Paradise on the brink

Ten years ago, with the thermom-eter reading a bone-chilling 9 degrees, we packed the van and left New England, our home of many years. We were headed for paradise -- Florida, that is, with its tropical landscapes, sultry temperatures and endless shades of green. Life in Florida has been good to us. But paradise is an elusive dream -- easy to find, hard to hold onto.

The Florida we moved to has changed, and not all for the good. Indeed, a recent report by the Florida Chamber of Commerce Foundation suggests that, over the last decade, Florida actually has gone backward in some important and measurable respects. Titled "Challenges for Florida's Economic Future," the study contains dire warnings about our "paradise lost."

For example: Although the 1990s were a period of robust job and population growth, it was also a time of limited economic progress for many of its citizens. Per capita personal income increased at a slower rate than elsewhere, pushing Florida residents from almost 3 percent above to nearly 5 percent below the national average. And when investment income earned by the large retiree population was disregarded, the per capita wage income decreased from 12 percent below the national average in 1990 to nearly 18 percent below in 2000.

The study points out that our low-wage economy results not only from an overreliance on the tourism, retail and service sectors, but also from the poor education of Florida's workforce. Just 23 percent of fourth graders are proficient in reading, and 15 percent in math. Only 56 percent of entering high-school freshmen graduate -- a dropout rate higher than all but five other states. Similarly, fewer than half of all graduates go on to college, ranking us 43rd in the country. K-12 spending per pupil ranked 38th in the nation in 2000, down from 21st a decade ago. Higher-education spending per student ranks 34th.

Florida's infrastructure has also lagged behind its population explosion. Road-building is so far behind, that in Orlando and Miami, Florida's most congested cities, the average person spends 42 hours each year stuck in traffic. Not coincidentally, air quality is in trouble; in 1998, 42 percent of the population lived in counties where the air was worse than U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards, up from 38 percent in 1987. (Florida ranks 37th among states by this measure.) Also, as the population increases, the ability of Florida's aquifers to provide adequate clean water both for residents and farming will be strained.

Statistics provide only a limited snapshot of reality. And to be sure, the report's perspective is decidedly that of the business community's. Also, many "quality of life" issues cannot be so precisely measured. But as the gubernatorial race heats up, all the hopefuls should be made to address at least some of the questions the report raises: How can the state's poor rankings and downward numbers be turned around? Will Florida find the wherewithal to finance its economic foundations -- notably education and infrastructure -- to a degree that will make it competitive and more livable? Can our environment withstand the relentless assault upon it from a combination of continued growth and poor management?

The report itself doesn't give any easy answers, but it does point to some achievable goals. Most important is the notion that Florida must position itself to create an educational system which will allow the state to compete in the 21st century economy, including a state-wide commitment to increasing high-technology research and development by way of partnerships between universities and businesses.

The state's economic base must be broadened to include what is known as "high value-added industries" -- those that pay greater wages and are not as prone to the unpredictable gyrations of a tourist-based economy. The report also mentions the need to grow Florida's role as a "crossroads economy," making it the nexus of vibrant trade among the U.S., Latin America and Africa.

Ultimately, the next governor is going to have to provide a vision for the state's future that goes far beyond traditional partisan arguments and the "politics as usual" in Tallahassee. The Foundation Report is a sobering look at a state that, in many ways, has been headed in the wrong direction for many years. But it also holds out hope that paradise can be regained. The true test of our future's promise will be how much we demand of our elected leaders and how far they are willing to take us. But we have to get on the right road.

Short of that, it just may be necessary to fire up the old van and point it in the opposite direction.

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