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Editor's Page

We Can't Be Afraid of Big Decisions

Mark R. Howard | 6/1/2009

Mark Howard,
Executive Editor

A recurring theme in the cities and states where I’ve lived has been the power of history — how a single decision or event, though decades in the past, could continue to exert enormous influence. I lived in Memphis for a short while in the 1980s and came to believe that the single biggest factor in the character and dynamic of the city, aside from its Old South racial dynamic, was an epidemic that occurred more than 100 years before I moved there. Two bouts of yellow fever in the 1870s killed thousands and scared so many into leaving that Tennessee’s legislature took away the city’s charter for a time, reducing it to a “taxing district.” In reconstituting itself as a municipality, Memphis developed an advanced water and sanitary sewer system that endured as a positive legacy of the fever. But that gain was more than outweighed by the effect on the city of losing so much of its population during the epidemic, which retarded Memphis economically and institutionally in ways that have persisted to this day.

Another example of the power of the past involves a Big Decision rather than a Big Event. Here in St. Petersburg, where I now live, W.L. Straub, a newspaper editor in the 1920s, became obsessed with the notion that the city’s waterfront should belong to the people rather than commerce. The city bought up the waterfront, and nearly 90 years later Straub’s legacy is an unbroken stretch of civic green space along Tampa Bay that gives enormous character to our town and has been among the chief catalysts in a downtown renaissance that’s the envy of much-larger Tampa across the bay. That city, by contrast, walled off its waterfront years ago with private commercial development, a Big Decision that has continued to hamstring Tampa’s struggle to build a downtown and define itself as a major city.

Statewide, a Big Event — Hurricane Andrew — led to the subsequent Big Decision to create a state-run insurer that continues to reverberate through the finances of both the state and its residents nearly 20 years after the storm blew through Homestead. And two Big Decisions — first to do away with the Board of Regents, then to try to re-establish it — have helped tie the future of Florida’s colleges and universities into a knot that seems impossible to unravel and has imposed big consequences for the quality of education students receive at those institutions. Meanwhile, the Big Decision to jump-start a biotech sector in Florida is beginning to reshape the state’s economy in ways that will seem remarkable within a decade.

Most of the time, however, Big Decisions with long-term impacts — particularly bad ones — aren’t just one decision. Counties in southwest Florida continue, incrementally, to allow development that’s eating into the western edge of the Everglades, repeating the folly previous generations wrought on the Glades’ eastern edge, even as the state

and federal governments throw billions at “restoring” the earlier damage. Across the state, Miami-Dade County is engaged in a running series of battles over its urban development boundary and how far to allow development to sprawl. The outcome of those fights will amount to a Big Decision that will permanently affect the face of those two regions.

All of which brings us to the recently concluded legislative session in Tallahassee. Part of leadership is being able to look beyond what you need to do to get by next week or next month, particularly in the face of a crisis. The Obama administration is seizing the opportunity presented by the meltdown of the credit markets to reshape all manner of institutions and institutional relationships. However much or little you may agree with his individual moves, President Obama isn’t afraid of Big Decisions.

Our Legislature and governor, by contrast, didn’t generate any Big Decisions. Confronted with opportunity born of crisis, they chose to just get by. At a time ripe for some kind of comprehensive tax reform, the Legislature nickeled and dimed its way into a balanced budget with a bunch of fee increases. At a time when they could have made a significant push for public transit, they ducked and ran rather than resolve the issues that ultimately killed the SunRail project. At a time when they could have reaffirmed the state’s commitment to conserving its natural places as an essential priority, they dropped funding for Florida Forever. At a time when they could have made Big Decisions about an ongoing funding strategy for the state’s universities, they were content to scrape through another year, minimizing damage rather than building for the future. Likewise on property insurance, the single biggest threat to the state’s financial solvency — the Legislature took a baby step by allowing the state-run insurer to begin raising its rates toward being actuarially sound but missed an opportunity to be bold. One big storm this hurricane season could still bankrupt the state. Meanwhile, the lawmakers showed no sign at all that they understood the message that a grand jury sent about the way they operate when the jury indicted Ray Sansom.

If there was ever a year in which the people of Florida could hope for something other than business as usual, this was it. What they saw in Tallahassee, however, was business as usual — a bunch of little decisions that collectively amount to a bad Big Decision.

Decision-making is a theme in my household this season; my daughter had to choose where to attend college. And when she finishes, she’ll have to decide where to start her career — another Big Decision. She’s smart, talented and plans to work in a field where Florida will need skilled, talented people. Whether she ends up living here, however, will likely depend a lot on the state’s ability to do a lot better with its own Big Decisions, starting with the small ones.

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