Lawmakers can work cooperatively

IN TALLAHASSEE: Lawmakers gather in the Florida House on the first day of the 2014 session.
IN TALLAHASSEE: Lawmakers gather in the Florida House on the first day of the 2014 session. Tampa Bay Times

Everyone likes a pat on the back for a job well done. But praise should not make us complacent or hold us back when we ought to set our sights higher. This is the challenge facing Miami-Dade’s legislative delegation to Tallahassee.

Members of the Florida Senate and House of Representatives with districts in Miami-Dade County form what is called the “Dade delegation.” There are 24 of us in total. Together we make up almost a sixth of the entire Florida Legislature.

In my first term as one of those legislators, we returned home each year from Tallahassee to press coverage and accolades for what we’d been able to accomplish together. When it is praise for state funding benefiting important local projects or programs, or for successfully fighting an uphill battle on behalf of property insurance policyholders against further increases, it is well-deserved. Still, it seems like no one is holding the Dade delegation to account on the bigger picture.

Miami-Dade faces real long-term challenges that residents will confront long after the tenure of any individual elected official. At the end of Florida’s legislative session each year, the measure of the Dade delegation should be whether we set and worked together toward ambitious far-sighted goals that put our residents, local institutions and economy on stronger footing going into the future.

What would it mean to set our sights higher? Perhaps the clearest example is in education funding. The District Cost Differential, or the DCD, is a cost-of-living adjustment in our state education funding formulas that used to fairly account for the fact that it is more expensive to educate students in urban areas. Ten years ago, however, all that changed. The calamitous effects for South Florida — and especially Miami-Dade — continue to this day and have shortchanged our public school system by tens of millions of dollars every year since the DCD was brought down.

Other areas are critically important, too. Our water and sewer infrastructure is in crisis, traffic increases every year and South Florida’s overburdened courts are routinely (and embarrassingly) last in line for much needed attention.

In any discussion about state policies hurting Miami-Dade, the elephant in the room is healthcare. Last year leadership in the Florida House blocked a bipartisan plan that would have drawn down more than $50 billion of our own federal dollars to offer healthcare coverage to roughly 1 million Floridians who work in low-wage jobs and don’t earn enough to afford health insurance. “Obamacare” may still be a dirty word in political circles, but when a quarter of all the uninsured people who are left out in the cold live in Miami-Dade, accepting the federal money becomes not just a moral or economic issue, but a local one, too.

The reality is that few if any transformational goals make it onto the list of Dade delegation priorities. It doesn’t mean we leave our district priorities or our member projects behind, but we have to set our collective sights high. The DCD is a contender to top what should be a short list of real long-term priorities that we develop, work toward and measure ourselves against.

Leadership must come from the Dade delegation itself. Together we represent the residents of 34 municipalities living in 13 diverse County Commission districts. We advocate for many different public institutions serving Miami-Dade from FIU to the Jackson Health System. With so many compelling needs competing for the attention of each member, we cannot outsource the job of collectively distilling a handful of long-term structural challenges we, as a delegation, take on.

It would be absurd to think we will address all of our long-term challenges at the same time or in a single legislative season. Yet a year with no progress at all on any of our critical long-term priorities should not meet with the type of accolades back home that the Dade delegation has become accustomed to.

This week the Dade delegation chose a chairperson the day after the County Commission chose theirs. It’s a perfect time to set the bar high for next year’s legislative session.

José Javier Rodríguez is the state representative from District 112 in Miami.