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    Hundreds laid off on Bush's watch

    The governor criticizes layoffs at Bill McBride's law firm, but at least 2,300 have lost state jobs since Jeb Bush took office.

    By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 26, 2002


    photo
    Bush
    While Jeb Bush blames Bill McBride for layoffs at his former law firm, the governor never mentions the thousands of state workers laid off on his watch.

    At least 2,300 state employees lost their jobs since Bush took office in 1999, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most of the layoffs were a result of Bush's effort to downsize government and privatize services, plus a weakening economy that led to budget cuts.

    The governor proudly touts the 10,000 government positions he has eliminated, but only about half of those positions were vacant. Most workers eventually found jobs elsewhere in state government or the private sector.

    Still, others stood in the unemployment line.

    "There were literally hundreds kicked out the door like trash," said Michael Gibbons, a 12-year Juvenile Justice Department veteran laid off in January.

    Gibbons' job as probation officer in Sarasota was one of 637 cut from the agency last fall. He won his job back because the agency didn't follow rules governing layoffs of union workers.

    Bush and lawmakers who cut the budget have no idea how important these positions are to the public, Gibbons said.

    "They have never been in a house full of screaming kids and parents going nuts or in a courtroom where the kid is lunging over the table at the judge," Gibbons said.

    The McBride campaign says it's hypocritical for Bush to criticize McBride for some 240 layoffs at Holland & Knight when Bush has laid off far more state workers.

    "Bush is responsible for the loss of state jobs," said McBride spokesman Alan Stonecipher. "They're real people who have families and lives."

    But the Bush campaign says the governor's layoffs are the result of his push for more efficient government, while McBride's was aimed at enriching his law firm. And the Bush criticism came after McBride spent months criticizing Bush for cutting government.

    "The point is, it is the governor's job to save taxpayers money and reduce bureaucracy," said Bush campaign spokesman Todd Harris. "What Bill McBride did was cut benefits and jobs ... in order to boost profits for the partners.

    "If you ask any Floridian whether there is too much waste and bureaucracy in government, they will say yes."

    Florida isn't the only state to lay off workers recently. California and Oregon also have let go thousands of workers in recent years, according to the federal government. And Holland & Knight isn't the only law firm to lay off workers because of the economic downturn.

    The Bush campaign also criticized McBride's running mate, Tom Rossin, for selling a bank he founded, which resulted in layoffs.

    In 1993, Rossin sold Flagler National to SunTrust. About 150 former Flagler employees lost their jobs while Rossin got $137,000 in severance pay and $338,000 in deferred compensation.

    The precise number of state workers laid off under Bush is a matter of dispute.

    The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the main state workers' union, puts the number at 10,000, based on notices from the state of planned job cuts, but concedes that many of those workers got other jobs in state government.

    The U.S. Labor Department says 2,300 workers in state offices lost their jobs in extended mass layoffs since 1999. Federal labor officials track those layoffs, defined as 50 or more people from the same employer applying for unemployment benefits within a five-week period.

    The state Department of Management Services says of the 3,159 people whose positions were cut since June 2001, most have found new jobs, either in other state agencies or in the private sector.

    Amy Abrams of St. Petersburg was not among them. Abrams was an administrative assistant with the Agency for Health Care Administration when she lost her job in January after nine years. Abrams said se was told her job was cut according to Bush's plan to shave 25 percent off of state government.

    "I think I was expecting it, but it came sooner than I thought," said Abrams, who has not yet found another job. She spends her days now keeping house, volunteering and looking for work.

    Many workers learn they have been laid off from a letter that begins: "While pursuing the development of a smaller, more effective and efficient government, the Florida Legislature took action to reduce staffing in a number of areas. Regretfully, your position is to be eliminated."

    In 2000, the state eliminated the Division of Safety and with it 144 jobs. State workers complained they had no one looking out for their job safety.

    The Department of Juvenile Justice took a big hit with last year's budget cuts, causing 352 juvenile probation employees to find other jobs. Those cuts were spurred by the weakening economy, which also prompted McBride's former law firm to lay off more than 200 workers 11 months after he left as managing partner.

    And the state recently signed a contract with a private company to handle personnel matters, which could affect up to 800 jobs, according to one estimate.

    The issue of layoffs is a defining one for both the Bush and McBride campaigns: Bush wants to trim government and make it more competitive with the private sector, while McBride tells supporters there have been too many cuts in government services and that it's time to invest more, especially in education.

    In fact, McBride was hammering Bush for the cuts in state government long before the Republicans aired their television ad about McBride's layoffs.

    "We've been cutting and cutting and cutting," McBride said last month during a debate with former rivals Janet Reno and Daryl Jones. "Frankly, I think the people of Florida want to start investing again."

    -- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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