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Editor's Column: Teeth Needed

Mark Howard
Mark Howard,
Executive Editor

If you want to understand why Florida often seems to punch below its weight — why state resources seem frequently to get diluted rather than focused — consider a couple of recent developments.

First, there's the Great Dental School Grab. Florida has two dental schools — at UF and Nova Southeastern — with another to open at Lake Erie College of Medicine in Bradenton in 2012. Florida also has plenty of dentists — more than 11,000, fourth in the country, about average for the country in dentists per capita. A Florida Department of Health study found that the estimated number of new dentists will more than offset any projected losses due to retirement, emigration, etc. — and that nearly all the current dentists are accepting new patients. Bottom line: There's no shortage of tooth docs.

Meanwhile, UF is expected to seek permission to expand its dental school, UCF and FAMU are expected to file proposals to start dental schools, and FAU has considered starting a dental school. Note: Dental schools are, by some accounts, the most expensive kind of professional school to start and operate — Lake Erie will invest more than $50 million to start its school, and the state contributes around $20 million a year to UF dental school's $60-million budget to keep it running.

The reason most of the schools give for needing this new dental school horsepower is to serve the state's underserved poor and rural population. This, of course, is nonsense. If the state wants to serve that population better, it can boost Medicaid reimbursement rates or create loan-forgiveness incentives for newly minted dentists, who typically graduate with more than $150,000 in debt, to induce them to serve underserved areas.

The colleges actually want dental schools for several reasons: One, prestige — UF has one and so we need one, too. Two, dentist-grads are likely to earn more — and therefore contribute more — than sociology or English majors. Three, all the schools see dental schools as "economic drivers" that may attract research money — never mind the startup costs or the fact that a new school's research grants will come out of somebody else's pocket.

UCF's proposal has a twist — the university says it won't need state help to run the school. But the faculty, presumably, will be state employees. And if tuition, fees and fundraising don't cover costs at some point, you can best believe the school won't hesitate to ask the state for help. And then there's the fundamental question of whether the state needs another dental school.

This month, the state Board of Governors, which is attempting to bring some oversight to the herd of cats that is the state's universities, will hear all the formal dental school proposals that materialized before the mid-August deadline. The board, which must approve all new graduate level programs, will conduct a final vote in November. There's enough duplication of effort by the state's universities and enough competition for the limited higher-ed dollars without further diluting the state's higher-ed efforts. The governors should open wide and just say no.

Meanwhile, on the Gulf Coast, another version of we-want-one-too is playing out.

Citrus County, one of the state's most beautiful, has decided it wants to put a port at the shallow terminus of the never-completed Cross Florida Barge Canal. The Citrus commissioners, apparently without much study or information gathering, have bought into a notion that the new "post-Panamax" freighters will pause off the Citrus County coastline and disgorge containers onto barges bundled into a yet-to-be-built vessel called a "Trans-Sea Lifter.''

Never mind that post-Panamax ships don't have cranes for loading or offloading containers, and never mind other logistical issues ranging from water depths to lack of onshore facilities for transshipment. To say nothing of why the state needs a port less than 100 miles north of two others, the Port of Tampa and Port Manatee. Or even why, with 14 existing ports, it needs another one anywhere. For a clean dissection of this bit of whimsy, see an April posting by a retired U.S. Navy commander and Citrus County businessman, Walter Wynn, in the Southeast Shipping News at seshippingnews.typepad.com/south_east_shipping_news/us-maritime-highway.

No matter. Citrus County commissioners got the Legislature to add the county to the list of ports on the Florida Seaport Transportation and Economic Development Council, making it eligible for a grant to pay for a feasibility study on whether to actually build a facility. I've never heard of a feasibility study that came back with a "bad-idea, don't-do-it" message, so Citrus County's port effort will likely end up competing for — and diluting — whatever future funding the state is able to put toward its ports.

Somewhere in all this is a legitimate philosophical discussion about government's role. Gov. Rick Scott is among those who believe that industrial policy ought to start with the assumption that the government is lousy at picking economic winners and losers and ought to promote as much competition as possible. At some point, however, the state has a role in allocating scarce resources — whether for ports or dental schools — and shouldn't feel it should have to fund anybody who sees something across the state and decides he wants one, too.

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