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Leadership

During the past year, as a member of Class XIII of Leadership Florida, I spent a good deal of time thinking about and discussing how this state is run. Every month or so, 49 classmates and I traveled to a different city to be confronted with the major issues in the state: education, environment, politics, juvenile crime, homelessness.

From the start, the program emphasized what we had in common, even though there were plenty of things that could have separated us - race, gender, origins, age, geography and backgrounds. We came from different parts of the state and from different occupations ranging from social worker and bank executive to historian and orthodontist.

The genius of the program, created and run by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, was that from the start, it caused us to set aside those political, social and economic differences and to take a broader view. The program thrived on intensity, and we found ourselves caught up in the experience of coming to grips with the many challenges that face this extraordinary, yet deeply flawed state. The underlining thesis of Leadership Florida, which is repeated like a mantra until every issue is seen in its context, is that Florida will never rise above its petty, limiting regionalism unless it develops leaders with a sense of statewide community. If there ever was evidence that Leadership Florida is on to something very important, consider this month's cover story.

It deals with three important aspects of the lack of leadership in the state. In the first piece, Glenn W. Robertson, who served both Republican and Democratic governors as budget director, chronicles the growing consequences of fiscal irresponsibility, which he compares to a massive financial hurricane that is about to devastate all of Florida.

For decades, the politicians have refused to face the fact that eventually the state would have to pay for the incredible growth of the 1970s and 1980s. Instead, they have whipped up the anti-tax fury in the state even as they continued to spend lavishly on expanding the education bureaucracy and massive prison additions. As a consequence, Florida is left with a yawning spread between anticipated general revenues and spending.

Recently, I discussed this issue with a visiting state senator, who responded with incredulity, "That's not true. We have a law against budget deficits." Ahhh, the liquid language of politics. Call it what you want, but according to Robertson, who certainly should know after years of managing the state's budget, the gap between the state's costs and available general revenues will approach $1.5 billion in 1996. Writes Robertson: "Florida faces a long-term structural deficit that keeps deepening."

Three of the four pieces in this month's leadership void package were written by contributors who actually served in the trenches or have spent years studying the subject of leadership. It's a trend in journalism these days to introduce other voices to subjects normally reported by professional writers. I don't think that works in most stories; I'll take a tough-minded independent journalist 99% of the time. But in this instance, I think, the articles give the entire thesis credibility because of the expertise of the authors.

Besides Robertson, contributors include Tim Ireland, who represented parts of Lee and Collier counties in the Florida House for eight years. He suggests ways that the Legislature could make itself more relevant. And Lance deHaven-Smith, a professor at Florida State University, explodes some myths created by politicians as an excuse for their failure to lead.

The final piece of the package reveals a sad truth about life in the Legislature these days. As deHaven-Smith and Ireland report, the politicians are not truly reflecting the desires of large numbers of their constituents - even though they are quick to blame voters for having parochial views. The result of this lack of leadership, as John McKinnon reports, is that Tallahassee's corps of lobbyists have moved into the power void. So it is that we offer reluctantly a guide to the top lobbyists as a kind of perverse, but realistic, reader service.

So it goes in the free-for-all known as Florida. When my Leadership Florida classmates and I visited Tallahassee, some of us from the southern part of the state were struck with how Georgian the city seemed. The pine trees and rolling hills belonged more to the state about 25 miles to the north than to the lower tropical climes to the south over which the capital ruled so divisively. I was struck with the same sense of insular remoteness from the governed in Tallahassee as I felt in Washington when I lived there.

So the irony is that while groups like Leadership Florida struggle to find ways to bring the diverse interests of the state into common focus, those who actually have the opportunity to lead us in that direction shirk that responsibility. More than a few of my classmates left the program with the hope that some day there will be a leadership program for our elected leaders.