Was the I-10 Expansion Project Justified?

23 01 2009

By Kartik Krishnaiyer

In 2001 the Florida Department of Transportation announced their intention to expand Interstate 10 through Tallahassee. At the same time stretches of Interstate highways through the Fort Myers/Naples area, Brevard County and Polk County that were burdened with incredible traffic loads due to rapid population increases were told to wait until later.

Interstate 10 in Florida does not carry a large amount of “interstate traffic.” That is why the federal government in the 1990s provided money for expansion of I-75 as a connecting traffic route between the Florida/Georgia line and Wildwood as well as for I-95 between Jacksonville and the I-4 junction near Daytona Beach.

I-10 is a route that traverses through sparsely populated areas between Okaloosa County and Jacksonville. Leon County is in fact the only county that exceeds 100,000 residents in the 300 miles between Crestview and Jacksonville. This is in direct contrast to I-95 whose entire path South of Jacksonville is through counties that exceed 100,000 residents with the exception of geographically compact Flagler County.

Yet, the 1-95 expansion through Brevard County, which has almost twice the residents of Leon County was delayed for several years. Additionally, I-95 is used as a route to travel from point to point within Brevard County more than I-10 is within Leon County which is centered around one urban area.

Today the I-95 is finally being expanded from Palm Bay northward to the junction with the Beachline Expressway/SR 528.  Congressman Connie Mack had to fight vigorously for federal funding to expand an incredibly congested stretch of I-75 from Naples to just South of Fort Myers. Construction began on this stretch of road last year a full three years after the I-10 project began construction. Yet the area covered by the highway expansion has more than twice as many residents and perhaps ten times as many annual tourists as the area of the I-10 expansion.

Work on I-4 in Polk County still needs to be done: this stretch of highway from Lakeland to Haines City has been badly congested since the mid 1980s. At some point Central Florida’s major expressway is going to have to be a seamless travel route from Tampa to Daytona Beach connecting a rapidly emerging mega metropolitan area. Punting on this while state money was spent on a relatively minor problem was foolish.

Yet the state spent $152.5 million to expand a road just outside the state capitol that did not need expansion. The decision to expand I-10 when FDOT bagan the project delayed other critical items proposed by Governor Bush in the Mobility 2000 plan further into the future. Can this expense be justified in a time of budget crisis and other real traffic needs for Florida?


Health Care and Housing Cuts Cannot be Healed

15 01 2009

Florida is suffering worse than most parts of the country during this current recession. The state has cut critical services while continuing the ideological priorities of the majority party by not seeking new revenue streams and not scaling back the outrageous regressive tax cuts of the past several years.

Even more troubling is the raiding of the Lawton Chiles Endowment fund. As we’ve chronicled on this website, the GOP fought Governor Chiles when he courageously took on the tobacco companies on behalf of Florida’s citizens. The Legislature had the opportunity to write language to the document ensuring repayment of the fund. Cynically thinking, perhaps this decision by the GOP leadership is an attempt to kill the fund altogether. In the last several days Governor Crist has shown more good faith than I expected of him on this issue. However, the Legislature, particularly the House which has only two members that were around for the fights of the 1990s (Rep. Ron Saunders and Rep. Faye Culp,) has shown nothing but bad faith on this very serious issue.

I do not like cuts in education, which is already woefully funded in Florida, but I personally am much more concerned about losing $40 million from Developmental Disabilities waivers and $100 from Hospital Care than the $500 million cut statewide from K-12. Given the percentage of the overall budget that K-12 funding represents, it actually made out well in these cuts compared to other critical statewide programs.

This choice did not have to be made: by ruling out of bounds any attempts to enhance revenue in this Special Session the leadership of this state made it a choice between Education and Health Care. Now while both were cut, the Education was cut a lot less severely as a percentage of overall spending than Healthcare, or Children’s Health. The raiding of the Chiles Fund to save education dollars and mask the shortfalls of several years of tax cutting is not acceptable either.

We’ve discussed at length on this website the 2002 Class Size Amendment which Kendrick Meek spearheaded statewide. School Districts have known they would have to implement this change in the law for six years and yet still claim they are having trouble because of inadequate funding. For the most part Legislators of both parties have sided with the districts on this matter and seem to wish the class size mandate would go away.

