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    Senator colors outside of the party lines

    By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 21, 2002

    According to an old rule of politics, you don't challenge the party line. Democrats toe the Democratic line. Republicans toe the Republican line. Party leaders keep their ducks in line.

    State Sen. Don Sullivan, a Republican from St. Petersburg, entered politics late, after he established a successful career as a surgeon. Maybe that's why he didn't always feel compelled to line up with the other ducks.

    In case you haven't noticed, the Republican Party Line in Tallahassee is:

    We are spending more money on schools. We are improving schools. We don't need more tax money for schools.

    In February, Sullivan bluntly declared Gov. Jeb Bush and House Speaker Tom Feeney were "in denial" about the true needs of Florida schools.

    Sullivan backed a plan to close loopholes in Florida's sales tax system, which would have raised millions more for the education system. And he openly expressed frustration that his own party didn't take the plan seriously.

    "All we've heard is no, no, no. Before they even read the plan, it's no, no, no," Sullivan said during a February committee meeting, which Bush's budget director attended. "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."

    This doesn't mean Sullivan is some gadfly. He wouldn't have served as chairman of the education committee and the subcommittee that handles education funding without being able to work with the Senate's GOP leadership.

    And when the subject turns to the FCAT and grading of schools -- foundations of the GOP Party Line that make some educators gag -- he couldn't be more enthusiastic. He says Gov. Jeb Bush's package of education reforms "is the best thing that's happened to education in my 10 years."

    After a decade in the Senate, Sullivan has proved to be something rarer than a gadfly: an insider occasionally willing to say the emperor has no clothes.

    Now he's stepping aside, legally mandated to leave the Senate after two terms.

    A parting comment?

    "Probably my only regret is that I supported term limits when I started this."

    * * *

    Speaking of education and teacher's salaries ...

    They're becoming issues in the newly drawn Senate District 13, which extends from St. Pete Beach to Dunedin, including much of the territory Sullivan has represented.

    Democratic candidate Joanna Kennedy appeared in front of Largo High School one day last week to promote her idea to improve teacher salaries. She wants to simply determine each year what it would cost to bring Florida teacher salaries into the the nation's top 10.

    She said Florida ranks 28th among the states and that the increases would cost $426-million a year. She says Florida can pay that cost by eliminating sales tax exemptions or possibly adopting the use of generic drugs for people who receive Medicaid.

    "Florida is already in a bidding war with other states for businesses," Kennedy said. "It will be a great day when the state of Florida commits to a bidding war with teachers."

    The Republican candidate, former state Rep. Dennis Jones, also agrees that Florida needs to increase teacher salaries and said he will work to do so. "We certainly need to move Florida into the upper quartile, that would be a good starting point," he said.

    Doing so would be expensive, he said. He added that if voters pass a constitutional amendment to reduce class sizes, "you're going to have to have a tax increase. I wouldn't shy away from that tax increase. ... I wouldn't say I liked it."

    Jones also wants to find a way to let teachers from northern states move to Florida without losing their retirement savings, as a way of winning the bidding war for educators.

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