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Bush's party didn't always follow lead

The governor's popularity didn't help him get his way with all GOP lawmakers.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published June 1, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Dealing with the Legislature requires all the people skills Gov. Jeb Bush can muster.

To get his way, Bush uses friendly persuasion or waves a veto threat like a baseball bat. He did both this year, with mixed results. The governor who enjoys a 56 percent approval rating with the public isn't the most popular person at the Capitol, even though it's run by fellow Republicans.

Lawmakers gave Bush much of what he wanted. But he endured some big setbacks. It was ugly and difficult, and it took too long. Still left for another special session is a plan to cut medical malpractice insurance rates.

"It was a bad regular session," Bush said Friday. "But when they got focused, they did their jobs."

Bush's victories include a no-new-taxes budget, more tax cuts and a workers' compensation bill, albeit one that even supporters say is flawed. The budget preserved two Bush education priorities: $120-million in bonuses to high-performing schools and $25-million for reading programs.

The governor didn't get his way in other areas. He could not save an acclaimed anti-smoking program from virtual elimination, and prisons face budget cuts of $27-million. Corrections Secretary Jim Crosby said that could mean fewer health and education programs for inmates, leaving hardened convicts with more idle time than they had before.

"I'm worried about the corrections budget cut. It's pretty deep," Bush said. "But they dealt with workers' comp, and they're going to deal with medical malpractice."

Bush wanted cuts in other areas, but lawmakers rejected some of his ideas. He proposed reducing state support for the PACE Centers for Girls and for a network of runaway shelters, and both programs survived intact.

In his State of the State speech in March, Bush boldly called for the repeal of two costly constitutional amendments approved by voters that require establishing a bullet train and reducing class sizes. The Legislature refused, despite the governor's warning that "massive tax increases" would be required to pay for them.

Bush still clings to the idea of asking voters to repeal the amendments. When the long-range costs of both programs become clearer, "reality will set in," he said last week. "We've got time."

Lawmakers also did not act on Bush's request to merge two agencies into a revamped Department of State, responsible for libraries, elections and emergency management. No legislation has yet passed dealing with the 2004 election dates or to assist students who fail the FCAT.

The Legislature also rejected Bush's attempts to shut down the State Library, and to turn over much of the collection to a private university in South Florida.

"The governor had to push a little longer than what he had hoped for initially," said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon. "But he achieved most of what he was looking for."

To seal a deal over a budget and avoid a second straight collapse that could have been ruinous for his party, Bush quietly offered House Speaker Johnnie Byrd an escape hatch. If Byrd would drop a budget-busting demand for $45-million for an Alzheimer's institute, Bush would earmark money for the project next year.

Byrd agreed, though he said later it was the Senate Republicans' fierce opposition that changed his mind.

Bush embraces bold, sweeping ideas. The Legislature sometimes reduces bold visions to small experiments. More often than not, pragmatism trumps idealism.

When dealing with legislators, Bush has a reputation for bullheadedness and barely concealed contempt for the sausage-making process.

In that sense, he is hardly alone. Although the second-term governor has a 56 percent approval rate among Florida voters, the Legislature had an approval rate of 16 percent, according to a recent poll for the St. Petersburg Times and two other newspapers,.

"The governor's style has been very policy-driven, rather than people-driven," Lee said. "He has very strongly held beliefs and holds to that, as opposed to necessarily negotiating them."

After the regular session collapsed in the final days without a budget, Bush ordered both chambers back to work and suggested that "multi-tasking" is something the Legislature cannot do. Multi-tasking happens to be one of the strengths of the laptop-loving Bush.

Lee said one surprise was the House's reluctance to fully embrace the Bush agenda.

It was the House, under Byrd's direction, that wanted to divert all of the school recognition money to bonuses for teachers. After Bush bluntly threatened to veto the entire budget unless he prevailed, House leaders reduced the teacher bonus program from $315-million to $30-million. Bush got his $120-million.

"He had less effect over the House under Byrd than he had under Feeney," Lee said, referring to former House Speaker Tom Feeney, who preceded Byrd. "I think there was a more natural alignment ideologically. Beyond that, I didn't see as strong a propensity for them to simply go along with the governor because the governor was asking them to."

The Legislature may have done Bush a favor by not stuffing the budget with "turkeys," questionable pet projects. Bush vetoed nearly $1-billion of them in his first term, which antagonized lawmakers.

Bush has to turn on his charm one more time, in pursuit of a medical malpractice bill that seeks to lower the cost of insurance for doctors. Perhaps that's why Bush carefully chose his words when he described his reaction to the budget.

"Disappointed? A little bit," Bush said. "But this is really the prerogative of the Legislature, so when I say I'm disappointed, I'm not deeply disappointed."

[Last modified June 1, 2003, 02:05:26]


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