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CFO says solar shines a light toward Florida's future

By Tom Flanigan


Tallahassee, FL – Florida's chief financial officer says the state's economy is slowly turning around. Meanwhile, as Tom Flanigan tells us, a new Florida TaxWatch report says solar power may be the key to an even faster recovery.

Jeff Atwater has only been Florida's Chief Financial Officer for three months. But, as a former state senate president and a community banker for a quarter-of-a-century, he has a deep understanding of the facts and figures that underlie the state's economy.

"In 2008, population growth was zero. We're now running at about seven-tenths of one percent. We'll probably continue that for the next two-to-three years and maybe we could hit back that one-percent climb again. Long way from three-percent, but growth has started again."

Atwater was speaking before the Economic Club of Florida luncheon meeting in Tallahassee on Monday. Given the nature of the audience, the talk was heavy on stats and trend lines.

"The average price of a single family home trading hands in August of 06 was $258,000 in Florida. Last month, $122,000; a 53-percent decline. In August of '06, we were about 18-percent ahead of the national average on housing price. We're now 23-percent below the national average."

A major driver of that big drop in home prices, Atwater says, is the fact that so many properties are in foreclosure, or close to it.

"Nationally, the delinquency rate in home mortgages is eight-point-eight percent and foreclosure at four-point-two percent for the non-current ration of twelve-point-nine percent. In Florida, delinquency is nine-point-eight percent. Foreclosure at thirty-point-seven percent, so the non-current rate is twenty-three-and-a-half. So about one in every four homes is either significantly past due, or in foreclosure."

Combine stagnant population growth with a big drop in real estate values, PLUS about the worst foreclosure picture in the country, and Atwater says it's a wonder Florida is doing as well as it is. He says another cautiously encouraging sign is that Florida's jobless rate has slipped below twelve percent and seems to be slowly on the way down. But Atwater says Florida still needs just over a million new jobs to get back to the employment levels it enjoyed five years ago.

"We are diversifying our economy and for us, for the long haul, that matters. It is wonderful to be strong in tourism, wonderful to be strong in agriculture and wonderful to be strong in growth while growth occurs. But we need to diversify into permanent industry of life sciences, of renewable energy and manufacturing. And we can do that and we are doing that now."

The very hour that Atwater was mentioning renewable energy as a source for new Florida jobs, a new report was coming out of Florida TaxWatch, an independent budget and revenue watchdog organization. TaxWatch President Domenic Calabro says seven-hundred thousand megawatts of solar power would also produce about forty-five thousand jobs.

"We're really poised at a time that we can grow the economy and do so in a way that is energy renewable and build on the strengths of the Sunshine State and be a great boon for jobs and economic growth for all Floridians and save our dependence on foreign oil. What a great win overall!"

If Calabro is enthusiastic, Democratic State Representative Michelle Rehwinkel- Vasilinda is ecstatic. She's long pushed for a bigger state commitment to renewable energy.
"These are the things that bring the parties together - the Democrats and the Republicans - it's the thing that brings TaxWatch to the fore as the pragmatic problem-solver. You know, these are the things that we need to be looking at."

But Florida may have to act fast. Less than a block away from where Atwater was giving his speech, there was an economic development symposium going on. The focus there was on - surprise - growing more high tech jobs in Florida. The keynote speaker was Mary Jo Waits. She's director of Economic, Human Services and Workforce for the National Governors Association. She says other states are also looking to such things as renewable energy as an economic development and jobs producer.

"As soon as their states start to turn, like Virginia (and) other states, they start back up and invest or starting to return to their investment in their R&D. In fact, it's pretty stunning how many states are putting that in their budgets right now."

Of course, not every state is doing that, though. Florida is among them.