Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam, who is positioning himself to run for governor in 2018, issued a critical assessment of the future of Florida at a gathering of business leaders Wednesday, suggesting that the state has veered off course with education reform and economic development and must do better at protecting water, land and business diversity.
Pointing to a series of charts produced by the Florida Chamber of Commerce that showed grim statistics, Putnam joked: "I think we need to order up a round of shots" to "get our head around this."
Among the data presented at the chamber's Future of Florida Forum: 57 percent of the Florida elementary school kids are on free and reduced lunch, 11 percent are obese, that 70,000 students are homeless, 16 percent of the state is in poverty, and per capita income is only $42,733.
The difference between the areas that are improving and those declining "is leadership,'' Putnam said. "It's up to us to chart the course of this state."
Putnam urged the audience of business leaders to remember that "water is Florida's golden goose" and to
"think about water infrastructure the way we think about other infrastructure in our state."
"You couldn't print enough money to recruit a company to Flint, Michigan" he warned, "because they failed at the most basic function local government has."
But to sustain Florida's economic recovery, the state must focus on education. He noted that the state faces a future budget deficit because spending on Medicaid outpaces growth but "if the state were educating its young and preparing them for careers they're not going to be on Medicaid."
"We have begun to lose the support of the most important shareholders in the education system and that's the parents, in many cases the most involved parents,'' he said, "...because we got wrapped around the axle of reform for reform's sake instead of explaining to parents why their kids need to learn more" in the third grade today than the previous generation."
He also said that economic development must be less focused on "shiny objects" and more focused on nurturing and encouraging small businesses.
"We need an economic development approach that is respectful to a small business mindset," he said. He noted that Publix started as a small business in Lakeland. Bealls began as a small business in Bradenton. Lilly Pulitzer, Tropicana were also homegrown Florida companies.
"If we're job snobs we're going to miss the opportunity to support those small business leaders who are going to create something big. I want it to begin in Florida,'' he said to applause.
He suggested that Florida should embrace its talented military veterans in the midpoint of their lives by encouraging them to return to service in the classroom, where they can instill discipline and be a valuable example.
"We know that some of the most talented people in the world are going to end up here at some point in our life. those,'' he said. "We want them three decades sooner. I want Florida to be more than the prize of a life well-lived and the success accumulated someplace else. We can be the jumping off point for the American Dream. The place where those dreams incumbate, grow, develop and explode."
Putnam also emphasized to the chamber, which is funded by the largest corporations in Florida, that their job is "not to protect that we have" because that is short-sighted.
"Think of all the giant companies that would have been the platinum sponsor of this event that aren't in existence anymore,'' he said. "Our job is not to lock our businesses in place, because we would have picked unwisely a decade ago with banks, law firms, airlines, aerospace companies that have been wiped off the map.
"Our job is to create an economy that is agile and welcoming, perceptive, dynamic and ready for whatever may walk thorugh that door with the quality of our people and the reception of our state government."