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Sayfie Review Featured Column

by Dr. Susan MacManus
March 9, 2011

From the Citizens: “Listen Up, Tallahassee” 
 
 
Dr. Susan A. MacManus
Distinguished University Professor
University of South Florida
 
With the assistance of
Mary L. Moss
Undergraduate Research Assistant, USF Honors College
 
            It’s that season again—a season when many Floridians rediscover the state legislature.
 
The beginning of each legislative session evokes many emotions among Florida’s diverse electorate, ranging from hope to fear. This session, anxieties are bound to run high as lawmakers struggle to make ends meet—much like many households in the Sunshine State. The word most likely to describe legislators in 2011 is “cross-pressured.” On some issues, the citizens they represent are united, but on other major policies, they are divided. It is the formula for a combustible session.
 
Sources of Cross-Pressures
 
Reaching consensus will be more difficult than usual even though one party has control of both chambers. There will be considerable differences of opinion due to:
 
  1. Constituents with considerably different opinions on some key issues, such as education, public pensions, and property insurance.
  2. More schisms than usualwithin the GOP legislative ranks: rural v. urban, conservatives v. moderates, oldtimers (leadership) v. newcomers.
  3. More clashes between the governor and the legislature related to the management, structure, and policy priorities of executive agencies.
  4. Stepped up pressures from cities, counties, and school boards to stop unfunded mandates and/or to make it easier to engage in local collaborative service provision.
  5. The constant undercurrent of redistricting-related hopes and aspirations.
 
Having survived or succeeded in the 2010 election, legislators from both parties will enter the session far more aware of the power of disgruntled citizens at the ballot box. A recent survey reveals the differences in their discontent.
 
Economic Pressures on Florida Households: Disparate Views
 
            The 2011 Leadership Florida/The Nielsen Company Sunshine State Survey asked Floridians what is putting the greatest stress on their own household’s finances. The wide range of responses (Figure 1) reflects Florida’s diverse socioeconomic makeup, particularly its age profile. Seniors are more likely to cite utilities, price increases, fixed incomes; Baby Boomers—property taxes, home/property insurance, economic uncertainties, gasoline prices, and the declining housing   market and home values. Middle age Floridians cite job loss and the overall condition of the economy, while younger residents identify job loss and personal debt. Health care is more of a stressor for Boomers and seniors.
Figure 1

What would you say is putting the single greatest stress on your own household’s finances?
Note: Only responses that received over 2% are listed. The other responses in descending order are: Education costs, child raising costs, cost of living, wage reduction, elder care costs, government, job security, rising rental rates, federal taxes, death of a family member, prescription drugs, and car payments.
Source: Leadership Florida/The Nielsen Company 2011 Sunshine State Survey of 1,220 adult Floridians 18 and older, conducted  by phone January 3-16, 2011 in English and Spanish. Margin of error: +/- 3 percent.
 
Citizens Agree: Fix the Economy   
 
            While the reasons for economic stress are varied, there is considerable agreement among Floridians that the most important issue facing the state is the economy. Over half of the Sunshine State Survey respondents identify the economy/jobs/unemployment as THE most important issue facing the state today. No other problem area comes close to generating the level of consensus. (Table 1.)
 
Table 1
         “In your opinion, what is the most important issue facing the state of Florida today?”
Most Important Issue
% of Respondents
Economy/Jobs/Unemployment
51.8
K-12 Education/Public Schools
 5.6
Taxes/Government Spending
 5.0
Crime/Drugs
 4.8
Cost of Housing
 3.3
Health Care
 3.1
Immigration
 2.3
Environment/Oil Drilling/Climate Change
 2.0

 
Most Important Issue, Cont.
% of Respondents
Housing Market/Foreclosures
 1.8
Traffic/Transportation
 1.5
Growth Management
 1.4
Insurance Rates
 1.3
Government Corruption
 1.3
Rising Cost of Living - Basics
 0.9
Qualifications of Government Officials
 0.9
Over Populated/Over Developed
 0.9
Gas Prices
 0.8
Social/Racial Issues
 0.7
Higher Education
 0.7
Balancing the Budget
 0.5
NASA
 0.4
Unresponsive Elected Officials
 0.4
Use of Public Facilities
 0.3
Moral Issues/Family Values
 0.3
Water/Drainage Issues
 0.3
Welfare/People Living off Government
 0.2
Need for an Educated Work Force
 0.1
Other
 2.2
None
 1.1
Don't Know/Not Sure/Refused
 4.1
                             Source: Leadership Florida/The Nielsen Company 2011 Sunshine State Survey
      of 1,220 adult Floridians 18 and older, conducted  by phone January 3-16, 2011
      in English and Spanish. Margin of error: +/- 3 percent.
 
