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Thursday, Nov 27, 2014
Editorials

Need to manage growth evident as Florida passes New York

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Gov. Rick Scott greeted with glee U.S. Census Bureau numbers that show Florida is close to passing New York as the third-largest state.

“Florida is on a roll,” Scott said in a statement last week. “Cutting taxes and reducing red tape on businesses is a great catalyst for economic opportunity and job creation”

The U.S. Census numbers show Florida only 98,000 people behind New York, which it should supplant by the end of the year.

Florida, with 19.5 million people, added 232,111 people last year while New York gained 75,000.

Florida does indeed seem to be on a roll, and the governor can justly take pride in the state’s improving job numbers. Unemployment is down to 6.4 percent, below the national rate of 7 percent.

Scott deserves credit for trying to attract new enterprises and making it easier to do business here.

But Scott and other state leaders also should recognize there is more to economic success than simply adding new residents. Florida could easily roll off a financial and environmental cliff if it doesn’t recommit to confronting the challenges of growth.

This is a lesson Florida leaders once understood. Lawmakers adopted policies in the 1980s to ensure responsible growth after seeing haphazard construction lead to polluted waterways, congested roads, overcrowded schools and crime.

Responsible growth was a bipartisan concern, and fiscal conservatives such as former Republican Govs. Bob Martinez and Jeb Bush understood the wisdom of making sure growth didn’t overwhelm resources or create costly bills for taxpayers.

These laws did not slow growth or eliminate the backlog of infrastructure needs, but they did bring more foresight and accountability to the development process.

But Scott, a relative newcomer to Florida, state lawmakers and special interests used the recession as an excuse to junk the state’s growth management efforts.

They blamed the economic collapse on undue regulations when, in fact, the downturn hit Florida particularly hard because of overbuilding.

Developers’ complaints that the process was cumbersome surely had some validity. But rather than streamline it, the state essentially abandoned growth management.

That may not have seemed a risk when the recession had stalled population growth, but it looks pathetically short-sighted with the rebounding state now adding more than 200,000 people a year.

If Scott wants to continue to retain Florida’s appeal to businesses and residents, he needs to attend the other side of the growth ledger.

Consider: Much of the state already endures chronic water shortages. Most of the state’s 700 springs suffer from pollution and diminished flow. Half the state’s rivers and more than half of its lakes have poor water quality. Toxic algae blooms and fish kills are common along the coast.

Our cities are plagued by gridlock, and Florida ranks near the bottom in per capita education spending.

Rapid population growth will only compound these problems, unless state leaders are proactive.

One concern we have is that the full ramifications of gutting the state’s growth management laws aren’t yet known because of the recession. But if the effects prove to be disastrous — more school overcrowding and worse traffic gridlock, to name a couple of problem areas — state leaders need to reverse their decision to give local jurisdictions most of the power over growth management.

There are other solutions — some that don’t necessarily require tax increases. For instance, more than half of all the potable water used in Florida goes to lawn irrigation. Encouraging the use of drought-resident, Florida friendly landscaping, particularly in new development, would tremendously reduce use. So would retrofitting toilets and other water fixtures in homes built before low-flow fixtures were available.

Yet lawmakers have been reluctant to pursue such sensible, and economical, solutions, much less address more vexing threats.

Thoughtful policies on septic tank and runoff pollution remain elusive.

State leaders even resist the efforts of cities to offer more transit options for their growing numbers. Lawmakers have refused to pass legislation that would allow Tampa and other municipal voters in Florida to vote on tax increases for better mass transit in cities. Instead, only voters countywide can decide such referendums.

Lawmakers sometimes still seem to view Florida as a small wannabe state, instead of one that will soon leave New York in its wake.

The census numbers show robust growth has returned to Florida. That could be an economic blessing — but only if the state demonstrates the resolve to look beyond the numbers to the future needs of its citizens.

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