Jeb Bush ushered in, there is considerable evidence that Florida children have made real progress in learning.

Several prominent Republican political figures who reviewed these numbers said the same thing: People vote with their feet, and people are flocking to Florida. That doesn’t tell us much, though, because people were flocking to Florida long before Republicans took the steering wheel.

A more significant data point? Five. In five of the last five state elections, Florida voters have decided they prefer Republicans in charge.

Here’s part of what they have to show for it:

Per capita state and local government expenditures for education (Morgan Quitno/CQ Press)

1996: #49 ($1,250)

2015: #49 ($1,989)

Average student costs at public universities (National Center for Education Statistics)

1998: #27 ($6,890)

2016: #47 $14,457)

Average annual pay (Dept. of Labor)

1998: #29 nationally ($28,143)

2016: #28 nationally ($47,035)

Fortune 500 companies (Fortune magazine)

1998: (11) rank 15

2017: (17) rank 11

National Assessment of Educational Progress test results: (National Center for Education Statistics)

4th graders with at least basic math skills

1998: 53 percent

2017: 88 percent

8th graders with at least basic math skills

1998: 55 percent

2017: 66 percent

4th graders with at least basic reading skills

1998: 54 percent

2017: 75 percent

8th graders with at least basic reading skills

1997: 65 percent

2017: 77 percent

Per capita state and local spending on higher education (Morgan Quitno/CQ Press)

1996: #49 ($257)

2015: #50 ($508)

Per pupil K-12 spending (estimated, National Education Association)

1999: #34 ($5,585)

2017: #36 ($9,277)


Moody’s credit rating

1999: Aa2 (fourth highest rating)

2018 Aaa (highest credit rating)

Per capita state revenue collected (Morgan Quitno/CQ, Census)

1997: #50 ($2,832)

2015: #50 ($4,393)

Per capita state and local spending (Census, Morgan Quitno/CQ)

1996: #32 ($2,326)

2015: #48 ($8,130)

Percent workers in government

1999: #42 (13.9 percent)

2017: #46 (5 percent)

Per capita state and local tax revenue

1996: #28 ($2,326)

2015: #46 ($3,449)

Average annual earnings of state and local govt employees (Morgan Quitno/CQ Press, Census)

1998: #23 ($31,399)

2016: #31 ($50,985)

Per capita state and local debt outstanding (Census)

1996: #18 ($4,517)

2015: #33 ($7,335)

Percent of population not covered by health insurance (Census)

1998: #4 (17.5 percent)

2016: #5 (12.5 percent)

Percent of population lacking access to primary care (Morgan Quitno/CQ Press, U.S. Dept. Health and Human Services)

1999: #36 (7.6 percent)

2018: #6 (22.3 percent)

Percent of mothers receiving late or no prenatal care (U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services)

1997: #30 (3.2 percent)

2015: #20 (6.2 percent)

Legal abortions reported per 1,000 live births (Morgan Quitno/CQ Press, U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services)

1996: #5 (423)

2016 #1 (328)

Infant mortality rate per 1,000 (deaths of infants under 1 years old, Department of Health and Human Services)

1997: #26 (7.1 percent)

2015: #22 (6.2 percent)

Percent of seniors living in poverty (Census)

1998: #35 (8.5 percent)

2016: #9 (10.4 percent)

Percent of children in poverty

1998: #10 (22.3 percent)

2016: #15 (21 percent)

Percent of families living in poverty

1998: #22 (9.3%)

2016: #16 (10.5%)

Lake Okeechobee pollution, as measured in pounds of phosphorous (manure, fertilizer runoff), five-year average (South Florida Water Management District)

1998: 1,111,130

2018: 1,380,094

Worker’s compensation payment per covered worker(Morgan Quitno/CQ Press, National Academy of Social Science)

1996: #12 ($410)

2015: #20 ($406)

Crime rate (Uniform Crime Report)

1998: #1 (6,886 per 100,000 population) -

2016: #19 (3107.1 per 100,000 population)

State prisoner incarceration rate per 100,000 (U.S. Justice Department)

1998: #13 (447)

2016: #11 (481)


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