Biggest Threat to the State’s Economy: Private Sector or Government?
 
With Florida having the fourth highest unemployment rate among the states and the second highest home foreclosure rate, it comes as no surprise that more Floridians see job loss and home foreclosures as the most serious threats to the state’s economy. (See Figure 2.) Those citing loss of jobs and home foreclosures tend to be Democrats, working age Floridians, un- or under-employed, and those with lower income and educational levels.
 
Those who are more likely to identify government-related inadequacies (waste and inefficiency, rules and regulations, taxes/fees, and environmental protection) are Republicans and to lesser extent independents (taxes), Baby Boomers, and residents of the Panhandle and southwest Florida.  
 
In spite of the differences, some policies addressing each type of economic inadequacy generate fairly high levels of consensus among Floridians. One is government policies that offer incentives to businesses to encourage them to expand or relocate to Florida (Figure 3). Another is cracking down on fraud/abuse as a way to help control Medicaid costs (Figure 4).

Figure 2
What do you think is the single biggest threat to Florida’s economy?

           Note: Responses may not add to 100% due to rounding.
           Source: Leadership Florida/The Nielsen Company 2011 Sunshine State Survey of 1,220 adult Floridians 18 and older,     
           conducted  by phone January 3-16, 2011 in English and Spanish. Margin of error: +/- 3 percent.
 
 
Figure 3
Some people favor offering incentives to businesses to encourage them to expand or re-locate to Florida thereby creating more jobs and tax revenue. Others oppose such incentives and see them as a form of corporate welfare. Which view comes closest to your own opinion?
 
    Note: Responses may not add to 100% due to rounding.
    Source: Leadership Florida/The Nielsen Company 2011 Sunshine State Survey of 1,220 adult Floridians 18 and older,    
    conducted  by phone January 3-16, 2011 in English and Spanish. Margin of error: +/- 3 percent.
 
 

Figure 4
               Which of the following reforms do you think would help control Medicaid costs the best?
 
             Note: Responses may not add to 100% due to rounding.
             Source: Leadership Florida/The Nielsen Company 2011 Sunshine State Survey of 1,220 adult Floridians 18 and
             older, conducted  by phone January 3-16, 2011 in English and Spanish. Margin of error: +/- 3 percent.
 
 
 
Two Pressing Issues, Less Consensus: Education and Insurance
 
Almost every pre-session prediction has anticipated difficulties in two major policy areas: education and insurance. The 2011 Sunshine State Survey validates these predictions.
 
Education. It is easy to see why one-size-fits-all approaches to education policy are difficult. While much attention has been focused on differences of opinion on potential actions by the state legislature, the survey shows such divergence even at the local level.
 
Top priority? One question asked what should be the top priority of one’s local public school system. As shown in Figure 5, no one priority gets support from a majority. Predictably, Republicans tend to favor raising standards to improve test scores, improving discipline in the classroom, and providing for more accountability and better management of financial resources, while Democrats and independents are more supportive of increasing teacher pay and reducing class size. A closer analysis of the survey results, however, shows that opinion on this issue is better explained by whether a person has a child in school (public, private) and how many children the person has in college.
 
For example, those who have a child in a private/home school put a considerably higher premium on increasing teacher pay. Those with a child in both a public and private school are more likely to favor raising standards to improve test scores. Accountability is a higher priority of residents with at least one child in grades 9-12. Grandparents of children in Florida public schools are more likely to favor improving discipline in the classroom. Respondents with one child in a Florida college are most likely to favor increasing teacher pay and building and improving school facilities, while parents with multiple children in college put a higher priority on raising standards to improve test scores.
 
Figure 5
Which one of the following do you feel should be the top priority of your local public school system?
 
Note: Responses may not add to 100% due to rounding.
Source: Leadership Florida/The Nielsen Company 2011 Sunshine State Survey of 1,220 adult Floridians 18 and older, conducted  by phone January 3-16, 2011 in English and Spanish. Margin of error: +/- 3 percent.
 
