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Florida needs help from both parties

By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2002

A reader who suspects this newspaper's editorial page is biased against Republicans asks a fair question: If the Democrats still ruled the roost in Tallahassee, would things be all that different?

A reader who suspects this newspaper's editorial page is biased against Republicans asks a fair question: If the Democrats still ruled the roost in Tallahassee, would things be all that different?

In some ways, they would -- for better or worse. Democrats would not have enacted school-voucher legislation or replaced affirmative action in college admissions and state contracts with a One Florida plan. They would not have cut taxes for the well-off, privatized state services or overhauled the state civil service system to make it easier to fire senior managers. They would not have abolished the Board of Regents, and they would not be trying to undermine the independence of the judiciary.

Less clear, however, is how the Democrats would deal with the state's budget crisis if they were calling the shots. They would be making budget cuts because they would have little choice. The cuts might be less painful in some areas because Democrats are willing to dip into the state's $1-billion "rainy day" reserve, something the Republicans have so far refused to do. Would Democrats be pushing tax reform -- and how hard? Unfortunately, Democrats haven't always had the courage of their convictions.

The fact is that Florida began losing ground in education and other key areas a decade ago when Democrats were in control of state government. Gov. Jeb Bush didn't come into office until early 1999. During the Democrats' long rule in Tallahassee, there was never a time when the state fully funded the needs of its public schools and universities, or programs for its most vulnerable citizens, young and old.

In this election year, Florida Democrats have found plenty to criticize about Bush's budget. They are calling for new spending on education and deploring cuts in programs for the elderly and the poor. The problem for Democrats is not how to spend additional revenue but how to get it. They know the only way to come up with the money is to reform the state's antiquated tax system. But Democrats haven't been out front on that issue since former Gov. Reubin Askew pushed through a corporate income tax in 1971.

The campaign for tax reform is being led by a Republican, Senate President John McKay, who is proposing a constitutional amendment to cut the state sales tax rate and eliminate many of the existing exemptions. You would think Democrats, including the party's gubernatorial candidates, would be leading this charge, but they are following McKay at a safe political distance.

Florida, of course, is not the only state having to make painful budget choices in these hard economic times. Other states, including some governed by Democrats, are laying off state workers, slashing spending on education and human services and taking other desperate measures. A few governors have even proposed tax increases. Like Florida, many states cut taxes during the roaring '90s, and now they're scrambling for dollars. Even states with an income tax have not escaped the pain. In Virginia, where a new Democratic governor, Mark Warner, just took office, state employees and teachers will get no pay raise this year. Warner has called for across-the-board cuts in agency spending, 3 percent this year, 7 percent in 2003 and 8 percent in 2004.

So what's my beef with the Republicans in Tallahassee? For one thing, they believe tax cuts are the answer to everything, in good times and bad. Serious tax reform is not on their agenda. Some Republican leaders are in denial about Florida's decline and refuse to even acknowledge some of the state's most pressing problems. To hear them tell it, our state is prosperous, our schools are fine, the future is bright and the people are overtaxed. It's the old government-is-the-problem mentality.

The late Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles used to call occasionally to complain about an editorial or one of my columns taking him to task. "What you wrote," he would say, "really gave me a case of the reds." Contrary to what some Republicans may think, the Times editorial page did not spare Chiles or Democratic legislators the hickory switch when we disagreed with what they were doing. We shoot out windows on both sides of the political street.

No doubt our editorial page has been giving Bush a case of the reds. We have a fundamental philosophical disagreement with the Republican leadership in Tallahassee on such issues as taxes and education and the role of government. With the state now facing a budget crisis, the current debate is mostly about priorities -- where to cut, where to spend. But in a larger sense it is also a debate about the direction Florida is headed under this leadership. It's not just a question of raising taxes or spending more money. Regardless of which party holds power, Florida is not likely to ever have enough revenue to fully meet its most pressing needs. Paradise was not lost when Jeb Bush was elected governor, and it won't be found in the unlikely event Democrats regain the political upper hand in Tallahassee.

The real question is whether either party is capable of leading Florida toward the kind of future we want for our children? I don't know the answer to that question.

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