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    Nothing too audacious

    The once-activist Gov. Jeb Bush has decided on a modest agenda for the final legislative session of his first term.

    By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 20, 2002


    Like him or not, give Jeb Bush this: the governor has shown the guts to pursue big and ambitious political initiatives.

    How many other politicians would risk revamping so sacred a cow as affirmative action? Or peeling away long-established civil service protections? Or reorganizing the entire state education system?

    When management theorists a few years ago started talking about BHAGs -- Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals -- Bush eagerly added the term to his staffers' vocabulary.

    Outsized political ambitions, though, tend to get shelved when the economy sours and a reelection campaign revs up. Florida's assertive governor has set a conspicuously modest agenda for the final legislative session of his first term. After three years of ripping apart the established order of state government, Bush is playing it safe as he campaigns for reelection.

    This year's hairy and audacious goal setter is state Senate President John McKay, trying to get a sweeping tax reform package on the ballot. The governor is keeping his distance from McKay's proposal (even while some of Bush's closest advisers actively work to kill it).

    So what's going on with the activist governor who so often decries timid leadership?

    Much of it is simply practical reality. Lawmakers will be consumed with drawing up new political districts. At the same time, they and the governor's office have to make tough budget choices amid Florida's serious fiscal pinch.

    Between those politically volatile issues and McKay's tax reform plan, there is little appetite left in Tallahassee for bold new initiatives. Certainly, an election year is not the logical time to court new controversies.

    But beyond those factors is a new dynamic for Bush. He no longer controls the agenda as he did when he swept into office.

    Republicans controlling both chambers of the legislature have learned to behave like Democrats did when they controlled Tallahassee. They butt heads with one another. They passed virtually everything Bush campaigned on during his first legislative session, but no longer walk in lock-step with the governor's agenda.

    Bush heads into a reelection campaign as the easy favorite, but this is an election with no predictable script. The campaign will be under the national spotlight as an indicator of George Bush's 2004 prospects and in part as a rerun of the messy presidential election in Florida. No one knows how much Sept. 11 changed the political landscape, or how far the president's soaring popularity will lift Jeb Bush.

    As strong as the governor's prospects look 10 months from Election Day, he faces a looming series of potential pitfalls that he has minimal control over.

    Florida's economy is sputtering and may or may not get worse as Election Day approaches.

    John McKay's plan to overhaul the tax system raises the profile of an issue -- coming to grips with long-term needs -- on which Democrats want to pound the governor. It's tough to dismiss them as big government liberals when a Republican leader is saying the same thing.

    Once-a-decade redistricting invariably promises bitter divisions and squabbling among lawmakers. Voters pay little attention to how the lines are drawn. But excessive rancor in the Republican-controlled Legislature can tarnish Bush's image as a strong leader, especially if it gets in the way of passing the budget.

    These potential problems are not coming from Democrats.

    "A lot of the damaging variables aren't coming from us. We're largely spectators," said Bob Henriquez, D-Tampa.

    The economy looms large. Lawmakers in December slashed $1-billion, mostly from schools and social service programs, to balance their current budget. But that could be just Round One.

    On top of the slowdown in sales tax revenue, changes to the federal estate tax law will cost Florida an extra $153-million in revenue. The Legislature limited the necessary cuts with short-term accounting fixes, in many cases using one-time shots of revenue to keep ongoing programs afloat.

    Bush is determined at least to replenish the cuts made to education spending last year (and blunt Democratic criticism about his commitment to education), so myriad other state programs are vulnerable. The upshot is that more serious budget cuts may take effect July 1 -- just as voters start focusing on the election.

    Jeb Bush's father, sent packing from the White House after one term, is the best example of what a floundering economy can do to a chief executive running for reelection. A governor has limited control over the economy, but still faces blame when citizens are hurting.

    "There are studies showing that voters do take out on their incumbent governor, not just the president, problems with the economy," said Jim Kane, a Fort Lauderdale-based pollster. "The economy's the most troublesome variable in this election season (for Bush)."

    Just as Democrats in Washington are talking about a "Bush recession," their counterparts in Florida want to wrap the economy around Gov. Bush's neck.

    The economy was in trouble before the terrorist attacks. Sales tax revenues were nearly $673-million short of projections before Sept. 11. Democrats are attacking Bush for squandering too much money on tax breaks instead of planning for the future.

    Indeed, the main Democratic challengers to Bush are basing their campaigns on Florida's future as much as on Bush's sizable four-year record. Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and Tampa lawyer Bill McBride, in particular, are talking up the need for Florida to come to grips with its long-term problems and invest in the future.

    The Democratic hopefuls so far have offered few specific ideas for paying for such "investments." But their argument that Florida is heading in the wrong direction was bolstered recently by two separate, detailed reports on how Florida stacks up to other states in key indicators.

    Both the St. Petersburg Times and Florida Chamber of Commerce (a group dominated by Republicans) found that in areas ranging from high school graduation rates to per-pupil spending to household income Florida steadily lost ground to other states over the prosperous 1990s. Florida's work force, the reports suggest, looks increasingly unprepared to meet the demands of a 21st-century economy.

    The reports can be taken as indictment not only of Bush's priorities, but also Democrats who controlled state government for part of the decade. Still, the governor dismissed the analyses as largely meaningless. Florida is making progress, he says, and that's much more important than state-by-state comparisons.

    The debate is not going away. The prospect of serious budget cuts, combined with a battle over revamping Florida's tax system, can't help but focus the attention on Florida's long-term needs and priorities. Prominent Republicans are asking the same questions as the Democratic gubernatorial candidates.

    "Do you want mediocrity or quality?" Republican state Sen. Ken Pruitt asked colleagues during a recent discussion of tax reform.

    For his part, Bush sounds entirely upbeat about Florida's future and his own. The state's financial picture will come into better focus next month, when new state revenue estimates are completed. But preliminary signs, including a slight decline in unemployment in December, suggest the fiscal picture may be less bleak than some fear.

    And even if the economy continues to decline, it's not at all certain how the blame game works on Gov. Bush. Many other states are in similar financial straits, and Sept. 11 had an undisputable impact on Florida's tourism-dependent economy.

    "The public is fairly perceptive, and they're going to see that the incidents of Sept. 11 changed a lot of things and had ripple effects," said Edwin Moore of the James Madison Institute, doubting many voters would blame Gov. Bush for the downturn.

    If he wins reelection, Bush will be the most powerful governor Florida has ever seen. Voters reorganized the state Cabinet to give the next governor much more authority. Lawmakers also helped Bush take more control over Florida's education system, over the selection of judges, the firing and promoting of state workers and the awarding of contracts.

    In the coming session, Bush again will push for a growth management revision that could stop approval of new developments in areas where schools are already overcrowded. He will seek to help alleviate nursing home staffing shortages. But mostly, he will maintain a low-key agenda.

    Gov. BHAG is not a bit worried that voters will expect more ambitious initiatives as he heads into campaign season.

    "I would look at the four-year period, and we will," the governor said recently. "We will take what we've done and go to the people saying, "You asked for change, and you got it.' "

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