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Different cast acts out similar budget play

By LUCY MORGAN, Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 1, 2003

The older I get, the more things sound the same.

The uproar over the budget this year is almost a carbon copy of what happened in 1991-92 when Gov. Lawton Chiles came up with his "reality budget" that was so bad he refused to be seen with it.

Instead of presenting his $29-billion budget at the traditional news conference, Chiles sent budget director Doug Cook out to defend it. Later Chiles denounced his own budget and called for tax increases to support more spending.

The Legislature, of course, responded by passing a budget that was essentially the one Chiles initially proposed. That forced the governor to veto his own budget and call lawmakers back into a series of special sessions. The final $31-billion budget was approved in July only after an attempt to override the veto ended in a tie and government was beginning to shut down, unable to operate without a budget.

Advocates for children, the poor and elderly, and environmentalists set up a howl over the drastic cuts they faced. It sounded very much like the uproar we are hearing this week as everyone discovers what was left out of Gov. Jeb Bush's $54-billion budget.

Chiles had hoped his draconian budget would create a groundswell to pressure lawmakers into passing higher taxes, but public support never materialized and lawmakers refused to do much more than cobble together a few fees and taxes to lessen the pain.

The governor's approval rating among Floridians fell to 2 percent, leaving Chiles to wisecrack that at least his dog loved him. Attorney General Bob Butterworth bought a bright red coat for the dog, Pretty Girl, with "2 percent club" written on one side and "at least I like Lawton" on the other.

The principal difference this year is that there is little talk, and even less likelihood, of a tax getting passed. Back then Democrats ran the House, and the Senate was evenly divided. Now Republicans are firmly in charge and determined not to approve any tax increase.

Some observers think Bush produced a butchered budget hoping that Floridians would rise up and call on lawmakers to seek the repeal of a constitutional amendment voters approved in November to reduce class sizes.

The fiscal impact on education threatens to block out the sun this year, but I suspect a groundswell for repeal is as likely to occur as the support Chiles hoped would arise for a tax hike.

Parents and teachers want smaller classes, and they expect the governor and the Legislature to find a way to pay the bill.

Back in '92, T.K. Wetherell was House speaker. Now he's president of Florida State University and sees a governor's budget that diverts money away from universities to local schools. It leaves Wetherell facing severe cuts. Don't expect him to sit idly by and watch.

"We didn't have constitutional amendments hanging over us, just the crummy economy," recalls Wetherell. "They are facing high-speed rail, pregnant pigs and class size limits."

Wetherell and Senate President Gwen Margolis also got along with each other -- at least on the surface. House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, and Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, might as well draw guns and fire.

To get the money for his budget, Bush wants to raid many of the state's trust funds, a practice likely to land the governor and Legislature in court before the year is out.

Past governors and legislatures have learned the hard way that they cannot change the law by simply moving money around in the appropriations act. To make it legal and survive a court test, they must pass separate legislation amending each trust fund law.

Over and over again, the Florida Supreme Court has zapped the state for attempting to change general law with a line or two in the annual budget.

This fight is only beginning.

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