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Split Florida? Wacky resolution might validate ‘USF’ name

By James L. Rosica
and Maryann Batlle
Tribune/Scripps Capital Bureau
Published: October 22, 2014 Updated: October 23, 2014 at 08:49 AM
The name “University of South Florida” would make more sense if it was in a state named “South Florida,” which is what some officials propose to create. TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO

TALLAHASSEE — Should a new effort to split Florida in two succeed, the name “University of South Florida” might make more sense.

Earlier this month, South Miami city commissioners passed a resolution that calls for Brevard, Orange, Polk, Hillsborough, Pinellas counties and all points south to break away and become the state of “South Florida.”

The resolution, approved Oct. 7 by a 3-2 vote, arises from changing sea levels caused by climate change that could imperil much of the southern part of the state.

“Presently, in order to address the concerns of South Florida, it is necessary to travel to Tallahassee in north Florida,” the resolution says. “Often South Florida issues do not receive the support of Tallahassee.”

As for USF, the name has had people scratching their heads since its creation in 1956 considering how far up the peninsula the main campus lies.

Politics was behind the name — an effort to draw crucial support for the new school from lawmakers in the populous south.

Five decades later, creating a state of South Florida might validate that choice. But they’re not ready to talk about it on campus just yet.

“Seems a bit premature,” said USF spokeswoman Lara Wade-Martinez. “The university wouldn’t comment on a hypothetical scenario.”

So how likely is it that South Florida will become the 51st state? The U.S. Constitution allows new states into the union, but in this case, it would require the approval of both the state Legislature and Congress.

In legal terms, what the resolution calls for is not “secession,” which would mean leaving the union, but rather “partition.” The resolution itself uses the term “legal separation.”

It’s not clear whether the northern part of the state could still be called Florida or would have to change its name to “North Florida.”

“This is one of the most obscure questions I have ever been asked as a law professor,” said Caroline Mala Corbin, a constitutional law scholar at the University of Miami’s law school.

“There’s not a lot written about this part of the Constitution,” she said. “But I can’t imagine Congress would ever approve this, so in the real world it is not likely to happen.”

Karla Jo Helms, CEO of the JoTo public relations agency in Clearwater, laughed when told of the proposal.

“Wow, that’s the ultimate in protest PR,” she said.

Walter Harris, an environmentalist and vice mayor of South Miami, led the effort to pass the resolution. Harris said Tallahassee’s unresponsiveness to rising sea levels that threaten low-lying, coastal cities such as South Miami and Naples means it’s time to break up the state.

“If ever there were a situation that warranted the separation of North and South Florida, this is it,” Harris said.

Gabriel Edmonds, one of the dissenting city commissioners, said more needs to be done to address climate change but local and state agencies have to find solutions together.

“People are free to talk about it; I think it makes a very interesting story,” Edmonds said. “But it’s not going to happen.”

Separatist sentiments pop up periodically when people are unhappy, and those movements usually end up being “just for show,” said Kevin Wagner, a Florida Atlantic University political science professor.

In Florida, there’s inherent tension because three densely-populated liberal counties — Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach — are different culturally and politically from the rest of the state, Wagner said.

And a separatist movement is “going to gain little traction in a Legislature that is overwhelmingly Republican,” he said.

Florida has seen similar attempts. Key West tried to separate into the autonomous “Conch Republic” in 1982, but the only things achieved were a lasting tourism campaign and a memorable slogan: “We Seceded Where Others Failed.”

Other states have succeeded. The western counties of Virginia became what we now know as the state of West Virginia as part of a Unionist movement during the Civil War.

More recently, the “Six Californias” movement sought to carve the nation’s most populous state into six “natural regions,” including “Silicon Valley” and “South California.” A referendum failed to get on the 2016 ballot.

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