1. Opinion

Trigaux: It's not jobs, but the quality of jobs, that matters now in Florida

Gov. Rick Scott announces his state budget proposal which would cut taxes by $1 billion and add $250 million for economic development incentives on Dec. 7, at Harbinger Signs in Jacksonville. [Will Dickey/The Florida Times-Union via AP]
Gov. Rick Scott announces his state budget proposal which would cut taxes by $1 billion and add $250 million for economic development incentives on Dec. 7, at Harbinger Signs in Jacksonville. [Will Dickey/The Florida Times-Union via AP]
Published Jan. 8, 2016

SO WHAT WILL FLORIDA'S "JOBS, JOBS, JOBS" GOVERNOR do for an encore with three years left in office?

By his own definition of success, the heavy lifting for Gov. Rick Scott seems to be over. When he became governor in 2011, the state unemployment rate was a wretched 11.9 percent. In November 2015 (the latest data available) it had dropped to 5.0 percent — and even lower for the Tampa Bay metro area: 4.6 percent. And Florida added more jobs (35,200) in November than any other state.

If cutting the jobless rate was Scott's main goal, well then, it's Mission Accomplished — right?

If only most Floridians agreed. A Tampa Bay Times/10News WTSP poll in December asked 605 registered voters in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties if they were faring economically better than a year ago. A massive 63 percent said their status had not changed. Another 18 percent said they were worse off, while yet another 18 percent said they were better off. (Just 14 percent under 55 said they were worse off but 24 percent over 55 said they were not doing as well as a year ago.)

That's hardly a heady endorsement of an improving Florida economy.

Another question in the same poll asked the adults to rate Gov. Scott's "overall job performance." Just 5 percent described it as "excellent" and another 18 percent said "good." In much greater numbers, 14 percent chose "not so good" and a whopping 30 percent opted for "poor."

Since Day One in office, Scott has maintained a disciplined mantra of creating and recruiting more jobs to the state. Exactly how much true credit should be lauded upon Scott is unclear. For all Scott's open disdain for the federal government and the Obama administration, Scott and Obama have, for now, landed on the same jobs square in the U.S. economic game.

Both national and Florida unemployment rates have dropped sharply to 5 percent since peaking in 2009.

Is that economic victory also a political coup? It's quite possible this country and state would be enjoying a jobless rate very close to 5 percent if the positions of U.S. president and Florida governor had been left vacant these past several years. The country's economy would have clawed its way back, at least most of the way, without the massive self-congratulatory public relations machines operating in Washington or Tallahassee.

This new year is when it starts to get tricky for Scott. As a two-term governor, has Scott "peaked" too early? Florida's jobless rate is now entering the range of "full employment" (especially in major metro areas). Scott's past promise to create jobs of any kind will now become more difficult because so many people are already employed in some manner.

Many "new" jobs that will be filled in Florida will increasingly become filled by people leaving old jobs that do not pay as much or lack the career potential of the new opportunity. When an employed person quits one job to take another, that does not lower the state unemployment rate. It just fills one job but in doing so leaves another one open.

Let's be frank. How low can Florida's unemployment rate sustainably go?

Two small population states, North Dakota and Nebraska, boast unemployment rates below 3 percent. Nine more states enjoy jobless rates under 4 percent. Eight more states are under 5 percent. Even New York — often vilified as an anti-business, heavy-tax and Democratic-controlled state — has a lower unemployment rate than Florida.

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Florida's economy has some hot spots, like an overheated tourism industry that must spend more and more marketing money to try to maintain its record-breaking pace of visitors to the state.

Tampa Bay has managed to rack up some impressive job recruitments in the past year, ranging from the Johnson & Johnson announced arrival promising 500 jobs and $75,000 pay scales to Citibank's early 2015 commitment to add another 1,200 jobs, also averaging $75,000.

At the same time, Tampa area economic development leaders have organized to go out literally knocking on doors in the Northeast and Middle Atlantic states seeking a good-sized (perhaps Fortune 1000) company to move its actual headquarters to this area.

And Scott himself has traveled to Kentucky, Connecticut and New York, among other states with Democratic governors, to personally pitch Florida as a lower-tax, cheaper-labor place to relocate businesses.

Now Scott has gone public, campaigning to convince reluctant Florida lawmakers to set aside a quarter-billion dollars for economic development. The governor has gotten more than 100 local and state officials, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, to endorse his plan to help build a revolving fund of job incentive money for Enterprise Florida, the state's job-recruiting agency.

But now that pitch must change. A few years ago, Scott would visit another state and tell company CEOs: "Florida has lots of talented people looking for work and we're eager for your business to move to the Sunshine State."

Ahead, Scott's salesmanship to out-of-state companies may sound less alluring: "We're close to full employment, so it may not be as easy to find the competent workers you are looking for — unless you are willing to pay more."

Scott could argue that Florida's economic pie is starting to grow along with its population. New annual Census Bureau figures show that, for the first time in nearly a decade, Florida added more people than California.

In theory that means there's more ahead for everybody in the state. But in reality (read on) most of the bigger pie will go to the wealthy.

In December, Scott pointed to new data showing that the state's GDP or gross domestic product grew faster than all other large states at 5.1 percent in the second quarter of 2015. Florida's GDP was also higher than the national average of 3.8 percent.

Perhaps economic growth can become Scott's second-term campaign. Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) executive director Jesse Panuccio echoed that theme in December with this pro-Florida statement.

"Florida's strong GDP growth is another sign that our economy is on the right track. With 1 million private-sector jobs in five years, a seven-year low in unemployment, and growing GDP, Florida is on its way to having the best economy in the nation," he said.

For all the job-building chatter, Panuccio is walking away from his own $141,000 position in Tallahassee. Last month, he announced his resignation, effective Friday, an exit many observers see as coming before he would have had to face a difficult confirmation vote amid thin support from the Florida Senate.

DEO staffer and former lawyer/lobbyist Cissy Proctor, who has far more favorable ties to state legislators, is expected to succeed Panuccio. Scott is handing her the task of selling the unconvinced Legislature on the new Enterprise Florida fund.

What we still won't hear enough about from the state's political leaders are these three troubling problems.

1. Stagnant household income. For all its trumpeting of job growth, Florida ranks 37th of all states in income growth, according to recent estimates released by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. The measure includes wages, dividends, interest, pensions, rent, retirement accounts and government benefits. New Census figures show that the nation's median income rose more than 4 percent in the 2010-14 time span compared to the 2005-09 era. But median income statewide in Florida fell in those same years. Median incomes in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties all rose less than 2 percent in the same years, while Hernando income fell 4.7 percent.

2. Florida ranks 17th among states in poverty, affecting one of six (16.5 percent) of its population. Nationally, the average is 14.8 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, based on 2014 data.

3. Income growth concentrated at the top. Florida ranks (depending on who's measuring) among the top few and certainly the top 10 states in income inequality. One analysis of 2012 data showed that in Florida, the top 1 percent earned on average 43.3 times as much as the bottom 99 percent.

And a Bloomberg analysis of income this year hits even closer to home. It found that Tampa ranks among the top 10 "most unequal" larger cities in America.

It seems that years of a simplistic public policy built on creating more and more jobs is thus far doing little to improve the typical Florida household. With the same mind-set, there seems to be few signs things will improve as Scott wraps up a second term.

Why is there such a narrow 19th century approach to so many 21st century needs?