There’s a saying in Florida: “the further south you go, the more north you get.” Those familiar with the state’s geography know this reflects the reality that most of the southern regions of the state — Palm Beach, Miami, Naples, Fort Myers — have large cohorts of migrants from up north. There is even a logic to who moves where. Northerners from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and the other New England states come down Interstate 95 and end up in southeast Florida while Midwesterners from Illinois, Ohio and Michigan travel down I-75 and settle in...
There’s a saying in Florida: “the further south you go, the more north you get.” Those familiar with the state’s geography know this reflects the reality that most of the southern regions of the state — Palm Beach, Miami, Naples, Fort Myers — have large cohorts of migrants from up north. There is even a logic to who moves where. Northerners from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and the other New England states come down Interstate 95 and end up in southeast Florida while Midwesterners from Illinois, Ohio and Michigan travel down I-75 and settle in the southwest part of the state.
This migration is not a new phenomenon. Over the past twenty-five years, Florida’s population has boomed unlike anywhere else in the country. It has ranked as the top state in net migration for five straight years. Some years, between 800 and 1,000 people moved to Florida every single day. The result has been a wealth transfer of epic proportions. Since 2000, more than $200 billion has landed in Florida from the rest of America.
Covid may have sharpened the contrast between Florida and the states from which its new arrivals have moved. But the popularity of Governor Ron DeSantis and his lockdown-skeptic Covid response is only the latest chapter in a much bigger story. The same dynamic has been there since the Nineties, and the state’s success can be attributed to three policy areas from which other states would be wise to learn. These are a dedication to low-tax, low-regulation governance, commitment to school choice and growth in supply-side healthcare.
Few states can match Florida’s commitment to ensuring that the tax burden is low and the regulatory footprint is minimal. Article VII of its constitution specifically forbids levying a state income tax; implementing one would require a constitutional change (meaning 60 percent voter approval). In addition, in 2018 voters approved a constitutional amendment requiring a two-thirds supermajority of both chambers of the state legislature to raise any tax or fee. Coupled with its balanced-budget requirement, this means Florida has retained an extremely lean state-government operation. The state consistently stays near the top of the list of fewest state employees per capita. Data from the Kaiser Family Foundation for 2020 shows that Florida’s state spending per capita was the lowest in the nation. New York, with 3 million fewer residents, has a state budget more than double Florida’s. No wonder the state is booming.
Second and no less important has been a commitment to school choice that predates those in every other state in the country. Jeb Bush sought to revolutionize education when he became governor in 1999. The tip of the spear in that effort was a first-of-its-kind program where companies would receive a dollar-for-dollar corporate income tax credit on all money donated to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Administered by the public-private partnership Step Up for Students, the program has grown to provide more than 100,000 scholarships a year to help lower-income K-12 parents get their children out of failing schools. Subsequent efforts under Governors Bush, Scott and DeSantis have made Florida a national leader in school choice. That commitment has proved the notion that “good policy is great politics.” In his narrow election win in 2018, DeSantis harnessed the passion of “school-choice moms.” This cohort of voters — many of them African-American single moms benefiting from school choice — crossed over to vote for a Republican they might not have otherwise considered.
Third, over the last dozen years the state’s commitment to the wisdom of supply-side healthcare reform has meant that as its population has grown, healthcare access has kept pace. It’s no secret that the Sunshine State is a retirement haven. Florida’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research estimates that two-thirds of the state’s growth between now and 2030 will be individuals over the age of sixty-five. The state is set to see substantial growth in demand for healthcare.
Faced with this challenge, Florida became a pioneer of healthcare reforms. It continues to be one of a dozen states that have resisted the temptation to expand their Medicaid programs to working-age able-bodied adults, an option offered under Obamacare. While avoiding the bureaucrat-controlled path, Florida has enacted innovations and opened access in ways that other states have taken note of. It was one of the first states to enable direct primary-care providers to offer subscription-based services outside of traditional insurance. In 2019, the state repealed all but three of its Certificate of Need regulations, an archaic system of requiring a government permission slip to establish new healthcare facilities, with existing facilities given veto power. In 2020 (just as the pandemic was beginning), Florida allowed highly qualified nurse practitioners to operate independently and allowed pharmacists to begin testing and treating for routine conditions like strep and flu. All these strategies have set it apart in its path to addressing the challenges of healthcare access.
Ron DeSantis deserves credit. But so do those who laid the groundwork: leaders like Rick Scott and Jeb Bush, who not only saw the state’s needs and challenges, but also its potential. They partnered with conservative legislatures and took principled stands over the years to promote the solutions that have made the Sunshine State the beacon of conservative leadership that it is today.
Sal Nuzzo serves as vice president of policy for the James Madison Institute, a nonprofit policy think tank in Tallahassee, Florida. This article was originally published in The Spectator’s July 2022 World edition.