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Florida Today, the Nation Tomorrow


Lawton Chiles, who is old enough to know better, says he can't wait to get to work each morning. That means his idea of fun is to be governor of Florida, where America's most pressing problems are present in particularly concentrated forms.

Mr. Chiles, 64, is a Democrat in a state not even George Bush could lose for the Republicans in 1992. It is a state where between 1978 and 1992 a million more Republicans than Democrats registered. It is of all the large states, the state with the highest percentage of Republicans in its congressional delegation. It is a state constantly becoming more Republican as more than 500 newcomers unpack their U-hauls each day.

In this state that Governor Chiles calls "more of a crowd than a community," fresh Floridians coming south may bump into no-longer-fresh Floridians moving north from Miami to cities like Tampa, in flight from the, shall we say, rather too stimulating diversity of south Florida.

Five of America's compounding problems are crime, an aging population, uncontrolled immigration, the fiscal pressures generated by those three problems, and intense hostility toward governments failing to cope with those four problems.

Since 1983 Florida has had the nation's highest rate of serious crime; Florida has the nation's highest percentage of people over 60 years old; Florida is one of six states (the others are California, Texas, New York, New Jersey and Illinois) receiving JTC more than 90 percent of immigrants, legal and illegal, flooding into America each year. And Florida is one of just seven states without an income tax, which the state constitution prohibits. (Given public opinion, the constitutional prohibition is redundant.)

Half a century ago Florida was the South's least populous state. Now it is the nation's fourth most populous, but ranks 46th in per capita taxation. It relies on a sales tax (6 percent statewide and counties can add to it) that concentrates on goods although the state's economy now concentrates on services.

Governor Chiles is a rarity, a fourth-generation Floridian, and his sense of history leaves him languid and bemused about a tax system put in place in 1948. That was, he says drolly, a historic year. It was the first year Floridians had to fence their cows -- until then, drivers who hit cows had to pay for them -- and it was the year the taste test was legislated, stipulating a certain sugar content for the sacred fluid: orange juice.

The governor laments that his state is an 18-wheeler with a model-T's tax engine. Conservatives say Florida has boomed because it is taxpayer-friendly. Concerning the consequences of immigration, too, there is lively debate.

In Dade County -- Miami -- more than 25 percent of the public-school students were born outside the country, and the largest hospital says it has spent $300 million in the last three years treating illegal immigrants. On the other hand, immigrants impart economic energy to Florida. Says Governor Chiles of the Vietnamese now fishing out of Florida's ports, "Our fishermen hate them -- they work 24 hours a day."

Immigration's costs involve the governor in an irony. During 18 years in the U.S. Senate he rose to the chairmanship of the Budget Committee, where he was a deficit hawk. Now, as proof that no good deed goes unpunished, hawkishness is in fashion in Washington, to Florida's disadvantage.

Spending caps have turned the federal government into a zero-sum game -- absent new taxes, someone's increase must be someone else's decrease. But Florida is suing the federal government, making the morally just but legally problematic argument that Washington, not just a few states like Florida, should pay the costs of the federal government's failure to enforce an essential attribute of national sovereignty, control of borders.

Mr. Chiles does not begrudge immigrants essential services, many of which are, in any case, mandated by Washington or courts. "If they're not in my schools, they'll be in my streets. And I don't want them walking around with tuberculosis." He says, not quite facetiously, that immigrants should be issued federal credit cards. But no judge hearing his suit can order that remedy, or perhaps any other.

Asked why he retired from the Senate, he says succinctly: "To save my sanity." Today, he is surrounded by a wine-dark sea of troubles that foreshadow the nation's future, and at the mercy of irrational people in places like Washington and Port-au-Prince (Haitians do not put to sea seeking Nebraska's beaches). His response is to seek re-election, which suggests he did not leave the Senate in time.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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