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If Democrat Bill McBride evicts Jeb Bush from the Florida Governor's mansion on Nov. 5, it will be in spite of his wobbly performance in their three debates. McBride is asking voters to trust him to keep his promises, an appeal that has been complicated by his reluctance to trust the voters with the truth. That truth is that there is no way he can fund his education agenda and other state needs without serious tax reform.
In last Tuesday's third and final gubernatorial debate, McBride foundered when moderator Tim Russert of NBC News pressed him on that question. Like most Democrats this campaign year, McBride goes defensive when someone mentions the T-word. "The only tax increase I support," he keeps saying, is on cigarettes.
In a severe budget crisis, the next governor will have few options: He can increase the sales tax rate for everyone, end sales tax exemptions for special interests or slash state spending -- or some combination. Both candidates at least say they are open to reviewing some of those exemptions.
McBride chose the worst of those options. When Russert asked McBride an obvious question -- "Where do you find the money" to finance higher teacher salaries and smaller classes (McBride estimated that the class-size amendment he supports could cost as much as $15-billion over eight years)? -- the Democratic challenger said he would cut state programs "across the board" and invest the savings in education. He didn't say which, if any, programs for the state's most vulnerable citizens he would spare. He just said he would pay for the well-intentioned but misguided class-size amendment by cutting state spending "across the board."
"The real issue in Florida is whether you care about our public schools," McBride said, desperately trying to change the subject. "This issue is not about taxes, it's about priorities. Who cares and who is going to do the most for our public schools (is the issue)."
As McBride must surely know, a governor's priorities don't mean much unless they are funded. Neither Bush nor McBride can do much to improve our schools or anything else without new sources of revenue. The voters know that. What they need to hear is how the candidates plan to fund the state's needs -- not have their intelligence insulted by one candidate who pretends our tax system is adequate and another who says he can fund his agenda with a 50-cents-a-pack tax hike on cigarettes and spending cuts.
Bush is warning that if the class-size amendment is approved by voters, the next governor will have little choice but to seek "massive tax increases." At one point in the debate, Bush expressed his "frustration" with McBride's evasive answers on the tax issue and said, "You can't be advocating something as governor and not have the responsibility to say how you would pay for it."
Both candidates more or less fail that test. The governor has criticized McBride for not saying which taxes he would raise, but Bush said in the debate he would be forced to "consider raising taxes" if the class-size amendment is approved by voters. But because he opposes the amendment, the governor said he is not obligated to say at this time which tax increases he might consider.
With Bush and McBride in a tight race, this may turn out to have been a pivotal moment in the campaign. The dominant issue in this campaign has been Bush's record on education. But as the campaign goes into its final days, McBride's advantage on that issue has been diminished by his unwillingness to level with voters on how he proposes to fund his ambitious education agenda.
What are undecided voters to make of all this? For a start, they should discount most of the political rhetoric and take a broad measure of the candidates, imperfections and all.
Bush has a record to defend. He can spin it, but he can't hide it. He is an anti-tax ideologue who boasts of cutting $4-billion in taxes for businesses and investors in his first term. He cannot be counted on to tackle any problem that requires major new sources of state revenue. He sincerely believes the greatest need in education is not money but accountability, and that his reforms, including vouchers, have put Florida schools on the right track.
As for McBride, he deserves credit for making education the central issue of this election. He believes greater funding for teacher salaries and smaller class sizes is the key to improving our schools, even if he is vague on the details. He speaks of accountability, but it's not clear how he would hold teachers and schools accountable. In the debate, he was hard-pressed to name a single issue on which he disagrees with the teachers' union, his biggest supporter and often the biggest obstacle to genuine school reform. The one thing we know for sure is McBride would try to reverse most of Bush's education policies.
So voters have to decide whether to stay the course with Bush or change course with McBride. Despite his political timidity on such hot-button issues as taxes and gun control, the former Tampa lawyer at least seems to understand Florida's problems, even if he doesn't have all the answers.
The question for voters comes down to this: Which of these two men do you trust with Florida's future?