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Jeb and Scripps' rush to the altar

Published October 19, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - There is a modern codicil to William Congreve's warning, "Married in haste, we may repent in leisure." It is called the prenuptial agreement. The swifter the courtship, the more prudent the agreement.

Florida has never seen so swift a whirlwhind courtship as Jeb Bush's wooing of the Scripps Institute. With all due respect to the governor, who I think is sincere, he isn't the one who has to pay the wedding bills or, if it comes to that, the alimony. The people of Florida need a better prenuptial agreement than he and Scripps are offering.

Not even Disney World went through as fast as Jeb Bush is pushing this one, with a special session opening just 11 days after he broke the news.

Though Disney had locked down Gov. Claude R. Kirk Jr., and the Central Florida delegations well before anyone else realized they were getting what Dade Rep. Marshall Harris called a "feudal kingdom," the legislation had to wait two months for its turn in the 1967 regular session.

There was real debate, though the end was never in doubt.

Having married in haste, Orlando-area officials had ample opportunity to repent at leisure. Florida had extracted no contributions from Disney toward the massive investments that would have to be made in schools, roads and other infrastructure.

But Disney, at least, had bought its own land on which it would spend fortunes of its own money. Scripps brings to the feast no dowry other than a good reputation. For the first time, the public is expected to provide not only the land, not only the buildings, but also salaries sufficient for seven years. There is no precedent for that.

There is no guarantee that Scripps will stay even seven years, let alone longer. The governor's hastily drafted legislation provides for a share of Scripps' net - not gross - income, but only begining in 2011, after it has drawn down the state's advance.

What happens if, after seven years, some other state - North Carolina, for example - offers Scripps a similar deal? Or, more worrisome, if it occurs to the federal government and Scripps' private contributors that they need not contribute so much because Scripps already has another doting sugar daddy?

Not to worry, say the governor's people. Florida is relying - their word - on "faith."

Bush's devil-may-care attitude may have something to do with the fact that the $500-million he's so eager to spend ($310-million to Scripps, $190-million in a slush fund for other industrial courtships) comes not directly from Florida taxpayers but from federal taxpayers by way of congressional largesse.

However we got it, it's still public money. It didn't fall from trees.

Granted, the deal could be good, very good, for Florida. But this raises the question of why Bush is not equally eager to invest equivalently in improving Florida's educational system, especially its colleges and universities.

Every survey of business leaders points to education as more important than any other factor, including taxes, in attracting and keeping industry. If I were a legislator, I'd tell the governor to bring now, not later, his plans for a stable funding source for higher education, and put them on the table right beside the Scripps deal.

The Senate, at least, is asking all the right questions. And so are some House members. One of the most cogent questions that Senate President Jim King put to Bush asked "to what extent will other businesses - including for-profit businesses - expect the same level of support as they open a facility in the state from the ground up, and how do we respond to their similar requests?"

But it's not enough just to ask the right questions. The Legislature needs to insist on the right answers. For the moment, however, the best side of the Legislature is in full flower.

Unfortunately, so is the worst. That side of it was exemplified in the chop block that cut Charlie Beck, the acting (and highly experienced) public counsel, off the short list for a successor to Jack Shreve.

So whom did the legislators on the screening committee consider more qualified to advocate the public interest against the telephone and power companies? One of them is an attorney who said he lost his first job out of law school for "lack of aggressiveness," and whose resume reflects zero experience in public utility issues.

However that must have thrilled the telephone lobbyists who pull the committee's strings, it wasn't why Don Rubottom made the short list.

He's on it because of faithful political service as an aide to Republican House speakers, the latest of whom, Johnnie Byrd, is pushing Rubottom for the public counsel's job. The nominators do not seriously expect him to get it. But it was easier to humor Byrd than to do right by Beck.

Here's news for them, though. Whoever gets the job can expect a very short tenure unless he keeps Beck as his top deputy.

"Personally, I would be shocked and disappointed if whoever was selected did not retain Beck," says Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who will become Senate president in November 2004. There's no mistaking that message.

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