The yawning gap between rich and poor and lack of quality education for all are the most pressing issues facing Florida — and together they represent the top issue candidates should be discussing this election year, according to a new Miami Herald survey of the state’s influential voices.
A group of 50 Florida Influencers, comprised of leaders in the state’s political, business, academic and faith communities, were asked to rank seven policy areas identified by readers — economic inequality, education, environment, gun control, health care, immigration and infrastructure — from most to least important to the state’s future.
With 48 Influencers responding to the survey the Miami Herald conducted in conjunction with the Bradenton Herald, education narrowly edged economic inequality as the top overall issue — 38 percent of the Influencers ranked income inequality as the most important issue, compared to 27 percent for education. And 31 percent ranked education as the second-most important issue, compared to 22 percent for income inequality. But many Influencers said they viewed the two matters as intertwined, together representing the main obstacle standing in the way of a better future for Florida.
“The absence of a well-educated citizenry perpetuates economic inequality and a society divided along class lines,” said Steve Zack, a partner at Boies Schiller Flexner in Miami and former president of the American Bar Association.
Leigh-Ann Buchanan, the executive director of Venture Café Miami, said economic inequality was the “root cause” for many of the other problems facing Florida. “The lack of opportunity limits access to education, establishing safe and resilient communities, ensuring healthy families and a general openness to immigrants,” she said.
Despite the heated debate playing out over the Trump administration's immigration enforcement policies and border wall proposal, the Influencers ranked the issue as the the least important of the seven policy areas provided. Less than 10 percent of respondents identified immigration as the top issue facing Florida in 2018, and one-third rated it last.
Indeed, the Influencers were largely on the same page as readers, who choose income inequality as the most important and immigration as the least important of the seven issues. The biggest difference between the two groups came on guns.
Following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland earlier this year, a quarter of readers said gun control was the top issue of the election year, placing it second overall on the list. But for the Influencers, gun control came in at number six, with less than 5 percent saying it was the most important issue and more than 30 percent saying it was the least important of the options.
Since readers identified economic inequality as their top issue this campaign season, the Miami Herald asked the Influencers which policy solutions candidates should be discussing on the trail in the coming months. The responses were varied. Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami, said Floridians should have a conversation about not only raising the minimum wage, but establishing a maximum wage.
On the other side of the spectrum, Bob McClure, the president of the Tallahassee-based James Madison Institute, said that while the government should work together with nonprofit organizations to create a stronger social safety net, fewer taxes and regulations are the answer to greater economic growth.
Meanwhile, Maria Alonso, the president and CEO of the United Way of Miami-Dade, put the focus on expanding access to industries with medium- to high-skilled jobs.
“We need to ensure we have the talent or workforce with the skill sets required for these jobs through investments in job training, apprenticeship programs or certification programs that build desired skills in a relatively short period of time in areas of high demand,” she said.
Asked to provide an issue that is important but receiving too little attention from politicians and the media, Influencers mentioned mental health the most often. Some noted that the issue is often spotlighted in the aftermath of mass shootings or celebrity suicides, but then quickly fades into the background.
“Lack of understanding of the wide-reaching impact of behavioral health issues and competing demands for resources are the reason the discussion is sporadic and reactive,” said Shelley Katz, the vice president of Lutheran Services Florida Health Systems in Jacksonville.
With the Florida primaries still more than two months away, a plurality of those surveyed (37 percent) said it was too early to say whether the candidates running for office this year were addressing these issues well. Thirty percent said candidates were addressing the issues “slightly well”, 20 percent said “somewhat well,” six percent said “fairly well” and another six percent said “not at all” well. None of the respondents said candidates were addressing these issues “very well.”
This is the first of a series of surveys the Miami Herald will conduct with 50 Influencers through the November elections to help focus media and candidate discussion around the policy issues of most importance to Floridians. Look for the next report in two weeks.
George Haj contributed reporting.