September 2, 2014

Government

Vision-Impaired

Has state government lost the will to take on bold goals?

Neil Skene | 7/1/2004
Have we outsourced vision to the voters? Vision -- the pursuit of a bold accomplishment -- seems to have disappeared as a government function. Political leadership now is about trimming this tax or that, finding efficiencies and subsidizing tech ventures.

It was the voters, not the governor, who put forward the most ambitious new steps in education of recent years (for better or worse). A universal pre-kindergarten program and smaller class sizes in K-12 were both citizen initiatives that won substantial majorities in 2002. Of a 7.3% increase in state education spending next year, three-fourths is allocated to the class-size initiative.

Gov. Jeb Bush has talked about BHAGs, as the Harvard Business Review called them -- Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals. But when you go looking for the actual pursuit of such a thing, you have to go back a long way in state government to find one.

A visionary goal fundamentally requires two things -- first, the goal itself, which is not something procedural but a significant, well-articulated and measurable accomplishment with an ambitious timetable, and second, a governor's own relentless commitment to achieving that goal through money and careful execution.

I asked a few Tallahassee old-timers to name a visionary program from some governor. The most common answer was Gov. LeRoy Collins' drive for a community college system to put a college education within driving distance of every Floridian. Gov. Reubin Askew's open-government and ethics campaigns won some mention, on the apparent theory that in the 1970s bringing accountability to Florida government was about as challenging as going to the moon. Bob Graham's education and environment initiatives got some mention, but he had so many ideas and goals that none of them gained BHAG-style traction.

Bob Martinez's courageous undertaking to reform the sales tax was also mentioned, but Martinez backed down. It doesn't count if you give up. The Chiles administration, for all the he-coon charm and its memorable victory over tobacco companies, seems most notable now as the Democrats' last hurrah.

Bush fans suggested the FCAT-driven school-grading program. It would say something about Florida-style boldness that a modestly funded management-incentive program could be considered a bold ambition, but let's assume it meets the threshold. Bush says 68% of third- and fourth-graders now read at or above grade level, compared with 55% in 2001. That's certainly progress. But the state's increased educational self-esteem is still mostly a matter of being able to say "thank God for Arkansas." No wonder the voters took the initiative to try to move things a bit faster.

Suppose Bush, a governor with more star power than 48 other governors (you have to give Arnold his due) had offered a competing big idea like one suggested by Dominic Calabro, CEO of Florida TaxWatch: No child by the fourth grade will be illiterate. "Now that's within the realm of possibility," Calabro says. "That's a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal."

Free rides
Graham and Bush share the characteristic of reveling in wonky ideas. But Graham couldn't push very much through the Legislature. During his first term, the usually supportive St. Petersburg Times labeled him Governor Jell-O. Today we have another Governor Jell-O, in Republican flavors.

Maybe if Bush had huffed and puffed over pre-K the way he did last year over protecting doctors from the consequences of malpractice, the pre-K program might have gotten launched with quality standards and adequate startup money. Maybe official Tallahassee wouldn't be wringing its hands over the cost of class-size reductions if Bush had persistently told the people in 2002 that if they voted for the proposed reductions in class size, he would implement their wishes with a penny sales tax increase. Same with the bullet train: Vote for the bullet train, and we'll add a couple of cents to every gallon of gas you buy.

Instead, Bush is still proposing tax cuts, despite one expensive constitutional amendment after another. No wonder people vote for these things. They look like free rides. And voters are like politicians in having a weakness for free rides.

Most of the business and political establishment proposes to deter initiatives by changing the rules to require a "supermajority" vote and maybe "fiscal impact statements." No one seems to have taken the lesson that the governor has the responsibility of protecting the state from bad initiatives, in part by keeping people focused on a more compelling vision.

Askew, for example, didn't need the protection of a supermajority requirement when he campaigned up and down the state against casino gambling in 1978 and against an anti-integration referendum on school-busing in 1972.

Thinking small
In 1908, inspired by a staff scientist named Charles Wardell Stiles, the Rockefeller Foundation realized that about 50 cents worth of a drug called thymol could cure a person of hookworm. This was a big problem in the South because this parasite, spread through rural manure and entering the body through bare feet, created anemia, swollen joints, emaciated appearance and other debilitating symptoms. The Rockefeller Sanitation Commission was created with Rockefeller money, and teams swept into the South with door-to-door visits, public health education and an ample supply of medicine. In five years, hookworm had all but disappeared.

Why can't a state government do something like that today -- declare that some problem can be solved and will be solved? I have watched Florida government for 25 years, as a journalist, columnist and editor in Tallahassee, St. Petersburg and Washington, and the sense of urgency and possibility has changed very little.

Why are government's goals so modest, so much about "programs" and procedures? We've contracted out some bureaucracy, pushed responsibility (and taxation) back to local governments and inflicted a thousand paper cuts at the state level. But if the Republican vision is for a government that does less, where is the bold new proposition about what the state ought and ought not do?

Is it because Republicans fare better if people hate government instead of respect it? Because Democrats are afraid that big initiatives get them branded as tax-and-spend liberals? Because people have such lowered expectations of government service and performance and accomplishment?

Maybe by thinking about the answers, someone sometime soon will decide to be bold again, instead of being trapped by political realities, interest groups, re-election priorities and all the other things that seem to be obstacles to bold ambition.

OK, all you strategy-retreat veterans in Businessland, nominate a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal for Florida. E-mail nominations to tallytrend@floridatrend.com.

Tags: Politics & Law, Government/Politics & Law

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