Legislative delegations need to adopt regional focus to gain power, leaders say
By Frank Norton
South Florida commands nearly a third of the state's economy and about 40% of the legislature, yet smaller regions often best the area when it comes to wielding influence in Tallahassee. The problem, according to some political leaders and policy analysts, is lack of cooperation.
"Our legislative delegations need to function more collectively because only the state government can truly act regionally," said Miami-Dade Commissioner Jimmy Morales. "The three delegations have a lot in common except a shared focus."
Others agree, saying South Florida delegates should forge one dominant legislative caucus to push the region as a whole rather than compete against each other as they now do.
With nearly a third of the state's population, the three counties generate $130 billion of Florida's gross product, estimated at about $470 billion, according to the governor's office. But experts say the region's political will falls short of its contribution to the Florida tax-base and economy.
"We've got to start thinking interdependently and define the payoffs of cooperation better. We're all in this boat together," said Larry Pelton, president of the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County.
State Rep. Annie Betancourt from Miami-Dade County, who is running for Congress, said South Florida's legislative delegations have failed to build consensus on shared concerns.
"It takes leadership to build consensus but I'm not sure our leadership has the political will to pull it off," she said, referring to the formation of unified delegation.
The lack of consensus could stem from Miami-Dade delegates being "insular and parochial," said Miami-Dade Commissioner Katy Sorenson.
It may also be a quirk of geography. Analysts think South Florida's linear population bases create multiple centers of gravity that look inwardly rather than as a whole like the Orlando and Tampa Bay regions.
According to the governor's office, the benefits of regional coordination are as much economic as legislative.
"A combined force would much better highlight the labor force and industry strengths of a region," said Dr. Pamella Dana who directs the governor's office of tourism, trade and economic development. "If Palm Beach, for example, were to become part of Miami's recognized stature, the spilloff would be well worth it. Not that they can't compete globally, but they don't have the recognition."
The three counties' individual economic development agencies have been trying this year to hash out an agreement not to use public dollars to lure businesses from one county to another. That proposal could be adopted by October.
"What matters more than incentives is creating a sound, solid business climate based on sound fundamentals," said Dr. Dana, such as a strong labor pool, low taxes and non-burdensome regulations.
Despite political obstacles, regionalism initiatives on several fronts have made progress this year. Signs of South Florida coordination include:
ĄTri-county transit authorities are assembling a dedicated revenue stream to vie for matching dollars by the federal government's November 2003 funding window. That effort follows Miami-Dade's July vote to expand the existing Tri-Rail Board into a more powerful South Florida Regional Transit Authority. The more powerful regional authority would need state approval this spring.
ĄThe InternetCoast Research Consortium, a partnership of six South Florida colleges and universities, will lobby the state for at least $10 million in December as the first phase of a plan to apply telecommunications to health-care services. The plan comes in answer to Gov. Jeb Bush's $30 million initiative passed this year to create "centers of excellence" at campuses across the state.
ĄTri-county economic development officials plan to discuss forming one marketing agency or at least sharing efforts to sell South Florida as a business hub. Specific ideas about joint communications and trade missions could start to take shape this fall if the three counties and their individual economic development agencies approve wording on the pending no-compete pact.