St. Petersburg Times Online
Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Library is a character in Florida budget plot

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 25, 2003

Something is very curious here.

Jeb Bush, the governor who began his second term with the noble goal of making Florida "a state of readers," wants to unload a precious public resource: the state library.

A state of readers with no state library.

Go figure.

The proposed library giveaway is one element of the decidedly grim budget Bush put forth on Tuesday. Through a maze of mergers, cutbacks, consolidations and privatizations, he would lop another 2,898 jobs off the state payroll, including 49 at the state library.

This is all in the name of "smaller government," and paying for what Bush calls "the 800-pound gorilla," the class-size amendment.

This is tough-love fiscal policy. Bush barnstormed the state opposing Amendment 9, with its pricey mandate for limits on students-per-classroom. He warned Floridians about big budget cuts if it passed. It's a campaign promise he plans to keep, even as he seeks to push more tax cuts.

What got the first-day attention in Bush's budget was big-picture stuff, like cutbacks in the Medically Needy program, a potential 12.5 percent hike in university tuition and relying on private lawyers instead of three state legal offices to represent Death Row inmates.

The Legislature will have a lot to say about all of this, of course, and while the House leadership appears poised to nod agreeably, Bush won't like much of what he's going to hear from the 40-member Senate.

In fact, for one full week in mid February, senators will do nothing but give voice to the advocates and lobbyists of programs, so they can bash the Bush budget and the policy choices that created it.

Even House Republicans, nominally Bush's strongest allies in the Capitol, were grilling Bush's budget director Wednesday.

Why, one asked, must appeal courts get by with fewer judicial assistants? Why does Bush want to pass on the pretrial detention costs for juveniles to counties? Why is a $4-million aquaculture program being privatized? Why does Bush want to lower the reimbursement rates to hospitals? Why does he want to merge and cut by half the budgets of two state agencies that watch how state money is spent and often suggest ways to save money? The answers are obvious.

Bush is the antigovernment governor. In his Jan. 7 inaugural, he dreamed out loud about a capital where all state buildings were emptied of government workers. He didn't mention it at the time, but now we know: He must have been thinking of the state library. Bush wants to shift most of the state Division of Library and Information Services, which manages archives, state records and library grants, to the Department of Management Services. That agency oversees the state motor pool, private prisons and computers.

The state library, a repository of Florida history now in the R.A. Gray Building between the Florida Supreme Court and the Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center, may end up at Florida State University.

But FSU president T.K. Wetherell said in a speech this week that he doesn't want it unless the state also shipped him enough people and money to run it. (The Bush budget also eliminates $111.5-million from university budgets, including about $18-million from FSU).

Even if FSU agreed to run the library, access poses a big problem.

While doing research for a master's degree in history at FSU three years ago, I was a frequent customer of the state library.

On its shelves, alongside thousands and thousands of books, is something called "Filming Florida," a trove of grainy newsreel films from the '40s, '50s and '60s. I saw footage of the glass-bottom boats at Silver Springs and a film of former Gov. Farris Bryant testifying before Congress in 1963 on his support for "states' rights" in racial matters.

After I got the degree, I quickly learned my library privileges were revoked. Only active students can check out books there. FSU alumni can use FSU's athletic facilities all they want, but checking out a book, well, that's another story.

I had to apply for a six-month special borrowing permit.

Giving away the state library? Now there's a "reading initiative" to consider.

-- Steve Bousquet is the Times' deputy capital bureau chief in Tallahassee.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.