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    Once again, Bush's pick is put on hold

    The governor's choice for education board chairman is left dangling again because of a "scheduling conflict.''

    By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Tallahassee Deputy Bureau Chief
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 19, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- A Senate simmering with discontent has decided to let Phil Handy, one of Gov. Jeb Bush's top appointees, twist slowly in the wind for awhile.

    For the second time in a week, the Senate Education Committee Monday refused to confirm Handy as chairman of the state Board of Education and adjourned without taking a vote.

    The committee's chairman, Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, cited a "scheduling conflict," but he couldn't keep a straight face while saying it.

    Democratic senators say Handy, 57, is unqualified to set state education policy, and they dislike his support for school vouchers. But some Republicans are lukewarm about him too.

    Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, assailed what he called the "arrogance" of the Board of Education. "The big salaries, the closed meetings, there are a lot of issues percolating around," said Latvala.

    The same committee voted unanimously to recommend confirmation of another top education policymaker. Jim Horne, a former state senator from the Jacksonville suburb of Orange Park, earns $225,000 a year as the state's first acting secretary to the Board of Education.

    Horne faced questions about Florida's overcrowded classes and Bush's spending record on education, but as a former senator he received respectful treatment.

    Handy is a different story, and his political predicament has become a distraction for the Bush administration. The same committee was unable to approve Handy a week ago because the absence of one Republican senator left the panel deadlocked, with six Republicans and six Democrats.

    Since then, Handy made things worse for himself when he criticized senators for changing their district numbers in reapportionment so some of them can squeeze an extra two years for themselves.

    Handy, a Winter Park financier who spearheaded the term limits movement in Florida a decade ago, was quoted by the Palm Beach Post last week as saying: "I think the politicians do all this at their own risk."

    Democrats gleefully circulated copies of the article.

    Sen. Don Sullivan, R-St. Petersburg, called Handy's comment "his second mistake in judgment" and said: "It certainly didn't help his standing in the Senate." Handy's first mistake was his advocacy of term limits, said Sullivan, who is leaving the Senate because of term limits.

    But Sullivan said he saw no direct link between Handy's plight and the fact that relations between the Senate and Bush have been testy ever since the governor criticized Senate President John McKay's sales tax overhaul plan two weeks ago.

    Even Republican senators said much larger forces are at work in the delay over Handy's confirmation. "Maybe it's as innocent as scheduling, but I'm not that naive," said Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie. "Something's going on upstairs, I'm sure," a reference to McKay's fourth-floor suite.

    McKay was unavailable for comment. His spokeswoman, Karen Chandler, quoted him as saying: "I empower the chairmen to make their own decisions."

    Messages left with Handy were not returned.

    Earlier in the day, Bush called Handy "very well qualified" and said: "I'm asking that they confirm him."

    -- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

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