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Sarasota Thursday, Mar. 4, 2010 11 years ago

Our View: Our 'in-the-margin' governor


“If you set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing.”

“There are still people in my party who believe in consensus politics. I regard them as Quislings, as traitors ... ”

“To me, consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies. So it is something in which no one believes and to which no one objects.”
— Lady Margaret Thatcher

Phil Handy, Florida’s architect of the Eight Is Enough term-limit amendment in 1992, coined the phrase “government in the margins” about 18 years ago in Florida Trend magazine.

He had it right. And still does.

Handy defined “government in the margins” as the typical approach of politicians at every level. Rather than tackle the big issues or propose bold, transformational reforms that right wrongs and make a dramatic positive difference, politicians work in the margins, on the edges of government where they nip a little here, tuck a little there and otherwise maintain the status quo.

It’s safer that way. And it certainly makes it easier to get elected or re-elected. It does little, of course, to address what should be addressed.

Barack Obama is not a government-in-the-margin politician. Give him credit for that. At least he has the courage to be bold. We’ll see if he really means — that he is willing to be bold in exchange for being re-elected.

Contrast Obama, however, with Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. Our lameduck governor is a classic “in-the-margin” man. He demonstrated that yet again in his vague and petulant State of the State address Tuesday night.

Set the scene: This was Crist’s final State of the State speech to a joint session of the Legislature, his final opportunity to lay out a legislative agenda that could make Florida history. And what better time to be bold: Florida’s economy is reeling with 12% unemployment and dim prospects for a robust recovery in 2010. It’s time to be bold and aggressive. Play to win.

But what did we get?

The governor lectured and smacked down those who have criticized him over his wanting to accept federal stimulus money and the critics who have fought his efforts to expand the Seminole Indians’ exclusive casino gambling rights in exchange for money to the state.

He told them: “Problem solvers recognize that important achievements often require consensus, and consensus sometimes requires concession.” It’s good to have principles and ideology, Crist lectured, but sometimes “problem-solving” should trump them.

In the case of the Seminole compact, Crist argued that although some legislators find gambling morally wrong, wouldn’t it be better for the state to get a portion of the Seminoles’ gambling take rather than nothing — as it does now?

In truth, if Crist were really bold, he would go all the way — open all of Florida to casino gambling. It makes no sense for the state to offer lotteries, Seminoles to offer limited gaming and horse and dog tracks to offer limited betting, while the rest of the states are drawing millions of dollars out of Florida because they’ve realized it’s a fait-accompli and a huge economic driver.

On taking stimulus money, Crist used what sounds logical: “Bear in mind that Floridians, who as a group represent a significant part of the American tax-paying public, will be paying for part of the stimulus package. It only follows that, if we are paying for it, we should have the advantage of receiving it.”

If he were bold, Crist would say: Taking stimulus money is like a band of thieves splitting the spoils of stolen property. The stimulus is morally wrong, especially because of what it does for future generations. He should say: Every state should be given the option to be in or out. If Florida doesn’t take the money,
Floridians should not and will not be taxed to pay back what is borrowed.

That would be bold, principled and right. And “out of the margin.”

Crist stayed in the margin on his remedies for Florida’s economy. They were mostly vague. “We can also help by slashing red tape. We can create a business-friendly, virtual one-stop shop where entrepreneurs and business owners can easily find the information they need to open and run a business.”

And that means … what?

He also wants more government spending:
• “ … Invest $125 million to attract and grow innovation companies … ”;
• “$10 million for shovel-ready projects in the rural areas of the state”;
• “$10 million for solar-energy rebates”;
• “$176 million in federal funding to expand green-energy technologies, including rebates for energy-efficient appliances.”

More “in-the-margin” economics: Crist proposed another back-to-school sales-tax holiday and cutting the state’s corporate income-tax rate from 5.5% to 4.5%. These ideas will not make history, nor will they provide the outside-the-margin boosts that are needed.

Asked in Bradenton recently what steps could reinvigorate Florida’s economy, Florida economist Hank Fishkind noted: “There’s a lack of leadership in this state. There was an economic summit in Orlando recently. Where the heck was the governor?”

Fishkind offered a prescription:
• A $1-billion road-building program, funded by raising the gas tax 3 cents a gallon for 15 years.
• Elimination of the local-effort school property tax in exchange for raising the state sales tax 2 to 2.5 cents.
• Limit or eliminate impact fees.

Those steps would be far outside the margin. They also would make history; Florida’s economy would take off.

+ Ex-mayors take first step
At least it’s progress.

Twelve of 15 former Sarasota mayors have recognized that Sarasota’s weak-mayor, city-manager form of government isn’t working to taxpayers’ and the city’s greatest advantage (see page 1).

Oh, come on, let’s quit dancing around and be blunt: The current system stinks.
There’s no elected leadership and no defined agenda for the city. The result is a city going nowhere.


It’s encouraging, then, to see the former mayors take the alcoholic’s first step to recovery: Admit there’s a problem and say they want to fix it.

The dozen mayors apparently favor what they call the establishment of an elected, “leadership” mayor — similar to the mayor in Tallahassee. His job has four main parts: communicator, which means conducting

City Commission meetings and facilitating communication among commissioners and the city staff; economic-development and business ambassador; city lobbyist to all other levels of government; and public educator and ambassador.

These certainly are functions of a mayor. But the descriptions of these responsibilities remind us of the buisness principle: You can’t manage what you can’t measure. It would be difficult for voters to measure success.

Clearly, the former mayors resist the best form of government. And that form contains the dirty word no one wants to use — a strong, elected CEO mayor.

There is nothing to fear. That model works all over the country, not to mention in three cities up the road — Bradenton, St. Petersburg and Tampa.

But we get it. Take baby steps first. Learn to walk.

The leadership mayor would be a first step in the right direction. We’d prefer, however, the shortest distance between two lines: going from what Sarasota has now to an elected CEO mayor. But we also know: This is Sarasota.


The following paragraphs are excerpts from Gov. Charlie Crist’s State of the State address Tuesday:

“… During these very difficult economic times, we do a disservice to the people who elected us — the people who are counting on us — to elevate ideology over problem-solving. We are here to guide our ship through a storm. We are here to lead this state to that fairer shore.

“How can we be problem-solvers? By embracing our core principles and having the wisdom to separate the trivial from the meaningful. And I am confident of my core principles and what is meaningful to me — and to the people of Florida.

“I believe government should be smaller, not larger. And that we can envision a day when government is half as large and twice as effective. Government must live within its means, or it will destroy our future.

“I believe taxes should be lower, not higher. I believe in freedom, knowing that with it comes the duty of personal responsibility. Government has a legitimate role in protecting the most vulnerable among us, and where government is needed, it should be efficient, making a real difference.

“While there is great virtue in being true to your principles, conviction must be tempered with practicality and pragmatism. Taken to an extreme, conviction becomes inflexible, even destructive.

“You should know, however, that our practical solutions will serve only to further inflame the extremists. Take heart, knowing that it is we problem solvers and not they who will move our Florida forward. We must accept being in the arena means enduring the hecklers in the cheap seats where conviction abounds, but wisdom is not required and nothing is either risked or gained.

“Problem solvers recognize that important achievements often require consensus, and consensus sometimes requires concession. There are times we must hold loosely to our cherished conceits in the interest of meaningful change. We also must recognize that consensus often means all parties walk away feeling vaguely dissatisfied.”


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