 
            What to do first with teachers?  Across the nation, a lot of attention has been given to improving teacher quality, with many seeing a more educated electorate as a key to economic revival. The Sunshine State Survey asked Floridians what should be done first—getting rid of ineffective teachers or rewarding good teachers with financial incentives. 
 
A slight majority favors getting rid of ineffective teachers (Figure 6). Who makes up this majority? Republicans, Baby Boomers and seniors, unemployed persons, and residents with at least one child in private/home school and grandparents with a child in public school.
 
In contrast, support for rewarding good teachers with financial incentives is strongest among part-time workers, Hispanics, younger residents, Democrats and independents, and residents with at least one child in a public and private school.
 

Figure 6
Which do you think should be done first to improve Florida’s K-12 school system?

 
                         Note: Responses may not add to 100% due to rounding.
                        Source: Leadership Florida/The Nielsen Company 2011 Sunshine State Survey of
                        1,220 adult Floridians 18 and older, conducted  by phone January 3-16, 2011 in English
                        and Spanish. Margin of error: +/- 3 percent.
 
            Teacher pay based on student progress? Another highly charged debate is whether a teacher’s pay should be based on his/her students’ progress during a school year. A majority of Floridians are opposed (Figure 7). The level of opposition among certain socioeconomic groups is intense. The most vehemently opposed to this policy are parents who have at least one child enrolled in both a public and private school. Democrats, college-educated, employed persons, Cubans and Hispanics, those with a child younger than 18 years of age, women, and Baby Boomers are more opposed to this policy than others. Support is stronger among older and less educated constituents.   
 
Figure 7
Do you support basing a teacher’s pay on his or her students’ progress made during the school year?
 
                     Note: Responses may not add to 100% due to rounding.
                     Source: Leadership Florida/The Nielsen Company 2011 Sunshine State Survey of 1,220 adult  
                     Floridians 18 and older, conducted  by phone January 3-16, 2011 in English and Spanish.
                     Margin of error: +/- 3 percent.
Insurance.  Many analysts expect a fierce battle over homeowners insurance, with some key legislators pitted against industry representatives. There is evidence that the public is beginning to tune into this problem as well. More identify their homeowner or property insurance premium to be taking a bigger bite out of their personal finances than property taxes, although not by much (Figure 8).   The pattern is strongest among homeowners—46% cited insurance premiums, while 37% pointed to property taxes.
A sizable proportion of Floridians also see property insurance costs as a barrier to business formation or operation, second only to getting a loan (Figure 9). Baby Boomers are the most intense in their view that insurance premiums hurt business formation and retention.
 
Figure 8
Which of the following puts a greater stress on your personal finances, your annual property tax bill or your annual homeowner or property insurance premium?
 
              Note: Responses may not add to 100% due to rounding.
              Source: Leadership Florida/The Nielsen Company 2011 Sunshine State Survey of 1,220 adult Floridians 18
              and older, conducted  by phone January 3-16, 2011 in English and Spanish. Margin of error: +/- 3 percent.

Figure 9
        Top 3 Responses: How much does _______ pose a problem to people starting or operating a    
                              business in Florida? Would you say a lot, some or not much at all?
 
              Note: Responses may not add to 100% due to rounding.
              Source: Leadership Florida/The Nielsen Company 2011 Sunshine State Survey of 1,220 adult Floridians 18
              and older, conducted  by phone January 3-16, 2011 in English and Spanish. Margin of error: +/- 3 percent.
 
So What Does All This Mean?
 
Legislators no doubt understand the consensus around fixing the economy, but the key challenges are how to create jobs and restore the American dream of home ownership. For job creation, legislators have strong support for encouraging public entities to offer incentives to businesses to locate and stay in Florida. On another issue, reducing health care costs, legislators won’t go wrong by cracking down on fraud and abuse in Medicaid.
 
The areas in which legislators will feel most cross-pressured are education and home/property insurance. Lawmakers see no clear top priority on how to improve education, making the fate of schools uncertain. But a nasty battle is shaping up between legislators and the insurance industry on the rising costs of homeowners and property insurance. On these issues, most legislators at the end of the session will affirm one of the oldest truisms in politics: “It’s more fun to be an elected official in flush times than during a major economic downturn.” 
 
************************************************************************************
Interpretations of the Leadership Florida/The Nielsen Company 2011 Sunshine State Survey2011 are solely those of the author.
 
The full results of the Leadership Florida/The Nielsen Company 2011 Sunshine State Survey are available at http://www.leadershipflorida.org (Fifth Annual Sunshine State Survey).