Another horrible cut is that of affordable housing to the tune of $190 million from yes, a trust fund. The raiding of trust funds that exist for purposes of low income health care and housing sadly fits the GOP’s ideological agenda of the past several years. Education cuts may sting but cuts to trust funds and programs that affect the most vulnerable in our society sting even more.

Why Do Dade County Republicans Consistently Vote Against the Area’s Interest?

14 01 2009

By Kartik Krishnaiyer

Well, it has happened again. Ever since the Republicans gained a majority in Florida Legislature, the Republican delegation from Miami-Dade County has consistently sided with the ideological and partisan priorities of the Republican Party over the very real concerns of Florida’s most urban and most populated county.

One after another after another, Republican legislators from Miami-Dade have placed advancement within the party caucus and approval on the Tallahassee cocktail party circuit over their own consistency. When Governor Lawton Chiles tried to ensure adequate funding for school facilities the GOP legislators from Miami-Dade county went along with a plan pushed by North Florida Republicans to count portable classrooms as permanent classroom space.

This change in the law would have affected Miami-Dade County more adversely than any other school district in the state. When Governor Chiles called the legislature back into special session to fix the mess they had created, Miami-Dade Republicans caved but only after the voices of their constituents had been aired loudly.

When Jeb Bush became Governor, the Miami Republicans impressed by their access to power continued their crusade against their constituents. Repeatedly, Republicans from Miami-Dade voted to cut projected spending for Education, Health Care and Children’s Services. They voiced on many occasions strong opposition to capping the size for Florida’s public school classrooms despite repeated calls from parents and teachers in Miami- Dade County to do so.

As the Republican majority grew, Miami-Dade Republicans perhaps insecure with the fact they were from liberal South Florida became more radicalized and further to the right on budgetary matters than many Republicans from other parts of the state. Marco Rubio and Ralph Arza emerged as conservative champions statewide for their demagogic rhetoric towards taxes and government spending. The Miami-Dade Republicans were proving nobody in Florida would get around them to the right.

In this current budget crisis, Governor Charlie Crist and State Senator JD Alexander have made mistakes but have also tried to honestly deal with Florida’s problems. But key Miami-Dade Republicans David Rivera and Anitere Flores have ignored the attempted moderation of the Governor and the welfare of their constituents in helping to craft a budget that can be best described as a statement of conservative ideological priorities.

For many years Miami-Dade County was seen as the sole bastion of Florida liberalism. As Republicans ascended in the county they seemed to have one goal in mind: punish the liberals and punish those who supported the liberals. Sadly for many constituents of Republican lawmakers from Miami-Dade, that meant them.

Have Your Say on the Budget

12 01 2009

FSU in Princeton Review Top Five: Will Legislature Kill Florida’s Universities?

9 01 2009

By Kartik Krishnaiyer

The state of Florida got a pleasant boost yesterday thanks to its University system. I’m not talking about events on the football field but the Princeton Review’s annual list of top college buys which was released publicly. Both New College and Florida State University were ranked in the top 5 of best public school buys, the first time two Florida schools had been ranked in the top 10, let alone the top 5. The University of Central Florida also made the top 100, while Rollins College was in the Top 100 private schools. Interestingly, the University of Florida and the University of Miami who are consistently ranked as the top two schools in Florida by US News and World Report were both absent from the lists. The US News survey factors in alumni donations, something that is controversial and tends the skew the rankings, particularly towards those two schools versus other schools in Florida.

Normally this sort of news would make those of us who promote this state’s education credentials shout through the roof. But not this year. The Legislature has continued raise tuition whenever it feels the budget pinch. Florida’s public universities have become less and less affordable for the average Floridan, while it has also become increasingly difficult for High School seniors to be admitted to Florida’s top two public Universities (perception wise, not according to this survey), Florida State University, and the University of Florida.

The Florida Voice will be covering the tuition battle and Florida’s struggles with funding Higher Education in the upcoming weeks. For now the state can pat itself on the back but if the recent trend in tuition hikes continues, this Princeton Review survey will be once in a lifetime publicity boost for the state.

