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An ugly veto for disabled children

By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 9, 2002

TALLAHASSEE -- Harry Truman once said of the Marines (to whom he swiftly apologized) that they had "a propaganda machine that is almost equal to Stalin's." By the standards of today's civilian politicians, however, even the Marines are a bashful lot.

TALLAHASSEE -- Harry Truman once said of the Marines (to whom he swiftly apologized) that they had "a propaganda machine that is almost equal to Stalin's." By the standards of today's civilian politicians, however, even the Marines are a bashful lot.

The art of propaganda is practiced nowhere more than in the Jeb Bush administration, where the governor's official events are all carefully staged to maximize his message and minimize potential criticism. The vernacular for this is "spin."

Last week's budget-signing ceremony was typically theatric. Bush's staff had some environmentalists on hand to give him a standing ovation when he announced he was vetoing the Legislature's $100-million cash diversion from land-buying reserves. It made it easy to forget how the same governor had signed a bill designed to discourage environmentalists from challenging development permits.

Bush's planners brought along a senior citizen to talk about prescription drug assistance, a spousal abuse victim and a disabled boy to dramatize the governor's point that over four years "there has been a 94 percent increase in the funding for citizens with developmental disabilities."

Only the fine print in the handouts disclosed that the governor was also vetoing a modest $2.6-million appropriation to help children with disabilities that aren't so obvious but still seriously impair their education.

The ones he hammered with that veto are kids who are autistic, dyslexic, or affected with other developmental disabilities that often go undiagnosed until precious years have been lost.

Readers should know before proceeding that I have a personal interest in this. As I've written before, one of my sons has a form of high-functioning autism that wasn't diagnosed until he was 16. It wasn't because we couldn't afford expert advice or didn't seek it; the professionals we consulted were simply clueless.

The proposed Learning Gateway that our governor strangled in its crib would have set up three-year pilot programs in Orange, Manatee and St. Lucie counties to improve learning-disability awareness among parents, practitioners and educators, guide parents to approve services, and work toward a "family-centered continuum of education and support." The emphasis would be on children from birth through age 9. Presuming success, the Legislature would then be asked to take the program statewide.

When Bush vetoed that last year, he said he was concerned that things could be done without parental approval. The sponsors -- Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, and Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart -- rewrote the bill this year to meet that objection. After Harrell's bill was blocked by some spiteful tricks in the House, Pruitt amended it into 11 Senate bills that went to the House. It passed as part of one of Bush's own bills that he signed into law May 22. However, Bush's line-item appropriations veto means that there is nothing to fund the Learning Gateway program or even to pay for the steering committee that is supposed to be appointed within 90 days.

"The words are worthless if we don't get the money," Pruitt said last week. "Looking back on it now, we would have put the appropriations in there, but it was already in the appropriations bill." Pruitt said he believed the appropriation was safe.

"I never would have put anything in there unless I thought they were going to approve it," he said. "We assumed we had the blessing of the governor's office. It was represented to us time and time again that 'we can live with this.' Unfortunately, the message must not have gotten to the governor."

Karen Chandler, the Senate president's spokesperson, said the original appropriation had been cut by more than half "at the request of governor's staff."

You can probably guess where this is going. The governor's office denies having made any promises. Kim McDougal, the education policy coordinator named by Pruitt and Chandler, did not return my phone call. She referred it to press secretary Liz Hirst, who e-mailed that "There was no deal by this office."

Bush's veto message implied that he killed the Learning Gateway in favor of higher priorities. But something more sinister seems to be afoot. Within the House staff -- and apparently within his, too -- there are hard-right conservatives who, on what they take to be principle, oppose any new pre-kindergarten program. When they say "cradle to grave," it's an epithet. These are the same people who stripped pre-K out of the Education Department, repealed existing standards, and shipped it off to Workforce Development as a baby-sitting program. You would think that even these people would make an exception for little kids with learning disabilities, so that valuable years wouldn't be so tragically wasted as they are now. But no, this crowd is not just mean, but ugly mean.

From the propaganda, however, who would ever suspect it?

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