Senator remains devoted to education
By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- Sen. Don Sullivan put down his scalpel a decade ago and headed to the Capitol to make Florida's schools better. It turns out his greatest frustration is with the knife that cuts the budget.
Sullivan, a St. Petersburg Republican, favored charter schools and an extended school year. He supported the accountability features in Gov. Jeb Bush's A-plus Plan for Education, the overhaul of the education governance system and regular audits of how school districts spend tax money. He became an education expert, skilled at per-pupil funding formulas and enrollment projections.
Now, as term limits prepare to shove Sullivan off the political stage before he's willing, a mounting sense of frustration is evident in his voice. Schools have not improved as he had hoped, he says, and it largely comes down to money.
"The question then becomes, at some point, whether the Legislature is providing enough resources," Sullivan told fellow senators last week. "And if we are not providing enough resources, what should we do about it?"
He worries that the GOP's tried and true response -- no new taxes -- will hurt the party at the ballot box come November.
But his own answer, raising taxes by repealing tax exemptions, drew immediate opposition from Bush and House Speaker Tom Feeney.
More than any Republican legislator, Sullivan openly challenges his party's orthodoxy that schools are getting better and there's enough money to do the job. As chairman of a Senate education budget panel, he's closer to the subject than almost anyone, and not by nature a headline grabber.
"He's an independent kind of guy, and he's passionate about education," said University of South Florida lobbyist Kathy Betancourt. "He's critical and he wants things to be better, but he knows there are a lot of good things going on out there."
Sullivan worries that his party's preoccupation with cutting taxes could be a turnoff for many voters in 2002 the way the Democrats' perceived tax-and-spend habits alienated voters a decade ago.
"We kind of came to power on the basis of bashing the Democrats on the T-word," Sullivan said, "and now, they're afraid that someone will do the same to them. . . . I think they're going to blame us for cutting taxes too much."
Over and over again, Sullivan has sent that message to the governor's office.
Sullivan faulted Bush for "writing off" the original Senate plan to tax services. The senator said Bush submitted a budget that did not pay for basic needs in education and human services. Last week, Sullivan said Bush and Feeney were "in denial" over what he describes as the sad state of Florida schools.
Sullivan says teachers are quitting the profession because of low pay or moving to Georgia where the pay is better. He often cites Florida's low rankings in state-by-state education rankings. He cites Pasco-Hernando Community College, where hundreds more students wanted to enroll in a nursing program than the Legislature budgeted for.
He talks of hiring freezes, bigger classes, cutbacks in programs for struggling students and university doors closing to new students.
Bush is unwavering. "I think we can show Sen. Sullivan we can accomplish his objectives without raising taxes," the governor said.
That only adds to Sullivan's feeling of frustration.
"All we've heard is no, no, no. Before they even read the plan, it's no, no, no," Sullivan said as Bush's budget director, Donna Arduin, listened from the back of the room. "You know, in this Legislature recently, we have heard a lot of quotes from the Bible. Well, let me give you one: There are none so blind as those who cannot see. And believe me, there's a lot of no seeing around here."
After the House rejected its version of the Senate's tax plan, Sullivan and fellow Republican moderate Jack Latvala of Palm Harbor hammered out a new idea. They proposed ending $1-billion in sales tax breaks for one year on high school and college skyboxes, lobbying, management consulting and other services, and spending all of the new money on education. Senators will vote on it Thursday.
Even with that new money, Sullivan said, schools, community colleges and universities would be no better off than they were a year ago.
Sullivan's moderate, middle-class district strings together Pinellas County beach communities such as Belleair, Clearwater, Indian Rocks Beach and St. Pete Beach, with Largo, Seminole and parts of St. Petersburg. The area is home to many transplanted Midwesterners who share a moderate political outlook with Sullivan, a Chicago native and father of three.
Reminded that Feeney, a firebrand House speaker and congressional wannabe, says taxes are still too high, Sullivan shook his head. The next election might settle the argument, he said.
"At some point, you have to realize that part of the problem is here in Tallahassee. . . . We are doing damage," Sullivan said. "I will not walk away from this process without speaking my mind."
-- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.
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