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    A Times Editorial

    Twilight zone

    A recent poll reveals a vast gap between the concerns of Floridians and the agendas of their political leaders, and the key issue is education.


    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 7, 2002


    There are two Floridas coexisting in the same time and space, but this isn't some science fiction fantasy. The warp, rather, is political, and it is real. The one Florida is represented by a governor and Legislature who profess to be doing the people's will when they short-change education so they can cut taxes. Inhabitants of the other Florida want better schools, are willing to pay for them and aren't clamoring for the further tax cuts that some of the politicians continue to insist they need.

    In the real Florida, a huge plurality -- 41 percent -- believe the state's most important priority should be to improve education. No other issue rated even 10 percent.

    While it is not unusual for politicians to pursue a private agenda under the pretense that it is the public's, seldom have the differences been so vast and dramatic as reflected in a recent St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald poll. Fully 78 percent of those in the scientific sample of statewide voters said they intend to vote for an initiative that would reduce the number of students in each classroom. Nearly as many -- 74 percent -- said they would support higher taxes to pay for reduced class sizes. To a question about higher taxes for education in general, 58 percent answered yes; only 37 percent said no. Gov. Jeb Bush's A+

    Plan, the carrot-and-stick grading system that substitutes for decent funding, flunked its public opinion test with 53 percent opposed.

    The poll also showed that despite their policy differences, most voters would vote for Bush over any of four prospective Democratic opponents "if the November election for governor were today . . ."

    That's not surprising. Bush is a powerful incumbent who has enjoyed until recently the advantages of a supine Legislature and an opposition perceived as leaderless. Only one of the Democrat contenders is as well-known, and her negatives are higher than his.

    But of course the election isn't today, which leaves ample time -- five months to the primary and seven to November -- for the Democrats to provide the missing factors that could dramatically change the equation. They have freely criticized Bush and the Legislature for extolling tax cuts over education but have been conspicuously silent as to how much more money Florida needs and how to raise it. Neither Janet Reno nor Bill McBride was heard to say a word in support of the long-range tax reform plan that Senate President John McKay, a Republican, tried to pass in the face of a chorus of derision from the governor, the House and the lobbies. Daryl Jones voted for it in the Senate, but in the House, minority leader Lois Frankel did not.

    Whoever wins the Democratic nomination surely will have earned no more than a footnote in history unless he or she offers the voters a meaningful, dynamic and credible alternative to the policies of the incumbent governor and Legislature. That does not necessarily entail a specific budget for education, but it does presume a refreshing candor as to the need for more money for education and the ways to raise it.

    For the longer range, the Democrats should also be prepared to press the issue as to why the policies of Florida's government are so out of step with the preferences of the people. The reasons are no mystery: Campaign contributions that result in tax breaks for special interests and skew the outcomes of contested elections. And a districting system that makes too many constituencies safe for one party or the other and that tends to elect House members who are either significantly more conservative or (much less often) far more liberal than the electorate as a whole.

    However, the public's voice cannot be so easily ignored in statewide races. Both of Florida's U.S. senators are moderate (and, as the poll confirmed, highly popular) Democrats. The 2000 presidential election was a statistical dead heat. Here, the middle ground is the high ground.

    But such voters are less likely to vote against an incumbent than for a challenger who persuasively offers better alternatives.

    The main import of the poll is strikingly clear: It's education, stupid. Whoever expects to win the governor's race should not mistake that message.

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