Is it time for Florida to “get with the times”?

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One of the UTA Trax light rail trains in Salt Lake City (Dave Trotter)

While many states have shrunk over the last 40 years, Florida has grown. And of those states that have had an increase in population, very few of them have been able to manage things correctly. Take for example California. It seems like whenever we watch the news, California is going through some economic, energy or budget crisis. It seems as if states that started off small do have a hard time coping.

As for larger states that have shrunk, they are having some budget problems to but not as bad. Instead of having to deal with the issues that California has to deal with, they have to deal with a shrinking tax revenue while still having to maintain an infrastructure that was put in place over 50 years ago. One city that embodies this idea is St. Louis, a city which has gone from the 7th largest in the nation to the 58th largest. The St. Louis metropolitan area has a massive road network and decent mass transit system. But with the tax revenues getting smaller and smaller, wear and tear is starting to show. Roads aren’t being maintained and so on. But, they have the original infrastructure in place to provide quality education.

So where is Florida?

Honestly, we seem to be kind of in the middle. We have a state that is growing, but a legislature that doesn’t want to increase revenue. Of course, most of this has to do with a Republican legislature. But when the Democrats were in control during the boom of the 1970s and 1980s, they didn’t change anything either. Even though I am a Florida history buff, hanging onto traditions isn’t  always the best thing. So, in this article, I have identified five things that Florida could do to “get with the times”.

1. Create a central transit authority – In Florida, our mass transit needs are all over the place. On the local level, we have the country transit authorities who usually have to improvise their budgets depending on what the legislature feels like doing. Therefore, one county, like Miami-Dade, can have an extensive mass transit network while someplace like Orange County has a laughable system. Therefore, the mass transit needs are not met.

One state that has been able to operate a great mass transit system is Utah. Under the Utah Transit Authority (or UTA), Utah has become not only a beacon when it comes to mass transit, but has strong bi-partisan support as well. Unlike the Florida systems, Utah’s is all operated under the state. This lead to two very important things. First, it is easier to do larger, more productive project because everyone is on the same page. Second, there is a decrease in government spending because there is less staff required.

The UTA has been able to have an extensive bus network, as well as a light rail system that reaches nearly every point of the of Salt Lake City. They also have a new commuter train called the FrontRunner (similar to Tri Rial in Miami), which goes from Provo in the south to Ogden in the north. During my time at the University of Utah, I never needed a car (and actually left my car in Florida). The UTA system, which is not only bi-partisan but strongly supported by Republicans, is a possible path for Florida’s mass transit future.

2. School Districts – Since Florida was a small state back in the day, having school districts that included the entire county wasn’t a big deal. But as counties like Dade, Broward, Hillsborough, Orange and others grew, the school boards started to wear thin. There were too few people making too many decisions for a large school district. In addition, because of the size of some of these counties, it is hard to really give personal attention to specific schools.

In Illinois, things are quite different. There are over 800 school district in Illinois only comprising of a handful of schools. This brings pure attention down to the local level instead of the bloated county level. And, unlike the county, the needs of each school and be addressed by a group of people that know these schools, not just one person that might know it because it is in their district in a larger country structure. Also, with control being local, they can have more control of their revenues and expenditures for individual schools instead of one large county dishing out the money.

3. Full Time Legislature – The larger our legislature gets, the more special sessions we have to deal with the needs of Florida. Let’s face it, a 60-day legislative session is absolutely inadequate. This is not enough time to properly debate bills. Instead, this makes it much easier for special interest groups to spend all year drafting legislation and then handing it off to a state legislator (who more than likely has another job) and ramming it through the legislature. A lot of the legislation going through the state house is rarely written by members of the body.

Also, we are the fourth largest state. Our State Senate seats are nearly as big as our congressional seats. We are larger than many countries, but yet only meet for 60 days. The state has outgrown its need for a part time legislature, and must move ahead to a full time one.

4. Move the Capital – Going with the “out of date” theme, having a capital in Tallahassee makes no sense whatsoever. Back when it was established as the capital in 1821, it was the center of the state, as Jacksonville and Pensacola were the two most extreme points. Nowadays, Tallahassee if far from being central. Also, because it is so far from anything, it is harder to get quality workers working in state government because the work pool is much smaller.

If we want to keep Tallahassee as a place that still has some meaning, we can do something similar to Holland. The capital for ceremonial reasons is in Amsterdam. As far as the administrative hub, The Hague serves in that capacity. Something like that could work quite nicely in Florida.

5. State income tax – Yes, this is the 6,000,000 ton elephant in the room that nobody is looking at. One way to deal with our state problems is by implementing a state income tax. Even the most Republican states have a state income tax. Utah, which has a 5.0% flat state income tax is only .3% less than Massachusetts, which actually has a sales tax that is that is only .3% higher than Utah. Honestly, Massachusetts gets a bad reputation when it comes to taxes.

Anyway, there is one main argument that people use when anyone talks about the state income tax…”less people will come here”. I just think this argument is faulty on three fronts. First, most of the people moving to Florida move here because of the weather, the tourist attractions or some other reason. Yes, some might move to Florida because of the lack of a income tax, but that number is very small. The second fault is that many of these people are moving from a state that already has a state income tax, therefore, they are used to it. But one of the biggest things I hear regarding the income tax is that “people will move out of Florida”, which is the third thing. Well, with only nine states having no income tax, and many of those are places that people wouldn’t want to live in anyway, where would these people move? Yes, they would more than likely move to a place that already have a state income tax.