Sink Steps Forward

8 01 2009

Real leadership has been difficult to come by in the Capitol for the Democrats. As we’ve chronicled all week the Democrats themselves have been complicit in many of the reckless fiscal actions taken by the Republican majority since 1999.  All too often Democrats have been silent partners in the undoing of the state’s moral obligation to its citizens.

Alex Sink, the Chief Financial Officer of the State has stepped forward at a critical time to articulate to Legislative Democrats her concerns about the current budget discussion. Sink has expressed concerns about the dipping into trust funds for money as well as leaving savings accounts with too little money. She has also put forth some cost cutting suggestions which the Legislative Democrats would be foolish to not advance on the House and Senate floors.

These include:

–  Hiring more auditors, who can increase collections for the state
–  Moving certain public employees to a four day work week
–  Eliminating printing costs of several book and other publications
–  Using so-called “School Recognition” funds for more essential school needs, or eliminating that spending altogether;
–   Means testing Bright Futures’ scholarships.

None of the above suggestions is particularly pleasant to discuss under normal circumstances but in this climate they are more palatable then raiding trust funds and violating basic budgetary principles. The Democrats would be wise to follow CFO Sink’s suggestions and push as hard as possible to incorporate them in the budget.

Did Crist Always Intend to Kill Chiles Endowment?

7 01 2009

By Kartik Krishnaiyer

Much like Medicare and Social Security on the federal level, the GOP here in Florida was almost universally against Governor Lawton Chiles crusade against the Tobacco industry. With the exception of three State Senate Republicans and two in the House, Republicans voted in unison for the repeal of Governor Chiles lawsuit and a year later in the Senate to override the Governor’s veto of the repeal. Many Democrats in the Senate joined the GOP effort, which thankfully fell a single vote short of passage.

The GOP leadership used their talking points effectively in 1995 and 1996. They claimed the lawsuit would create a bad business climate and that Children’s Health was not a key concern for the state. The Republicans also complained about how the initial law passed ignoring the fact that legislative trickery and deceit had become a trait of the Legislative wing of the party.

Governor Crist’s continued efforts to raid the Chiles Endowment raises a troubling possibility: Could the GOP have been waiting for an excuse to gut the program altogether? Republicans in the Legislature have never been comfortable with the administration of a trust fund that came from a  lawsuit that the majority of Republicans opposed vociferously.

So after opposing the lawsuit and trying to repeal the law that permitted the lawsuit and then finally repealing the law once Jeb Bush became Governor, the GOP is now reaping the benefits of Governor Chiles courage. The fiscal mismanagement of the state by the Legislature in collusion with the Bush and Crist Administrations has been masked by the raiding of trust funds. How ironic, and perhaps this was all by design. Governor Crist helped lead Legislative efforts to fight the Governor’s lawsuit against Big Tobacco and also led the effort to stonewall Gov. Chiles appointees from being confirmed in the Senate. In fairness to Governor Bush, his agenda did not appear as transparant as that of Governor Crist.

Unless evidence can be brought to the contrary it must be assumed based on their public actions and statements that the GOP leadership always intended to see the Tobacco settlement money “wither on the vine.” By cutting taxes recklessly without complimentary spending cuts, perhaps the Legislature always intended to have a shortfall in funding that could be masked by raiding the Chiles endowment. By cutting taxes so frequently without any reasonable plan to enhance revenues from other sources, it would be foolish to not consider that the raiding of the Chiles fund was by design.

Charlie Crist the master politician who has won three consecutive statewide elections can be honest for change. He can say ” I was there fighting it in nineties, investigating the Governor’s actions and now we have killed it, and given Corporations and Business more money  instead of allowing the money to help the Children.” Let’s be perfectly frank: once a trust fund is raided to the extent the Chiles Endowment is being raided it is essentially dead. That will be the lasting legacy of Charlie Crist’s Governorship. If he does not wish to be remembered this way and have this shameful episode hanging like a noose over him as he pursues higher office, perhaps he should explain his actions without the smokescreen of the current budget crisis.

The state of Florida under Lawton Chiles took the lead nationally in protecting children and seniors: society’s most vulnerable citizens. Now ten years after one of the great statesman in the history of Florida passed on, the leadership of our state seems to have little regard for his legacy or little conscience when undermining one of the most successful programs in our history. So perhaps it was all by design.