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    Democrats decry timing of Bush proposal

    They say the governor is trying to derail an amendment to reduce class sizes.

    By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 1, 2002


    TALLAHASSEE -- Democrats on Tuesday accused Gov. Jeb Bush of trying to kill a proposal to reduce class sizes with a last-minute bill requiring that citizen initiatives include price tags.

    The proposal is so new it hasn't been written, and only a few senators had heard about it before Bush announced Monday that he was adding it to the Legislature's special session agenda.

    Bush's announcement came just days after the Florida Supreme Court approved the ballot language for a constitutional amendment requiring smaller classes. Bush's proposal would apply to that and all other citizen-initiated amendments on the November ballot.

    While citizens would initiate the amendments, the government would estimate the cost of implementing them.

    Opponents say the measure would discourage voters from approving expensive proposals like the multibillion-dollar high-speed rail system, which passed overwhelmingly two years ago.

    "I'm concerned about the governor's true intentions here," said state Sen. Kendrick Meek, the Miami Democrat who is leading the class size initiative. "For Bush to interfere in this process at this late date will open a Pandora's box."

    But Bush said his intention is simple. "Wouldn't it be better to see what is the estimate of the cost?" Bush asked Tuesday. "I think voters need to know that."

    A spokeswoman said the governor has been interested in the proposal for years.

    The bill likely will include language requiring the state Revenue Estimating Conference, which calculates how much tax revenue the state will generate, to figure out the cost of implementing constitutional amendments.

    "It's pretty clear the governor is in panic mode," said Sen. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston. "And he's doing serious damage control."

    More than 20 citizen initiatives are trying to make it onto the November ballot, including the treatment of pregnant pigs and a ban on smoking in restaurants and other workplaces.

    Bush's proposal probably would apply only to citizen initiatives, not those proposed by the Legislature or the Constitutional Revision Commission. Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, the bill's sponsor, said those initiatives already go through a fiscal analysis.

    "There is truth in voting," Pruitt said. "They need to understand and know the cost factor for what they are voting for."

    Senate President John McKay said he supports the concept. "When you see some of these constitutional amendments, it sounds wonderful, but people don't always understand the cost," McKay said.

    The Legislature has placed a measure similar to Bush's proposal on the Nov. 5 ballot. Bush supports that amendment but thinks the same result can be achieved with a simple change in state law.

    Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua, sponsored a bill this year similar to the one Bush has proposed, but it would not have applied to proposals on the Nov. 5 ballot. Bush asked him to sponsor it again during the special session, but Smith refused. "It's a fairness issue," Smith said. "You just can't change the rules in the middle of the game."

    Meek said he is not opposed to voters knowing the cost of the class size initiative but he wants to make sure the estimates are accurate, and he said he can't help but wonder about the governor's timing. "I wouldn't be shocked if this is part of the Bush campaign," Meek said.

    -- Times staff writers Julie Hauserman and Alisa Ulferts contributed to this report.

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