Chamber's challenge: fixes for schools, transit, government
By Michael Lewis
As Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce members convene for their goals conference this week, need couldn't be greater to step up to attack Miami's greatest problems.
If we were picking key chamber targets as we examine what constitutes the Best of Miami this week, we'd rank at the top public schools, mass transportation and county government. All need significant upgrades to rate among the best, all are in the chamber's sphere and all are vital to both business success and our quality of life.
If chamber members need a challenge, here it is: take strong stands to attack the root problems in all three categories and set up yardsticks to measure achievements by the chamber and for the community.
An even greater challenge: don't shun controversy. Take stances that powerful persons outside or inside the chamber might not all agree with. A 100% buy-in is impossible if the chamber is to go beyond home, motherhood and apple pie issues.
The aim should not be popularity but to chalk up serious accomplishments that better the environment in which business here is done and enrich the community.
Historically, chamber members have annually listed hundreds of goals, most dealing with bettering this county but most generic enough to ruffle no feathers.
And, because most goals were written to "consider," "plan," "meet on," "address" or "study" issues, most goals were met — chamber members considered, planned, met, addressed and studied.
Few goals were broad and few required advancing the ball. And almost none sought to alter root causes of fundamental problems.
When, for example, was the last time the Greater Miami Chamber took a strong stand on basic structures to fund local, county and state government? Has the chamber publicly mentioned "income tax"? Not that we advocate one, but how does our leading business group stand on the issue?
Put bluntly, the chamber has been so diplomatic and inclusive and unifying on most vital issues that never was heard a discouraging word, and the skies were not cloudy all day. If there were elephants on the home range, the chamber didn't notice.
This year, however, might be different. We've seen in recession-battered Washington a willingness, born of necessity, to examine the unexaminable. Perhaps chamber members will target larger solutions for larger problems.
Wee value the chamber and its mission, as we do other chambers locally. It is only because of the Greater Miami Chamber's central role — and the vacuum of broad county leadership — that we issue these challenges.
In fact, we have participated in all but one goals conference in the past two-plus decades and voted on goals. Seldom did we push root-cause action more forcefully than did other members.
Now, however, we're challenging members to step more boldly, because the need was never greater. We ask them to:
Seek state legislation to permit a breakup of the massive Miami-Dade Public School system to allow community-based systems countywide.
Our county education levels deter business entry and expansion. We don't adequately educate our workforce or our future citizens. Most Miamians agree on that, even those who don't want to touch the present structure.
But a Harvard study that looked at our schools and Boston's found our children were 1.4 grade levels behind theirs. We have just one mammoth district as required by law, they have 70 separate school districts and pay no more for education than we do.
Unless we are less intelligent than Bostonians, which is doubtful, it seems the smaller districts worked better. That, at least, is what the Harvard study found.
We should at least have the legal option of turning one system of 345,000 pupils into multiple, more-effective districts that work much closer to home. Decide later just how to do it, but make sure the state gives us the right to do better.
Campaign to either eliminate our transit tax or use every penny of it as voters were promised, in which case the county's transportation trust should also become independent in fact as well as in name.
When voters, with chamber urging, agreed to a sales tax to add mass transit, they were promised a list of improvements that county officials now admit are impossible. The money has been pirated instead to maintain the old transit system, allowing government to shift general funds for other uses as it sees fit. It's a classic bait and switch.
Commissioner Carlos Gimenez is gearing up for a campaign to abolish the tax, which would force government to adequately fund transit from general revenues. The chamber should support that effort unless the commission reverses itself, freeing the transportation trust from its grip and releasing all tax money for its intended uses.
The chamber shouldn't look the other way at this classic case that parallels the state lottery, which was intended to fund education. It does — but the money that used to fund education was shifted elsewhere. That is the game that goes on in government unless the public has the backbone to halt it.
The chamber ought to develop that backbone.
Put the chamber's full muscle behind county government reform that would begin with adequate pay for our $6,000-a-year fulltime commissioners and end with a complete revamp of the system so that commissioners still serve their districts but are elected countywide.
Everyone agrees the system is broken. It's clear the combination of virtually no pay and a small base of support in individual districts will keep future challengers from defeating any commission incumbents who have not been photographed kicking small children or kissing Fidel Castro.
But while virtually every businessperson bemoans an ineffective, unresponsive commission, the chamber has been unwilling to spearhead a drive to fix the system — or even to speak out about it.
Change would be good for business and good for our quality of life. Only 13 people seem to disagree — and the commission numbers exactly 13.
I don't want to belittle the chamber. It has taken unpopular stances, most recently backing construction of a baseball stadium that the community as a whole opposed in polls, as did most chamber members I've spoken with.
So there is some history of courage, if not always wisdom, on the chamber's part.
The same courage that supported a tax giveaway to baseball could also be mobilized to tackle more fundamental questions: education, transportation and local government.
So we ask again, will the chamber accept the challenge?