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Divided on the issues

Gov. Jeb Bush and Bill McBride are at ideological odds over much more than just education.

By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 2, 2002

Gov. Jeb Bush and Bill McBride are at ideological odds over much more than just education.

There is a difference.

Voters who haven't decided whom to vote for Tuesday in the governor's race -- and polls suggest they number in the thousands -- face a stark choice on issues.

The incumbent who believes the best way to judge public schools and their students is a grading system based sole on standardized tests? Or the candidate says there's more to judging a school's success than FCAT scores?

The incumbent who has cut taxes for business? Or the one who wants to raise cigarette taxes for education?

The one for the class-size amendment, or the one against it?

Pro choice or antiabortion?

The millionaire lawyer or the millionaire developer?

Democrat Bill McBride thinks government should do more. Republican Gov. Jeb Bush thinks it should do less.

You'd be forgiven for thinking there's only one issue in this race.

The campaign has been dominated by education, a proposed amendment to reduce and cap class sizes. Bush opposes it, McBride favors it.

But there's more to the education issue than that.

Since taking office in 1998, Bush has made the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, the centerpiece of his plan make schools more accountable.

Students who don't pass it don't graduate. And schools whose students score poorly can lose funding, while schools whose students do well can gain extra money. If a school gets too many F's, students can get vouchers to help pay for private school.

McBride says the test should be used to assess students' strength and weaknesses, not grade schools. "High-stakes testing is wrong, and parents and teachers know that," McBride said at a Daytona Beach rally on Thursday.

Bush has increased funding by $3-billion since he took office, but McBride says that has barely kept up with rising student enrollment and inflation and cites numerous statistics painting a woeful state of education in Florida.

McBride proposes increasing education spending by $1-billion a year by ending sales tax exemptions for certain businesses or products, cutting lawmakers' pet projects, and boosting the cigarette tax by 50 cents a pack.

That money would be used to reduce elementary class sizes, raise teacher pay and expand early childhood education, he says.

But he also supports Amendment 9, the constitutional amendment requiring the state to make classes smaller. It's a mammoth proposal estimated to cost from $8-billion to $27-billion over the next eight years, and he has not said how he would fund it if it passes. Neither has Bush, who opposes the measure.

Bush says he doesn't feel compelled to say how he would pay for an initiative he opposes. He offers an alternative: a $2.8-billion plan to building 12,000 new classrooms, but it's unclear how much that would reduce class sizes.

To Bush, there is no such thing as a good new tax, and he has run an aggressive ad campaign saying McBride would raise taxes. This year, Bush made a $262-million corporate tax cut a priority in the Legislature at the expense of a popular sales tax holiday for back-to-school shopping.

Bush also boosted to $500,000 the amount of money a person can have in savings before having to pay state taxes on it.

McBride says he would not raise taxes, except the cigarette tax. But don't look for him to cut any, either.

"People are tired of cutting and cutting and cutting," McBride answers. "It's time to start investing again."

There are other basic differences.

Bush opposes abortion. McBride supports a woman's right to decide.

Bush has made privatizing government a key part of his agenda, shifting state resources to private companies to manage the state's personnel system, provide prison food service, and environmental cleanup.

McBride says he supports privatization in instances where it's clear the state could save money and says Bush has gone too far.

McBride and Bush both oppose new gun control laws, though McBride supported the 1998 constitutional amendment allowing localities to require background checks for people who buy guns at trade shows.

Both support the death penalty, though McBride says he wants to study whether it is being fairly imposed. Both agree that excess growth is a key environmental problem.

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