Of course, the income tax argument is all political. If we were to look at it practically, it makes perfect sense. But politicians, both Democratic and Republican, do not want to go on record as being “pro-tax”. Therefore, nothing happens.

Florida really needs to get “with the times”. The train to modernity has left the station and Florida is still at the ticket counter. Yes, maybe we can catch the next train, but if we don’t, Florida will continue to be the laughing stock of the nation.

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7 thoughts on “Is it time for Florida to “get with the times”?

  1. I’ll comment just on the fragment-the-districts proposal: it endangers one of the few good pieces about school funding in Florida, the Florida Education Finance Program’s equalization formula. Because school districts encompass both wealthy and poor neighborhoods, Republican legislators from wealthy suburbs such as Bloomingdale have a stake in maintaining what equalization we have in Florida. That equalization is incomplete, but it exists as a stable policy in large part because of countywide districts.

    And, very importantly, it is in statute, NOT a result of a court decision unlike many other states’ funding equalization programs. If the political dynamics changed, we could easily see equalization disappear. Illinois, which you claim as a better system, has a horribly unequal school funding system, where children in poor neighborhoods in Chicago have schools that are funded at half (or less) the level of schools in suburbs such as New Trier.

  2. Per-pupil funding opened the gateway to vouchers and charter schools- and there is really less correlation between the number of pupils and how much it costs to educate a child. By getting rid of this type of funding formula, local voters would be forced to vote to raise their own taxes to fund charter schools. Instead of doing this- they might be willing to invest in the public schools that educate 90% of kids in our state.

  3. Let me say that while I usually agree with my colleague Mr. Trotter, I STRONGLY disagree with fragmenting the school districts and have fought against it in the past and will continue to do so. But many Democrats including Ron Klein and Debbie Wasserman Schultz backed the proposal. It was actually some wise GOPers who bailed us out in that particular case. All the reasons Sherman mentioned above and more if you care to ask about it I could list.

  4. To both Sherman and Kartik, I somewhat see where you are coming from, but I disagree. Both mention the way Florida does the funding of schools, yet we still continue to this day to say “thank god for Mississippi”. Therefore, I hate to put it this way, but maybe throwing money at the problem isn’t the answer.

    In Florida, we have actually come to the point that we have some of the best teachers in the nation. Also, the education that kids are learning is quite a bit better than most states. Therefore, the education going into the system isn’t the issue.

    Instead, it is the output. While teachers are fine, what the students retain is not up to par with the rest of the nation. And the reason I think the output is the problem is the county-wide school boards in bigger counties. Because they are so large, they need to approach everything in a cookie-cutter way, instead of being able to deal with issues more locally.

    One of the big problems in Florida is the money. While both of you might talk about funding, what is it going toward? Does Dr. Phillips really need an atrium, which after only 15 years started to fall apart? Do we need to spend a lot on elaborate schools, which are not practical? Do counties need to pay for multi-million dollar “administrative facilities”? Do Orange County School Board members need to be paid over $40,000 a year? The school board positions in Illinois are volunteer positions. The amount of money that is spent on, honestly, crap by Florida in the education department is staggering.

    As someone that has dealt with both sides of this subject, I prefer the Illinois system much better. In Illinois, if my parents had an issue, they could easily resolve it at the school and, if not there, go to a local school board that can take a personal interest in their concerns. On the other hand, when I was in Seminole County Schools, the school didn’t care and the School Board had a “take a number and we will call you” approach to parents and students. This led to me dropping out of Lake Mary High School and getting my GED. In fact, there was so much red tape in getting my GED in Florida, that I actually had to fly to Colorado to get one!

    I truly think that if I had gone to high school in Illinois I would have graduated from high school there. Heck, in Florida I didn’t even graduate and had to fly a thousand miles away to get my GED. Yes, give me the localized system any day. As you both say, the current system in Florida has a good funding system. Therefore, what is the problem?

    Also, the spending per pupil in Illinois is $2,700 more than Florida. Even in Chicago, it is $1,300 higher than Florida. And Florida has 6.3 million more people than Illinois.So, seems like Illinois funding isn’t as bad as it seems 🙂

  5. I didn’t say that Florida’s education funding was good — I said that the equalization in FEFP was very important and depended on a structure that gave suburban voters a stake in equalization.

    If you think Illinois’s school funding is good, please read up a bit on Chicago (please consider differential cost issues when you compare raw $ figures) and East St. Louis. Much of what Jonathan Kozol described 2 decades ago in Savage Inequalities is still true for Illinois school funding.

  6. Actually I have. I go to Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and know a lot about the education system in the metro St. Louis area. East St. Louis and Chicago are two completely different animals compared to the rest of the state. But you are right about inequalities in school funding. Still, in Florida, mixed communities are common. In Illinois, especially the Chicagoland Area, the neighborhoods are very segregated. Therefore, I wonder if it just has to do with the nature of the neighborhoods.

  7. Unicameral legislature.
    Non-partisan.
    Meets every other year.
    For one week.
    In Orlando.
    Approves biennial budget.
    Enacts fewer laws or amendments.
    On a cycle of topics.
    Special session, if needed, for one day.

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