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Friday, April 22, 2011

Cutting taxes hasn't worked... for most of us...

From the Daytona News Beach Journal

by Derrik Catron

DAYTONA BEACH SHORES -- Bob Graham was feeling depressed Friday.

His downbeat mood had nothing to do with an aggressive schedule of speaking performances across Volusia County. If anything, talking about Florida lifts the spirits of the former governor and U.S. senator.

"I think that whole idea of Florida as a treasure is under assault today," he said at the Tiger Bay Club luncheon in Daytona Beach Shores, the first of three appearances that also included stops at Stetson University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

The former presidential candidate thought Florida had outgrown the days when its leaders viewed the state as a commodity, when "you could do whatever you wanted to, make as much money and generally get out of town before the consequences were too evident."

The actions he sees coming from Tallahassee remind him of those days, he said.

"That made me depressed."

But Graham -- who never lost an election in Florida -- couldn't be kept down for long. He reminded his listeners that the state had been through tough times before as he shared stories of "people who are relatively new to Florida and don't understand some of our values and traditions."

One of those carpetbaggers became a state official and helped design a new state seal after the Civil War. The seal had its problems, most obviously looming mountains that can't be found in Florida's geography. The state official didn't stick around long, Graham added, but the seal was in place for more than 100 years.

"Now the lesson behind that is just because people are here for a brief period of time and they leave the scene doesn't mean their damage is going to be corrected in a short amount of time," said Graham, 74, Florida's governor from 1979 to 1987 and a senator from 1987 to 2005. "That's what concerns me."

The story drew chuckles, especially among Graham's fellow Democrats, even though he'd preceded his tale with a disclaimer: "I'm not talking about the fact that our governor has only been in the state six years. That's just an observation."

Some of Graham's other observations were more pointed.

He noted that Florida had granted $4 billion in tax cuts since 1999 "at the altar of economic development."

"That's been the ideology: You cut taxes and create economic growth," he said. "I asked the governor's office, the Legislature and some academics: Has anybody in the last 11 years looked at those $4 billion in tax cuts to see if in fact they had contributed to economic growth?"

The answer was no.

So Graham gave it a try.

During the '80s when he was governor, Florida added about 190,000 jobs a year. During the '90s when he was in the U.S. Senate, the figure was about 150,000 a year. During the first decade of this century, though, it had dropped to an average of about 70,000 a year, not even enough to stay ahead of the growing workforce.

Even worse, Graham added, was the nature of those jobs. Nearly 25 years ago, Florida's per capita income relative to the rest of the country was at 101.5 percent. Last year it was just over 96 percent.

"So we've had a dramatic decline not only in job creation but in the quality of the jobs," Graham concluded. "My lesson from that is maybe this ideology ain't working . . . Maybe we ought to look for some different ways to accomplish the objective of providing Floridians with more opportunities."

Graham tried to imagine what Florida might be like today if, instead of cutting $4 billion in taxes that primarily benefited, he said, Florida's wealthiest citizens, the state had invested that money in education and improving residents' quality of life.

He didn't have to imagine, though, because he'd seen it happen in Silicon Valley, North Carolina's Research Triangle and other places that "built their prosperity on principles of quality of life and good education."

Graham doesn't see much future in selling Florida as the cheapest state in which to do business.

"We aren't competing just with other places in the United States," he said. "We're competing with the world. And we are never -- I hope -- going to be as cheap as the alternatives overseas. What we're after is the people who bring the intellectual skills to do the research, design and marketing of those products. That's where the high-value jobs are."

Volusia County School Board member Judy Conte enjoyed the speech.

"He's a moderate, thoughtful type of person. People like that deserve our attention," Conte said afterward. "I certainly agree with his call for more education funding. We need to be giving (students) more instruction, not talking about what we're going to cut."

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