What States Can Do When Uncle Sam Walks Away: the Florida Model


Florida's Gov. Lawton Chiles and Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay have no less an ambition than to transform the way state government does business.

They talk of breaking up Florida's "centralized bureaucracy." They want to delegate services to counties and regions and put community-based boards in control. They want to create a "more consumer-responsive, performance-driven state government."

Messrs. Chiles and MacKay believe there's really no choice -- that without stem-to-stern change, their burgeoning state of newcomers and immigrants will go broke within a decade.

By one projection, by the year 2000 the costs of the state's top-heavy Health and Rehabilitative Services Department will balloon to 2.5 times the state budget. In the words of Belden Daniels, a state-government consultant, "It's a department that deals with a crack baby born in a hospital, but doesn't think prevention."

On the corrections front, Florida had acted through the '80s as if "lock-em-up" were the state motto. Now it has 43,000 people behind bars, but with such a cell shortage that the average inmate serves less than 30 percent of his sentence.

"Every time we let a prisoner in the front door we send one out the back door," says Governor Chiles. If the state abandoned early release, its prisoner population would likely soar to 132,000 by 2000. The corrections budget, now $907 million, could treble to a staggering $3,047 billion a year by 2000.

The state's Medicaid budget, Governor Chiles notes, was $2 billion two years ago, is now more than $4 billion and threatens "to eat our lunch." Costs of doctors and hospitals must be controlled, "but we need to get in on the front end -- cheaper neonatal care and the like."

Both former members of Congress, both disillusioned with Washington's default on pressing domestic problems, Messrs. Chiles and MacKay teamed up in last year's campaign in the hopes of making Florida a laboratory of state-government redesign. A key ingredient: mandating locally based committees to design and coordinate services stressing prevention and long-term cost savings.

Rejecting any campaign contribution greater than $100, the state leaders got elected without the obligations to special interests that hobble so many politicians. They work with rare harmony, Mr. Chiles the senior figure like a board chairman working on the "outside" to sell the new vision of government, while the lieutenant governor functions like a chief operating officer to get change moving in Tallahassee.

They're likely to go for an eventual income tax, which Florida has never had, or a broad services tax, which it had briefly but repealed. But they believe the public won't stomach higher taxes until state government is better run and can command some respect.

They have unabashedly recruited three of the nation's top innovators on state-government reform: David Osborne, author of the forthcoming book, "Reinventing Government;" Doug Ross, former economic-recovery chief in Michigan; and Mr. Daniels, who says state governments are fatally weakened in the way they do business: It's "the parallel of a Berlin Wall, even if the public doesn't see it yet."

Messrs. Chiles and MacKay succeeded, in their maiden legislative session this spring, to "sunset" Florida's entire civil-service job-classification system at the end of 1992.

Sunsetting civil service, Governor Chiles acknowledges, "hair-lipped" a few "powers," government-worker unions included. But he and Lieutenant Governor MacKay say it's critical to base pay on performance rather than seniority and to stop the "bump and roll" system that lets senior workers, when there are layoffs, hold onto their jobs while highly productive junior employees get the ax.

A "Governor's Commission for Government by the People" -- popularly called the "Right-Sizing Commission" and chaired by Orlando's Mayor Bill Frederick -- is devising radical-change agendas:

On education, it's likely to call for "measurable outcomes," delivering more health, nutritional and family services directly in schools, and encouraging teachers to work with universities and corporations to start new schools, often within existing schools.

In corrections, the commission will probably recommend all manner of alternative and community-based punishments -- especially for nonviolent offenders. The state prisons, says Governor Chiles, are too often just graduate schools for serious crime.

"Florida's totally hooked on growth, but let growth simmer down to 'normal' and we have a recession," notes Lieutenant Governor MacKay. "In a state as environmentally sensitive as this, that's a disaster."

So the Right-Sizing Commission is considering broadening Florida's growth-management "concurrency" law. Now it requires that roads and water systems be in place before big new rural real-estate developments are approved. The commission may well propose that schools, firehouses, police stations and hospitals be in place, too.

And in social services, Messrs. Chiles and MacKay are saying they believe citizen-based boards and public-private partnership arrangements will make better accountability possible, with more economic and responsive services -- even while cutting deeply into the ranks of the state bureaucracy.

None of this is going to be easy; some of the reforms may misfire. One Miami school official says it's OK to "upsize, downsize, right-size. But make sure we don't capsize in the process." The Right-Sizing Commission itself is under some fire for poor representation of blacks and Hispanics in a state whose identity has become multicultural.

Still, it's exciting to see state leaders look past their own terms, think about the lasting viability of state government and launch a broad initiative to make the future worth living.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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