Tax windfall to finance state effort to diversity economy
By Leslie Kraft
Unexpected increases in state tax revenue probably will fund initiatives to diversify Florida's economy beyond its traditional tourism, real estate and agriculture, state officials said last week at a regional economic meeting.
"Tax collections have been higher than expected," said David Bishop of Florida's Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development. "As we see more money coming in with the economy turning around, we can expect funding for the initiatives to be recommended in an economic-diversity plan for the state that will be presented to (Gov. Jeb Bush) in January."
About 300 business, education, community and government leaders attended the Southeast Regional Strategic Planning Meeting in Deerfield Beach. The event, fifth of eight planned statewide, was designed for public input into a plan to broaden the range of industries that employ Florida's workers, state officials said.
Leading the discussion, along with Mr. Bishop, were Secretary of State Glenda Hood; Darrell Kelley, president of economic-development organization Enterprise Florida; and Susan Pareigis, director of the state's Workforce Innovation Agency.
They said their goal was to broaden the state's economy to create more "knowledge-based" jobs, which they said require a post-secondary education and would provide a higher standard of living for workers.
A recent Florida International University study said 40% of employees in Florida earn less than $9 per hour.
Mr. Bishop said state funding for education would not be sufficient at current levels to accomplish the task. The current budget for public education of $14.9 billion represents 32.1% of the state's total budget - a little higher ratio than last year, the governor's office said.
The entire education budget - including funds for community colleges and universities and includes state and federal funds - is $17.2 billion, not including student fees. State funding for higher education now is 3% to 4% higher than last year, state officials said.
"The 2003-04 budget was exceptionally tight as we were recovering from the economic downturn," said Mr. Bishop, "although we were one of the few states that did not have to make draconian cuts or raise taxes.
"What happened in that budget was the exception, and we expect money to fund the (economic-diversity) plan as it is completed," he said.
David Bruns of the Florida Department of Revenue said the state collected $173 million more than it expected last year in corporate income taxes, $205 million more in document-stamp taxes and $32.6 million more in sales taxes.
Frank Nero, president of the Beacon Council, Miami-Dade County's economic-development agency, said that if more state money is not allotted for education, South Florida won't be able to raise residents' standard of living and will lose its chance to become one of the most diverse and dynamic economies in the world.
"If we don't fund education and keep talking about creating economic diversity, we are talking out of both sides of our mouth," he said. "If there are no resources to fund that effort, then we should just admit that.
"The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result," Mr. Nero said. "It is ironic that everyone says that education is top priority until it comes to funding it.
"Maybe we don't have the money to go forward with all of our plans now, but when the economy rebounds, we need to be in a position to fund education to create knowledge-based jobs," he said. "You can't have knowledge-based jobs without the knowledge part."
The last of the state's meetings on its economic plan is scheduled for Oct. 2 in Miami at a time and location to be determined, officials said. That meeting will focus on international marketing efforts and wrap up the series.