Here is the State of the State that Gov. Rick Scott ought to deliver on Tuesday and, more important, that Floridians deserve to hear:
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
It is traditional for the governor to begin this speech with an unequivocal declaration that the state of our state is strong.
The state of our state is strong, but mostly for a select few:
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▪ For the one in four Florida children living in poverty today, the state of our state is fragile. And it isn’t strong for the 3.2 million Florida households that, according to a recent United Way report, struggle every month to stretch paychecks to cover the basic necessities of housing, childcare, food, healthcare and transportation.
▪ It’s hard to be considered strong when you lead the nation in foreclosures.
▪ And strong states do not shortchange the basic care provided their most vulnerable citizens — seniors, children and the disabled — which is exactly what two different judges recently found Florida to be doing.
These challenges are emblematic of the troubling trend lines of our state, trends that cannot be ignored and must be addressed.
My fellow Floridians, many of us celebrated the recent news that Florida surpassed New York as the third most populous state in our nation (applause). While I have heralded growth in the past, growth is not a product nor is it a policy. In many respects Florida has relied too much on growth at the expense of building the kind of economy that elevates the lives and opportunities of all its residents.
Just 40 years ago, Florida still resembled the sleepy getaway that had defined it for the better part of a century. A low-cost mecca where sun was plentiful and taxes were low. A place where a young couple could start a family and others could enjoy the autumn of their lives.
But over the last few decades our state changed as so many flocked here. Our population more than tripled, and rather than adequately invest in workforce education and develop a knowledge-based economy, we built a state on the fumes of that growth, neglecting the kinds of investments that pay dividends in the long term.
And we are paying the price today.
In 1974, Florida’s median household income for a family of four was actually $40 higher than the nation’s. Today, Florida families make $4,000 less than the national median with 38 states doing better.
Our Florida morphed from a low-cost state with modest wages, to a high-cost state with low wages. So today’s Florida, despite its extraordinary gifts of sunshine and beaches, also has an unwelcome abundance of economic anxiety. This is Florida’s foremost economic challenge.
Tourism and the service industry will always be part of our economy. But if our citizens are going to be able to afford to live here, and our state is to meet the basic needs of its residents, we need to raise our game.
And the only way to do that is through public education. In the East Gallery are some public school teachers and students whom I invited (applause).
Applause doesn’t pay their bills. Florida teachers are paid nearly $10,000 less than the nation’s average (audible gasps). And only a handful of states spend less per student than we do.
“Better than Mississippi” can’t be our state’s motto.
Florida trails most of the nation in graduating its young people from high school, and studies confirm that 50 percent who do graduate arrive unprepared for their college studies.
That is why I am asking the Florida Legislature to bring our per pupil expenditures up to the national average within two years (applause).
Though even this modest step will require substantial investment and reorganization of our priorities, nothing is more important because you pay for a cheap education forever!
It’s not only about the money. We will also need to second-guess our obsession with testing and refocus our curriculum. Testing isn’t teaching, and emphasizing science, technology, engineering and math coursework is the only real way for Florida to compete for and attract high wage jobs. But let’s not lose the part of the education experience — like music, art and humanities — that makes school, and life, interesting.
Finally, our state cannot be strong when 1 million of our fellow citizens still lack health insurance. If we expand Medicaid to include working Floridians who are uninsured, we will generate in excess of $60 billion in our economy over the next decade and provide the kinds of preventive healthcare that saves lives and improves outcomes.
While I hope state legislators have a change of heart, if they don’t I will make it simple: I will sign no budget that does not include Medicaid expansion. It is both heartless and foolish to reject so much money and leave so many of our fellow citizens in peril.
Expand Medicaid or plan on living here in Tallahassee indefinitely (groans). These changes may not bear fruit tomorrow or even while we hold office. But this state is in dire need of leaders who embrace the long view.
Join me. God bless Florida and the United States of America!
Dan Gelber is a former Democratic state senator, who also served as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s office in South Florida.