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A cautionary tale for 'progressive' states, a decade in the making

A cautionary tale for 'progressive' states, a decade in the making
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Back in 2011, a year that seems like a lifetime ago, newly inaugurated Florida Gov. Rick Scott, now a Republican U.S. senator, made an unthinkable decision that would cause heads to turn: He stood on his principles of fiscal prudence and turned down $2.5 billion in “federal money” for a high-speed rail line that, if completed, would have connected Orlando and Tampa. At the time, Scott cited his concern with cost overruns for which Florida would be responsible, the wisdom of federal deficit spending, and the projections of ridership. 

Nearly all Democrats in the state, and even some Republicans, blasted the choice. More than one Republican member of Congress called his decision wrong and short-sighted.

How did that story end? Well, California took the money, which resulted in disaster. Ten years and tens of billions of dollars later there is no bullet train — just lots of wasted money, wasted time and wasted energy — proving once again that if you want to guarantee the ruin of a potentially good idea, make it a federal government project.

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Then a philosophically unknown political neophyte, Scott looked at the totality of the decision before him and made a call based on his gut read and his principles. He ignored those who told him he was crazy to turn down “free money” and made what was, in retrospect, the right choice. That decision and others by him and his successor, Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisOvernight Health Care: FDA authorizes Pfizer vaccine for adolescents | Biden administration reverses limits on LGBTQ health protections DeSantis to hold Newsmax town hall DeSantis signs bill banning gun regulations by local governments MORE, have turned Florida into an economic powerhouse. California, meanwhile, is becoming a wasteland in many ways.

Why does this matter now?

It matters because, since 2011, a great migration has accelerated — a movement of people, wealth and resources — away from high tax/low growth locations and toward states that value individual liberty, limited government in the economy, and a commitment to sound entrepreneurialism and small business. It matters because, since 2011, Florida’s population grew by 2.6 million (an increase of 14 percent), while California’s population grew by 1.7 million (an increase of just 4 percent). It matters because, in the past three years, the population of California has been in net decline — not a good look and very consequential. And it matters because, in the most recent U.S. Census reapportionment, California will lose one congressional seat and Florida will add one. 

While the Golden State hemorrhages residents, the Sunshine State picks them up — to the tune of 800-plus every day. In fact, looking at the results of the recently announced census reapportionment, six of the seven congressional shifts are in favor of “conservative” states. And some of the country’s most left-leaning states — California, New York and Illinois — each will lose a seat.

This migration should be extraordinarily revealing for policymakers, especially in state legislatures across the country. When it comes to the relative impact on citizens, state legislatures arguably are the most directly impactful elected bodies. In contrast to a logjammed Congress, state lawmakers pass hundreds of bills every year, balance budgets and respond to constituent issues in ways that no other elected body does. 

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With that in mind, state legislators would be wise to heed the stories of California, New York and Illinois — that high tax-and-spend policies accomplish the very opposite of their intended goals. They destroy communities, destroy wealth and prosperity, and benefit only one class of citizens — those with connections to bureaucracies and state capitals. Consider one eye-opening statistic: Florida’s legislature just passed a budget of $101.5 billion, which works out to $4,720 per resident. New York State’s budget of $212 billion works out to $10,900 per resident. Florida, with 2 million more residents, operates an efficient state government on less than half the taxpayer revenue. New York, a state that takes more than twice as much from taxpayers, has seen population declines for five years.

The evidence is clear. As the pandemic reshaped the work environment and made it more mobile, people are voting with their feet. They are choosing states that champion personal freedom and economic liberty. They are leaving states where the heavy hand of government does nothing but stifle individual liberty, burn billions of dollars and line the pockets of bureaucrats. If states such as California, New York and Illinois want to continue to pursue failed experiments in socialized economic engineering, Florida and other states will continue to welcome their refugees.

Robert McClure, Ph.D., is the president and CEO of The James Madison Institute, a nonpartisan think tank based in Tallahassee that is devoted to research and education on public policy issues.