By J. Robert McClure III
November 18, 2021
Daniel Webster didn’t know Valentin Mendez when Webster was elected in 1996 as the first Republican Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives since reconstruction.
He couldn’t have known him – because Valentin hadn’t been born yet. But the designation of Speaker Webster, a result of Republicans taking the majority in the Florida House, would have long-lasting impacts for Valentin, and millions of other Florida students, for decades.
Buoyed by a mandate for conservative principles to be brought to the challenges Florida faced, the new majority began putting into motion an agenda that has stood for the past 25 years. That agenda was what mattered for Valentin, when his mom was able to leverage the school choice programs offered in Florida to get him into a school where he was not the daily subject of bullying, harassment, and assault. Had that shift in power not taken hold in 1996 and had the same power structure beholden to teachers’ unions continued to dictate policy, Valentin would have not been saved.
Speaker Webster wouldn’t have known Taylor Ann Drew either. Taylor Ann was just 12 years old when conservatives took the reins in 1996. But 23 years later, a different Speaker, Republican Jose Oliva, would usher in a conservative health care agenda that would matter greatly for her and so many others. As a result of Speaker Oliva’s vision, Taylor Ann was able to start her own independent direct health care practice as an Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner. Now, Aquarian Clinic is serving hundreds of patients and transforming the delivery of holistic medical care. Had 1996 not happened and special interests continued to stifle competition through government regulations, Taylor Ann would not be where she is today.
The stories of Valentin, Taylor Ann, and millions of other Floridians have been shaped over a 25-year period in which conservative policy has largely been the norm in the Sunshine State.
About that time, then newly elected Governor, Jeb Bush, was proposing one new idea after another that continued to advance conservative principles, most of which are just now reaching full flower. Florida has seen the benefits of a limited government, economic liberty approach to governing. As a result of conservative policy, Florida has seen more than $200 billion in annual income migrate in from other states over the past 20 years. That’s called voting with your feet.
The objective reality is impossible to ignore; we have seen how the long-term paths of individual states have resulted in very different realities for residents. Conservative-led states that promote the values of free markets, economic liberty, and limited government flourish. States charging forward in promoting big government regulations, socialist-light redistribution, and nanny-state bureaucracy languish. Consider the contrast – in the early 1990s, the wealthiest state in the U.S. – Connecticut – implemented a “temporary” state income tax. That “temporary” tax didn’t solve the Nutmeg State’s budget woes and resulted in tens of billions of dollars in annual income and people migrating out of the state. Where did they go? They came to Florida. And Connecticut went from the wealthiest state to one of the poorest. It’s a textbook case study in how not to govern, especially considering that the “temporary” state income tax still exists 30 years later.
For the past quarter century, Floridians have seen the economic fruits of the policy approaches they’ve taken, as they consistently sent conservative policymakers to Tallahassee, more freedom, more income, more choice and more prosperity. On the heels of a transformational 2021 election night, in which conservatives across the country saw the reality of the adage that good policy is great politics, we should be hopeful. We should look to the hope that while we may not be in the best of times at present, and that our challenges are not small, citizens by the millions are seeing that the way ahead for an America that presents opportunity for all is a renewed commitment to the principles that our Founders established 234 years ago in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Florida is living proof.
Dr. J. Robert McClure III is president and CEO of the James Madison Institute, a nonpartisan think tank based in Tallahassee devoted to research and education on public policy issues.