Look to the Sunshine State

In 2014 Florida will pass New York to become the third-most-populous state. With smart planning, it can continue to fulfill the dreams of its residents and visitors.

Michael Spooneybarger/Reuters/File
People enjoy the sunny weather in Navarre Beach, Fla., in October 2013.

New York City won't lose its status as a world center of commerce and the arts anytime soon. But New York State as a whole is about to slip behind a Southern sister in an important way.

Sometime in 2014 Florida (19.5 million residents as of Jan. 1) is expected to pass New York (19.6 million) as the nation's third-most-populous state, behind California (38.3 million) and Texas (26.5 million). Though New York's population continues to grow modestly, Florida's is expanding much faster.

With that shift the three largest US states will all be in the nation's Sun Belt. That continues a decades-long trend that has seen population stagnate in the Northeast and Midwest and explode in the South and West.

The demographic shift will help Florida gain influence in two ways: Most simply, the state will gain members of Congress and electoral votes following the 2020 census. That will increase it's already significant clout in Washington. And, unlike California, which leans left, and Texas, which steers right, Florida is a swing state that could fall to either party, making it a coveted prize.

Florida will also become even more of a harbinger of what problems may confront the rest of the United States. Continued growth will mean the state must make smart decisions about the environment, making sure that the natural beauty that brought so many migrants to the state is preserved. Opportunities to preserve natural areas will have to be pursued quickly, or be lost. The teeming life of the Everglades and the state's crystal clear springs are among the national treasures found there.

Already, water scarcity has become a significant challenge: Other states will look to Florida for ideas on how to manage supplies better. With about 1,200 miles of coastline, and its highest elevation only 345 feet, Florida increasingly will also have to contend with the issue of sea-level rise this century.

With much of its population growth fueled by immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries, Florida also provides a laboratory for sorting out national policies on immigration and ethnic diversity.

Though severely challenged, the state's economy still seems fundamentally sound. Tourism should continue to provide a strong base for jobs, and south Florida continues to grow in importance as a trade link between the US and Latin America. The housing industry has rebounded considerably from the depths it reached during the Great Recession and should continue to recover.

People have long headed to Florida to to start their lives over in a land of sunshine, sand, and palms. With smart planning, Florida can continue to fulfill its migrants' dreams.

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