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Bush suffers vouchers defeat

The governor's party splits, handing Democrats and the teachers union a stunning victory.

By LETITIA STEIN and STEVE BOUSQUET
Published May 2, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - Four Republican senators delivered a crushing political defeat to Gov. Jeb Bush on Monday by refusing to ask voters to rescind a recent court decision that struck down some private-school vouchers.

In denying Bush his top legislative priority as he prepares to leave office, the GOP defections produced a stunning victory for Democrats and the state teachers union.

The vote came four days after the Republican-controlled Senate could not muster enough votes for a proposal to weaken the voter-approved class size amendment.

Monday's voucher vote followed an exhaustive day of lobbying and was the latest casualty of an increasingly bitter fight among Republican senators over future control of the chamber. Up until the last minute, Bush was placing phone calls to members of his own party, trying to persuade them to put a centerpiece of his education agenda in the state Constitution.

One of those calls went to Miami Republican Sen. Alex Villalobos, who was fired as Senate majority leader for voting against the measure. The 23-16 tally fell one short of the 24 votes Bush needed.

"I am disappointed that the citizens of Florida were not given an opportunity to be heard," Bush said in a statement. He said opposing senators "turned their backs" on the 30,000 students in his voucher programs.

The Republican spoilers were Sens. Dennis Jones of Treasure Island, Nancy Argenziano of Dunnellon, Evelyn Lynn of Ormond Beach and Villalobos.

The same four Republicans voted last week against watering down voter-approved class sizes, derailing another major party priority this year.

One Democrat, Sen. Al Lawson of Tallahassee, crossed party lines in support of Bush's voucher plan.

Tampa Bay area senators who voted for the voucher bill included Senate President Tom Lee, R-Valrico; Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa; Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland; Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey; and Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg. Voting no was Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa.

As Senate debate drew to a close Monday evening, Lee was already on the phone from the rostrum with Bush, who Lee said was "very disappointed" with the result.

"I'm disappointed that I wasn't able to get this done for the governor," Lee said. "I couldn't deliver today, and I'm disappointed."

Minutes later, Lee demanded that Villalobos step down as Senate majority leader.

"If you're the governor, you got to be scratching your head and thinking 'What now?' " said Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, calling this an awkward moment for Republicans. "You'd have to look at it and say, basically we got shot down by Republicans."

The Republican breakaways offered no apologies. From the start of the legislative session, Jones made it clear that it would not endorse vouchers. Others considered the language too broad and criticized the Legislature for seeking too many constitutional changes.

"Quit using public money to send our kids to private schools," said Jones, the only Republican to rise to debate in opposition.

With Republicans split, teachers union leaders claimed victory over the governor they have battled for years. "He probably overreached a bit in his attempts to get vouchers through here," said Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association. "It's a shame that we had to go to a six-and-a-half year court fight and now another fight in the Legislature in order to affirm the importance of public schools."

Bush made vouchers a cornerstone of his education overhaul after taking office and has advanced three separate programs. He has reason to worry about their future.

The Florida Supreme Court in January threw out the nation's first statewide voucher program, saying it violated a constitutional prohibition on spending state money on private schools.

The decision affected only 733 students from failing public schools. But advocates say it has jeopardized other voucher programs. They consider at risk everything from long-standing financial support for private universities to state-funded prekindergarten classes in private schools.

"The court has actually taken away from us the ability to make public policy," said Sen. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, the amendment's sponsor. "We have got to take it back."

But critics said the proposed amendment went too far in asking voters to grant the Legislature broad authority to create voucher programs "without regard to the religious nature of any participant."

Sen. Steve Geller, D-Hallandale Beach, predicted a nightmare scenario where any religious group could demand public dollars.

Polls show that a solid majority of Floridians don't like the idea of spending public money at private schools, at least when it comes to failing schools. Democrats especially are opposed.

But Bush sees vouchers as a matter of fairness. He thinks they give poor families the same opportunities afforded to middle-class children. He sees the threat of students leaving public classrooms as a way to force improvements in the schools.

Race, as well as party divisions, factored in the debate. Most of the children receiving vouchers in Florida are black and Hispanic. In the week leading up to the vote, a political advertising campaign targeted black Democratic senators that were considered swing votes.

Ultimately, one black Democrat broke ranks. Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, used his vote to improve his district's take in the state budget.

Democrats had hoped to hold onto his vote, but they emerged winners from the splits in the Republican caucus. The deepening divisions in the Senate Republican caucus have begun to worry House Speaker Allan Bense, R-Panama City, who expressed concern that important legislation may fall victim to another round of infighting.

"I certainly do hope that political power and ambitions don't override good public policy," Bense told reporters.

Times staff writers Jennifer Liberto, Alex Leary and Joni James contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.

[Last modified May 2, 2006, 06:25:01]


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