1. Opinion

Worst or best case: It's up to voters

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Published Aug. 11, 2012

Let's look into the crystal ball this morning.

It's January 2015, just about 28 months away. Let's assume the elections turn out a certain way between now and then, starting with Tuesday's primary and running through this year and next. Here's what Tampa Bay and Florida could look like, and it's not pretty.

In Pinellas County on New Year's Day 2015, there still is no fluoride in the drinking water and more public money is being spent on dental care for poor children. The county commissioners who voted to take fluoride out of the county's water starting in 2012 — Nancy Bostock, Neil Brickfield, John Morroni and Norm Roche — have all been re-elected and refuse to embrace established science or public health.

There's no countywide EMS system any longer in Pinellas, either. The County Commission kept rejecting County Administrator Bob LaSala's proposals to save money, and St. Petersburg and a handful of other cities pulled out. That raised the cost for EMS service for other taxpayers in Pinellas, and whether a private ambulance or a fire truck shows up to take you to the hospital after a car wreck depends on the location of the wreck.

There are plenty of visible guns, though. The National Rifle Association persuaded the Legislature in 2013 to allow gun owners to openly carry their weapons. Pinellas Sheriff Everett Rice, who returned to office in 2013, has no problem with that and still vows to block the federal government if it tries to invade the county.

Homeowners are feeling particularly pinched, and the housing market has stalled again. In St. Petersburg, property owners are still paying $75 or more for a fire fee that Mayor Bill Foster and the City Council approved in 2012. And the other bills are piling up as well. Thousands of homeowners who had been insured by the state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. saw their policies transferred to private insurers that immediately jacked up their rates. Those homeowners still with Citizens also are paying dramatically higher rates, because Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature removed the 10 percent cap on annual premium increases.

Electric bills? They are headed through the roof. Progress Energy Florida keeps racking up costs tied to a broken Crystal River nuclear plant that is still being fixed and a proposed Levy County nuclear plant that still may not be built. The governor, the Legislature and the Public Service Commission have failed to lift a finger on behalf of ratepayers.

Health care? President Mitt Romney and Republicans in Congress followed through on their pledge to repeal the Affordable Care Act. In Florida, Scott and the Legislature still are relying on the free market. There are more uninsured Floridians than ever, and hospitals are overwhelmed. The Medicaid block grants Washington now sends to the states have left even more people without health care.

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Public education is even a bigger mess in 2015. In Pinellas County, the School Board is looking for a new superintendent because the last one they hired in 2012 was so mediocre. In Hillsborough County, well-regarded superintendent MaryEllen Elia is long gone. She was forced out after incumbent School Board members were defeated in 2012 by conservatives who opposed progressive reforms. The Gates Foundation has bolted, and its ground-breaking work to better evaluate teachers has been shelved.

In fact, public education in Florida is a shadow of its former self compared with three years ago. That's because voters in 2012 approved a constitutional amendment that removed restrictions on sending public money to religious organizations. So Scott and the Legislature created universal vouchers, and every family shops around for a public or private school. For-profit private schools are popping up everywhere, and public schools in many neighborhoods have been closed.

Parks and libraries also have closed across Florida. In 2012, voters approved a constitutional amendment that further restricted growth in property tax revenues for local government. Many more parks that are open charge user fees.

Schools aren't the only public buildings closed in St. Petersburg. There is a fence blocking the Pier, and the inverted pyramid is empty. While the City Council refused to schedule a referendum on the Pier's future in 2012, opponents kept picking at the innovative new design until the Los Angeles architect backed out.

Tropicana Field is closed as well. Foster refused to let the Tampa Bay Rays look for new stadium sites in both Pinellas and Hillsborough, so frustrated franchise owner Stuart Sternberg sold the Rays in 2014 and bought the New York Mets. The new Rays owner moved the team to Charlotte, and the resulting lawsuits are winding their way through the courts. So much for that lease requiring the Rays to play in the Trop until 2027.

This would be a pretty grim New Year's Day in 2015. Hopefully, all of these scenarios won't happen. But they all appear entirely plausible in 2012 if you pay attention to what state and local politicians are saying and doing. Think about that when you decide if and how to vote in upcoming elections, starting with Tuesday's primary. Elections matter, and we get what we deserve based on the choices we make at the polls.