Righteous cries of outrage and anger dominate Florida these days, as unreasonable assaults upon common sense seem to roll with regularity out of the governor’s office. Recently, Governor Scott published a list of Florida’s higher education faculty, matching salaries to names. This act was disingenuously styled as an effort towards transparency, but it was really a good old-fashioned right-wing poke at the eggheads.
Sadly, this does the Governor no favors, and reinforces the public’s perception of Scott as a reactionary Neanderthal with no heart or soul, perpetually on the wrong side of every issue. Perception is important because Scott has done some very useful things: cutting government, eliminating a bloated bureaucracy, stimulating private development, and questioning the economic benefits of all forms of higher education. Unfortunately, he seems to cloak these actions in such vindictive, uncivil arrogance that the actions themselves remain mostly unexamined.
The CEO-turned-Governor drove far-reaching budget cuts and deregulation, putting the state legislature into reactive mode, causing many to long for the days of milquetoast former Governor Charlie Crist. The end result, however, was a budget that went down, not up, for the first time ever, an accomplishment that eluded Crist and his Republican predecessor, Jeb Bush.
Along the way Scott also eliminated an entire state agency, the Department of Community Affairs (DCA). Some Floridians reacted badly, seeing their state stripped naked of its only protection against the large, out-of-state developers responsible for much of the economic growth in past decades. While the governor claimed this move would allow towns and cities to determine their own destiny, no more protection from big brother could also mean that small towns, starved for tax revenue, will quickly cave to development pressure regardless of the broader consequences for property values.
Taking out the DCA was a bold swipe at a bureaucracy that had seen its day come and go. Established in 1985 to “manage” growth, the DCA failed to manage its own growth, encountered few real estate deals that it didn’t like, and guaranteed that only the largest, most deep-pocketed developers would prevail. In this moribund economy, developers have yet to gear up for the next boom. Instead, smaller, more agile players that meet more specific, localized needs are becoming more active. Now that this large, lawyer-intensive burden is removed, small businesses may have a chance to compete. Public outcry at large developments may, in fact, be more effective than an easily co-opted bureaucrat when it comes to land values and protection of sensitive wetlands.
Scott also made national news by rejecting high speed rail between Orlando and Tampa. Floridians, who were promised this by Barack Obama, were shocked and surprised. The loss of this vision, along with the potential jobs that it created, was widely bemoaned. Scott’s move set off a domino effect that has now come to doom the whole program.
Federal rail programs, given a bad name by the quaint but inefficient Amtrack, make little practical sense today between Tampa and Orlando. The distance is so short that the train would not be really high-speed in the true sense of the word; just as it reached its cruising speed, it would have to slow down again for Lakeland and other stops. Missing some key stops such as Disney and lacking connectivity with other rail systems diminishes ridership, there was a real possibility that it would become a white elephant.
Typecast as a hatchetman, Scott went against type this summer to fund central Florida commuter rail, and it looks like this 19th century spine running north-south through the region will soon be home to Sunrail. At the recent panel discussion put on by the Orlando Chapter of the American Institute of Architects , “Sunrail” presented plans for 62 miles of track, complete with dreams of low- to mid-rise density clusters at various stops. Perhaps figuring that the real costs won’t be known until after he is out of office (Sunrail will be 50% federally funded until 2019), Scott threw the region a bone that will create jobs to build and operate the trains.
Symposiums on the best way to develop around train stops are already being held. Job growth and employment-related cluster development plans at least are being discussed. This is some rare good news for Florida’s development community, whether or not the rail system is capable of supporting itself financially .
True to his form, however, Scott drew hisses for publicly disparaging anthropology, rhetorically asking the Northwest Business Association if it wanted to spend tax money to “educate more people who can’t get jobs in this field ,” preferring instead to focus tax subsidies on science, engineering, and technology. The remark reinforces the public’s perception of Scott as a man with no heart or soul who seems bent on alienating – often unnecessarily – many whom he needs for support.
His words mirror the country’s irrational political rhetoric and serve little purpose other than to inflame emotions. Intent on making enemies with the media, his abuse of the fourth estate prevents constructive dialogue from taking place. Fatigue at this rancorous rivalry is so high that Scott has become a big turnoff , and whatever he is associated with could quickly be undone the moment he leaves office.
It is important to recognize that Florida, under Scott and previous governors, has made strides in diversifying its economy by adding biomedical research through some shrewd venture capital investment. The state is badly in need of evolving its education system to support these science, technology, engineering, and manufacturing jobs, in order to keep these employers close to home. Bringing Scripps, Nemours, and other research laboratories to the Sunshine State will mean little unless they are reinforced by curriculums producing graduates that will remain in these fields.
Scott can and should promote these ideas with a positive spin, mostly because we don’t want to repeat our 1990s experience with the entertainment industry. A similar state-sponsored effort to bring the film studios was not coordinated much with education, so when state subsidies vanished, moviemakers quickly relocated elsewhere, leaving little trace of their presence behind.
Scott’s actions have set changes into motion that will all have long-lasting effects in the state of Florida, if they are allowed to remain in place. It is important for Floridians to realize these achievements and not be too put off by nasty words, nastily delivered. The important long-term effect may be that Scott, while dividing Floridians often unnecessarily, has begun to position the state for recovery. When the wounds heal, the Sunshine State will emerge more nimble and less bound to institutions that did not serve it well, and will be better positioned to take advantage of the growth potential of America’s fourth most populous state.
Richard Reep is an Architect and artist living in Winter Park, Florida. His practice has centered around hospitality-driven mixed use, and has contributed in various capacities to urban mixed-use projects, both nationally and internationally, for the last 25 years.
Photo: Matthew Ingram