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    Legislature

    Bush calls for new vote on class sizes

    The governor wants to give voters a choice of either repealing two constitutional amendments, or approving a new tax.

    By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 5, 2003


    photo
    [Times photo: Lara Cerri]
    Legislators fretted that Gov. Jeb Bush proposed millions in budget cuts, but said little on the state's fiscal shortball.
    TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Jeb Bush on Tuesday called for a new election to give voters a choice: Repeal constitutional amendments mandating smaller classes and a high-speed train or pass a tax to pay for them.

    The idea drew heavy resistance from top Republican lawmakers, while Democrats said it reminded them of the "devious plans" Bush mused about last fall.

    The class size amendment, passed four months ago by 52 percent of voters over Bush's strong opposition, has become his albatross. He has blamed it for hundreds of millions of dollars in budget cuts he has proposed, and he has warned that taxes would have to go up next year.

    Bush opposes tax increases, particularly in a year when his brother, the president, will be running for re-election.

    In Tuesday's annual State of the State speech, Bush said the class size and bullet train amendments have "hampered" the state's economy and security.

    "I believe we must go back to the voters and have them make a decision with all the information in hand," Bush said. "Information about the new challenges our state faces, and information about the massive tax increases that will be necessary to pay for them."

    It won't be easy. A special election for a constitutional amendment requires a three-fourths vote in both houses of the Legislature, or 90 House members and 30 senators.

    Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said he would vote against Bush's idea. He added it was "impossible" to get enough votes to pass it. Senate passage would require all 26 Republicans and four Democrats. Still, King refused to close the door completely on Bush. "Let it cook for a while," he said.

    Fearing what he called a "backlash" from voters, King said the Senate will move forward with its own plan to implement smaller classes in time for the fall.

    House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, spoke cautiously, saying Bush has to persuade the Senate first. Byrd also campaigned against the amendment, but he has said an "informed" vote by Floridians should be respected.

    Bush said he has no timetable for a new election. September is a possibility, as is the state's presidential preference primary next March. He said he wanted the issue resolved by July 2004 when the new fiscal year begins. He did not say which taxes he would ask voters to approve.

    "I don't have a set plan on the timing of this," Bush told reporters. "If the people want their taxes to be raised to fund these issues, rather than other priorities, then I believe we should give them all that information and let them make that choice."

    State elections director Ed Kast said he could not estimate the cost of a special statewide election.

    Democratic legislators were aghast at what one called Bush's "arrogance."

    "As a parent, I teach my kids that they can't keep asking me the same question over and over until they get the answer they want," said Sen. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston. "Apparently Gov. Bush has never learned that."

    She added: "I mean, the arrogance is unbelievable."

    U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, who led the campaign for smaller class sizes, said Bush is asking every member of the Legislature "to betray the citizens of Florida" by violating their oaths to support, protect and defend the Constitution.

    "We chose our president by 537 votes in Florida and we didn't do that election over," Meek said.

    "My voters have got to be smart. They put me in office. I'm not going to second-guess them," said Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa.

    Hillsborough voted against Amendment 9, as did a majority of counties, including Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus.

    "Is the governor really telling the citizens of the state of Florida that they were smart enough to vote for him, but yet not smart enough to understand class-size reduction?" asked House Minority Leader Doug Wiles, D-St. Augustine.

    Others recalled Bush's unguarded remarks last fall that he had "a couple of devious plans" if the amendment passed. "Voters will have the full ramifications, including which tax will go up and which programs (to cut), to give an alternative," Bush said in October. "If you want it, here's the tax to pay for it, and here's the program cut." He later apologized for using the term "devious plans."

    For most of last fall, Bush crusaded against the Democrat-backed class size proposal. Polls showed support eroding as voters learned about its cost, which Bush pegged at $27-billion over seven years -- a number Democrats said was much too high. Bill McBride, the Democratic candidate for governor, stumbled in his last TV debate with Bush by appearing fuzzy on how he would pay for the amendment.

    More than 2.5-million Floridians voted for the class size amendment. It got 52.4 percent of the vote.

    The class size amendment passed in 28 of the 67 counties.

    Bush's proposal is so fraught with controversy that many Republicans distanced themselves from it. Some fear being portrayed as trying to duck a solemn responsibility to uphold the Constitution.

    Rep. Sandra Murman, R-Tampa, said pre-session surveys of voters in her district show that many want to repeal the class size amendment. But she said she was wary of doing that. "I think we should act responsibly, and do what was given to us," she said.

    Senate Majority Leader Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, said voters expressed a desire to spend more money on education when they approved the amendment. "I think we need to move a little further in a good-faith effort to do what the voters asked," Jones said.

    -- Times staff writers Michael Sandler and Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

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