For a better Florida: Issues facing the 2008 Legislature

By Howard Troxler, Times Columnist
Published February 10, 2008

As we move toward the end of the first decade of the 21st century, Florida feels different, and not for the better.

It isn't just one thing.

It wasn't the 2004 hurricane season, although that was awful. It made some Floridians question being Floridians at all. It also set off a tiny little insurance crisis.

It hasn't been just taxes, although that's a big deal too. Property taxes have doubled since 2000, driven by land values. There's tax revolt in the air, despite a budget crunch.

On top of these things, a growing number of Floridians are fed up with development, as evidenced by the Hometown Democracy movement and similar local struggles around the state.

Are the perceptions of our paradise changing? Florida grew slower for the 12 months ending last July than in any year in this decade, according to the Census Bureau.

Florida grew by only 35,000 people who came from elsewhere in the United States. That's the first time since at least 1990 that we gained more people from other countries than from other states.

For those of us already here, our attitudes seem to be changing as well. The results of the newest Sunshine State Survey, conducted annually by the group Leadership Florida, reflect our concern.

More of us believe our state's quality of life has declined in the past five years. One in five of us say we've considered moving. A third of us wouldn't recommend Florida as a place to live.

What should we do about it - if anything? What can we do about it - if anything?

You could make the case that the answer is, "Nothing." A tough economy is part of the cycle. We're on the cusp of the retirement of the largest generation of Americans in history, and they'll have to go somewhere. Just keep building condos and wider highways.

But to a growing number of Floridians, that answer doesn't work. Florida may be moving toward a turningpoint as important as the first Growth Management Act in 1985. That was the first time Florida said, "We need to do this differently."

Frankly, our government in Florida has been conducted by the seat of the pants for a long time.

We have a creaky, mid 1900s tax structure riddled by loopholes and inequity. Our Legislature careens from crisis to crisis, with one stopgap fix after another. Any Floridian can tell you that those fixes - especially the recent stabs at insurance and tax reform - have not sufficed. And instead of building a first-class state university, we are now closing its doors to the sons and daughters of Florida.

We need deeper thinking. We need ballast. We need to know what we want out of Florida not just today, but in a decade, and two, and five. We need to reconnect all the think tanks and white papers to our policy, our law, and our budget-writing.

By no means is the Florida dream "over." No one who sees a Florida sunrise over the Atlantic, a sunset over the gulf, who walks through a state park or who steps outside on a brilliant spring morning in February - February! - can believe that. If anything, the Sunshine State Survey shows encouraging trends about our sense of "ownership" of our state.

What we have to do is reconnect our long-term public interest to the short-term process of governing. That, and not the quick-fix or slogan or gimmick of the moment, is how we should proceed from here - for a better Florida.

For A Better Florida

For a Better Florida is the St. Petersburg Times' preview of the annual legislative session. Published every year since 1951, it presents news articles and opinions intended to stimulate debate over some of the most important issues facing our state. - This is the first of a four-part series, which will continue on Feb. 17 (education), Feb. 24, (the budget and gambling) and March 2 (property taxes and insurance). - Columnist Howard Troxler starts us off today with an essay about a Florida that now feels different.

[Issues facing the 2008 Legislature]