How to make Florida a bigger trade winner

Published March 14, 2014

Floridians have never been so dependent on trade.

The numbers don't lie. Florida is one of the top five exporting states in America. And according to the U.S. Commerce Department, the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach metropolitan area was the sixth largest exporter in 2012. We ship $66.2 billion in goods and services abroad every year.

The Sunshine State's export boom is enabled by international trade agreements. As barriers to the exchange of goods are removed, Florida-based businesses and their workers expand their customer base, increase sales and create new jobs. And when cheap goods enter the domestic market, Florida consumers enjoy lower prices. That leaves us more money to spend on health, education and, of course, fun.

Our representatives in Congress now have an opportunity to strengthen Florida's trade-based economy by reinstalling Trade Promotion Authority, or TPA. This legislation would enhance the ability of the United States to strike new trade agreements, which promise to drive economic growth and job creation in our state for years to come.

Both exports and imports are key to this calculus. First, let's talk about exports, which at the national level account for about half of all American economic growth in the recovery from the Great Recession.

Our state has been at the center of this turnaround. One in five American exporters are Florida-based, and most are small- or medium-sized businesses. In 2011 alone, more than $149 billion in goods passed through Florida by air or sea. And the state serves as the primary point for goods making their way to and from Latin America and the Caribbean.

All of this trade has directly translated to a boost in local employment. In Florida, more than 2.4 million jobs depend on either trade or investment from foreign firms. Added together, about one in six jobs in the state have been created as a result of international partnerships. Trade-related jobs also tend to be quite lucrative. In fact, according to the Commerce Department, American companies that sell products and services overseas pay better and grow faster than firms that focus solely on the domestic market.

Imports from our trading partners also play an important role in the state economy. Low-cost raw materials shipped in from overseas allow Florida firms to lower their operations cost, ratchet back the prices facing customers and improve their global competitiveness.

Recognizing the importance of international commerce to our economy, Congress has traditionally granted the president TPA in order to facilitate agreements with potential trading partners. TPA confirms Congress' power to vote on potential trade deals. TPA's special legislative procedures are an important tool for completing trade agreements without delay while ensuring that everyone's voice is heard and that the final deal is the best possible outcome for our country.

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Congress has given TPA-like authority to both Republican and Democratic presidents since Franklin Roosevelt. But the last time Congress passed TPA was in 2002. That authority expired in 2007 and has yet to be renewed. As a result, the United States has been left at a deep disadvantage when forging trade partnerships with foreign economies.

Our state — and our country — depends on increased access to foreign markets. Florida companies already export roughly $1.5 billion worth of goods to nations that have yet to forge trade deals with the United States. But our firms and workers still face severe barriers preventing these channels of commerce from reaching their full potential.

For example, Vietnam imposes a tariff rate of up to 40 percent on Florida exports. By eliminating trade barriers like that one, local companies can expand their operations abroad while new companies can find their way into broadened foreign markets.

International trade is a critical part of the Florida economy. It's a key driver of economic growth and job creation. National officials need to renew Trade Promotion Authority and allow our international trade negotiators to open new markets and reduce barriers to trade. With Washington so incapable of finding consensus on other issues, passing TPA is one small step that would be a giant leap for improving our economy.

Christian Waugh is an attorney focusing on commercial litigation and land use issues, with offices in the Villages and Miami. A member of the Fifth Judicial Circuit Nominating Commission, he is the former president of the University of Florida's Economics Society. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.