Message is sinking in that cutting is killing us

Jan 25, 2009

Mary Ann Lindley

As we like to say in Miami Beach," Sen. Dan Gelber said wryly at a Thursday political hoedown on the top floor of the Capitol, "You don't eat your seed corn."

Gelber raised a brow, wondering if anyone got the joke in that crowd of earnest journalists in town for briefings on upcoming legislative issues.

In Miami Beach, it probably goes without saying, seed corn has never crossed the minds of the Floridians in Gelber's district — though voting patterns show that they nevertheless would support the concept.

You've got to keep something to plant for next year's crop.

This is a message that the former House minority leader, just elected state senator and probable U.S. Senate candidate articulates eloquently, wittily and consistently.

It's a fundamental guiding principal of finance during hard times, and it seems to be gaining traction. On a fancier note, it's called invest spending, for future well-being.

State CEO Alex Sink, speaking at this same session, which The Associated Press hosts annually, explained eating your seed corn in another way.

During the recent special session, she noted, lawmakers cut back money for advertising Florida as a tourist destination.

"We are in effect, disinvesting in Florida," she said, mentioning cuts lawmakers made in education, in state dollars required to attract federal dollars, in services vital to health and public safety, and for this.

"Instead of cutting the Florida tourism advertising budget," she said with astonishment, "now is the time to increase the tourism advertising budget."

It sure seemed obvious to me. Just last week, friends stopped at my house overnight, having fled Chicago where the temperature was minus -21 degrees to spend two weeks in Florida.

The heck with their 401(k), or a national economy in a tailspin over which they have no control. Florida's sunshine is an irrefutable metaphor for brighter days ahead, and it's our state's golden goose. Some estimates are that, for every $1 spent to promote tourism, $58 comes into the state.

Sunshine and beauty are two things worth promoting and protecting. That's why, at a dinner I was fortunate to share with Gov. Charlie Crist on Thursday night, he said he's determined to keep money in environmental protection of resources, programs such as our cherished Florida Forever. They make our state irrefutably one of the most beautiful in the country, and coupled with economic development efforts to get businesses as well as tourists to come here, they set the standard for investment spending.

That's the ball you keep your eye on if you're smart: Fortifying the assets you already have. That includes kids, from youngsters in public schools on up to doctoral candidates at universities, which are our much taken-for-granted economic engines. Some communities, including ours, would be nothing without our universities — especially given the way state government has been turned into a sweatshop by policy makers who hold even the most fundamental functions of government in low regard.

The policies that have sustained the Republican leadership in the Florida Legislature for a decade seemed to be losing a little stamina, though.

Even the most die-hard anti-tax legislator is beginning to look around and see that starvation policies may not be a bridge to the future after all.

At some point, they will have to find a fair, broad-based way to raise some revenue to keep things from going from bad to worse. As Gelber also mentioned, "optimism isn't a policy."

In addition to hoping and waiting and feeling optimistic about the federal economic stimulus money that is expected to come Florida's way, legislative leaders, including banker and Senate President Jeff Atwater, are beginning to concede that sources of new revenues must be reviewed.

As Sink put it, "We've broken every piggy bank we have and taken the trust out of trust funds."

Atwater on Thursday seemed inclined to at least consider new revenues, saying he's ready for "a meaningful review of our tax structure and reviewing every line item."

He also said that bigger than the Legislature's challenge to balance the budget is finding a way "to help small businesses keep from laying off the family breadwinners." He's appointed a select committee on the Florida economy to help find solutions to problems that seem to confound people who, first, are thinking about their re-election, which always causes slippage in the second matter, thinking about the whole state's future.

As long as we voters buy into the myth of single-member districts, which command narrow thinking — and, as Sen. Al Lawson said, "account for the lack of parity" — and as long as we retain term limits, which create leaders who are hungry for power but too inexperienced to use it wisely, we've got some fundamental impediments.

"Thinking smarter and planning for the long term" is the road we must travel, said Sink, instead of making decisions that just compound problems.

First, though, Floridians need to let legislators know that they're ready to move some of those roadblocks that are keeping us from getting where we need to go.

# Contact Editorial Page Editor Mary Ann Lindley at (850) 599-2178 or

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