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    Bush floats deal on education bill

    He suggests deleting the controversial religious rights section and, instead, outlining rights in a student handbook.

    By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 10, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Jeb Bush has witnessed two failed attempts by the Legislature to pass a key education bill.

    He isn't taking any chances with the third.

    Before he'll even select a date to call lawmakers back to the Capitol, Bush is circulating a compromise proposal in which students would receive a handbook outlining their religious rights on campus rather then etch those rights in state law.

    The religious freedom section of the education bill, less than one page of nearly 1,800, derailed last week's special session at the last minute. Liberal Democrats teamed up with conservative Republicans in the Senate to kill the bill.

    Democrats, particularly Jewish senators, said they feared the language would expand the religious activities allowed at schools and lead to harassment of students who were religious minorities. Meanwhile, some Republicans said they feared there was nothing in the law to protect students from those who would try to convert them to Satanism.

    The result: The Senate refused to vote on the bill even after a joint House and Senate negotiating committee agreed to leave the religious language in the bill.

    "It was a waste of time," Bush said Tuesday of last week's four-day special session that cost taxpayers at least $160,000. "(But) we're very close" on working out a compromise, he said.

    The Legislature needs to pass the bill before many of the state's higher education laws expire in January.

    No one appeared to predict the meltdown over the religious language section, which supporters say simply states current state and federal law plus court case history. The section states that students can pass out religious literature and may not be penalized for writing reports on their religion, among other rights.

    Bush said Tuesday he hopes his compromise will resolve the dispute and allow lawmakers to pass the bill, possibly at the same time they return for a budget special session later this month.

    According to the House budget chief, Rep. Carlos Lacasa, R-Miami, the House and Senate still have three key issues: how to handle the federal government's reduction in the corporate income tax; how much to spend; and which trust funds can spare some dollars to help cover costs.

    "I don't anticipate having an agreement any time soon," Lacasa said.

    Senate President John McKay agreed. "We're still pretty far apart from the governor's office right now," said McKay, R-Bradenton.

    And Bush may not have an agreement on his education bill compromise, either, unless he convinces Rep. Jerry Melvin, a Fort Walton Beach Republican who is chairman of the House Council for Lifelong Learning.

    Melvin said no one from Bush's office had spoken to him about a compromise and that he prefers that the religious language stay in the bill.

    "As long as there is an absence of something in statute, you are going to continue to have lawsuit after lawsuit," he said.

    -- Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

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