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    Showdown in Tallahassee

    Legislatures have gone to the brink before, but seldom have the stars been so misaligned.

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    By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 2, 2003


    TALLAHASSEE -- Senate President Jim King has so little use for Gov. Jeb Bush's scorched-earth budget -- "butt ugly," he called it -- that when he said the Senate might enact it line for line some people figured him to be bluffing.

    He wasn't. King's strategy, born of desperation, was to drive home to the public "that this is not a make-believe crisis." He hoped to ignite public pressure on the governor and the House for new revenue. If worst still came to worst, it would be be the governor's budget, not the Senate's.

    "If no one is going to give me a single dollar more," King explained, "then if I go into the governor's budget to 'fix it,' I have to fix it off the backs of somebody else. . . . Have I really done anything other than reorganize the angst?"

    But that was before. Now, King -- the lonely moderate among Florida's top three politicians -- needs a new strategy even more desperately. Bush's budget turns out to be unbalanced, says King. The constitution requires balanced budgets. So the Senate could not pass it without major changes that would bear the Senate's fingerprints.

    It's a tangle over trust funds, moneys earmarked from taxes levied for such specific services as affordable housing, environmental lands and toxic waste cleanup.

    According to Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, the appropriations chairman, Bush's budget writers helped themselves to "hundreds of millions of dollars" more than can be legally or prudently diverted to fund schools, Medicaid and other programs. Pruitt's staff expects to pin down the sum early this week.

    The options would then be to cut the programs thus funded even more deeply than the governor did, propose taxes that would be dead on arrival at the House, or lob the budget back to the governor for a supplemental recommendation.

    As the Legislature prepares for the formal opening of its 2003 session Tuesday, few members believe that the constitutionally prescribed 60 days will see the end of it. Some wonder whether they will have enacted a budget in time to avoid a government shutdown on July 1.

    Legislatures have gone to the brink before, but seldom have the stars been so misaligned as now. Though all the key players are Republican, that's about all they have in common.

    Bush, a libertarian at heart who dreams aloud of emptying government buildings, opposes new state taxes. He implies he would accept them next year, which would be unlikely, even with his support, in an election year. Meanwhile, Bush's $54-billion budget would hit the universities hard to help pay for reducing class sizes in public schools under a constitutional initiative, Amendment 9, that Bush opposed. College students would pay higher tuition with nothing to show for it.

    "Tuition increases are a tax hike," says Pruitt. "They're being hypocritical when they say they don't have a tax increase." Similarly, Bush would pass off to the counties $64-million in juvenile detention charges.

    Democrats complain, and some Republicans privately agree, that Bush is using Amendment 9 as a pretext to continue shrinking the state government and as an excuse for more private school vouchers. At this point, Bush appears to have muted the public school lobby (and split the education community) by treating the universities much worse.

    Though Bush repudiated what he once called a "devious" scheme to undermine Amendment 9 with unpopular consequences, there's widespread belief that this is still his strategy. King, despite asserting "an obligation to do my very, very, very best to fulfill it," said it's not out of the question that legislators might ask the voters to repeal the initiative. But to do so in time to affect the next budget would require a three-fourths vote in each house, which is unlikely. "I wouldn't get all the Republicans," King said.

    Johnnie B. Byrd Jr., of Plant City, the House speaker, is Bush's ideological soul mate in regards to taxes, smaller government and private school vouchers. He was a key obstacle to Senate President John McKay's tax reform efforts last year. This year, Byrd got House-Senate relations off to a memorably foul start by accusing the Senate and King of a secret scheme to raise taxes by $11.5-billion. There was no secret and no scheme, only a publicly issued list of well-known revenue options totaling that much. Byrd has behaved himself since, but King got the message: Don't bring taxes to the House.

    King, oldest (63) and by far the most politically experienced of the three -- he was elected to the House in 1986, two years before Byrd moved to Florida -- is a moderate, a pragmatist, and, as it happens, the only member of the ruling triumvirate who attended the Florida universities that would be the biggest losers in Bush's budget. His experience and instinct are a good fit for a Senate that prizes its collegiality and bipartisanship. His problem is that the House -- King calls it "the house of No" -- is run from the top down. No one but the marginalized Democratic minority, who trail the Republicans 39 to 81, is prepared to openly buck Byrd's policies.

    For incoming House members, the only sure path to leadership before their eight years run out is through the patronage of those already in power. This is not a factor in the Senate, where most members are continuing career paths that began in the House.

    The agenda would be tough even for a more harmonious legislature. A record six insurance issues, all of them contentious, are on the table: medical malpractice, no-fault auto insurance, worker's compensation, nursing homes, the state's hurricane fund, and the shaky state of the private health insurance market. A bitter fight is already brewing over Senate efforts to weaken the antismoking initiative voters approved in November, and some legislators want to repeal the high-speed rail initiative from the 1998 election.

    Gambling interests are angling again for slot machines at Florida's race tracks, touting taxes from a so-called "video lottery" as a painless palliative for the budget woes. But opposition from the governor and Byrd make this unlikely.

    Gambling is only one of many sources the Senate would consider, but King and Pruitt see no point in voting on any without some sign of interest from the House.

    Pruitt says Senate budget hearings in mid-February were disappointing because there was less of a public outcry than expected. Pruitt blames that in large part on the public schools, which he says "deserve an F" for not asking for more than Bush proposed. The same goes, he said, for the university and college trustees, who left it to their presidents to make the case for more money.

    "The trustees have forgotten the definition of 'trustee,' he said. "This is ground zero. This is where it was supposed to happen, and it didn't happen."

    Now, a free-for-all begins.

    Martin Dyckman is associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times.

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