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Jim Davis for governor

By Times editorial
Published October 29, 2006


For eight years, Gov. Jeb Bush and the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature have been largely unchecked while advancing a conservative agenda in areas such as standardized testing in public schools, tax cuts and the privatization of government services. Now it is time to restore some measure of political and ideological balance in Tallahassee. In our judgment, that goal can be best accomplished by electing Jim Davis as governor.

Both Davis and Charlie Crist are from Tampa Bay, and we know them well. They are decent, ethical men whose strengths and shortcomings are familiar to us. At times, each has been underestimated. Neither possesses Bush's political skills or penchant for pursuing big ideas. Both would be more receptive to suggestions from outside their inner circles and more open to compromise than the outgoing governor.

Davis best reflects Florida's mainstream values. Over eight years in the state House and a decade in Congress, he has methodically built a centrist record of supporting available and affordable health care, protecting the environment and improving public education. The 49-year-old Tampa Democrat has never been among the most partisan or the most vocal, and he is more comfortable working behind the scenes than grabbing headlines. But do not mistake his low-key approach for a lack of determination. In Tallahassee, he helped persuade his colleagues to ban fundraising during the legislative session. He first ran for Congress as an underdog in a crowded Democratic primary and won against several better-known opponents. And in Washington, he fought hard against those who wanted to drill off Florida's coast and intervene in the Terri Schiavo feeding tube controversy. While we did not recommend him in the Democratic primary for governor, Davis impressed us by aggressively responding to millions of dollars in negative, sometimes misleading attack ads by the sugar industry.

Looking ahead, Florida faces serious challenges even if it manages to avoid a major hurricane in the next year or two. On the most pressing issues, Davis has the more thoughtful approach.

The Democrat has a reasoned plan to restructure the way Florida measures the performance of its schools. The obsession with standardized testing and grading schools has frustrated many teachers and parents. Davis would transform the FCAT into a diagnostic tool instead of a punishing club by abolishing the letter grades that simplistically label schools. Students would get their FCAT tests back, along with study guides to help them address their weaknesses. And Davis would add more variables when evaluating a school, including parental involvement, school discipline and graduation rates. While both Davis and Crist would raise teacher salaries, Crist is a strong supporter of the current FCAT testing. It's encouraging that the former education commissioner is open to fine-tuning the system, but he has not offered specifics.

Similarly, Davis has the most thorough response to concerns about high taxes driven by soaring real estate prices and the inherent inequities created by Save Our Homes. Davis would reduce state-required school property taxes by $1-billion next year and stop the state from continuing to shift its financial obligations onto the backs of local property owners. He would cap assessment increases at 10 percent for owners of businesses and investment properties, the taxpayers who are suffering the most. That offers reasonable relief until there is a broader overhaul of the tax system.

In contrast, Crist would not do anything immediately for business owners or owners of investment properties. He wants to allow counties to double the $25,000 homestead exemption, and he would let homeowners take their Save Our Homes tax break with them if they move. Doubling the homestead could force cuts in services by local governments, and making the Save Our Homes tax break portable only exacerbates its unfairness. These ideas have little support even among other Republicans.

Neither candidate has the perfect solution for solving the property insurance crisis. Davis offers a more creative approach to spread the risk by requiring all policyholders to pay part of their premium into a state fund that would cover hurricane damages. The governor and Cabinet would determine the coverage limits; private insurers would keep a portion of the premium to cover other risks and process all claims. This is an intriguing concept, but it would require more analysis of the potential financial risk to the state and to taxpayers. Crist supports a widely accepted plan to make it easier for insurers to tap into the Hurricane Catastrophe Fund for reinsurance, but that might not be enough to ease the crisis. His proposal to force auto insurers who sell homeowners coverage in other states to sell it in Florida is a nice sound bite, but it might not be legal and it could create new problems with auto insurance.

Crist has grown as a leader since he drew attention as a state senator a decade ago by promoting the return of prison chain gangs. His willingness to consider ideas generated by others and to reconsider his positions can be refreshing. For example, he recently said he now supports the automatic restoration of civil rights for convicted felons. But his political agility also can be frustrating. As attorney general, he remained silent during the Schiavo controversy and this year's insurance debate in the Legislature. As a candidate for governor, he now says he disagreed with Bush and Republican lawmakers who attempted to intervene in the Schiavo case. He said last week he probably would have vetoed the insurance bill that Bush signed into law, then backed off a day later.

The 50-year-old St. Petersburg Republican has an appealing populist streak, and he does not get bogged down in divisive social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. He exceeded expectations as attorney general, hiring good people, fighting utility rate increases and persuading the Legislature to expand the office's authority to pursue civil rights violations. While Crist has an approachable style that is appealing, his eagerness to please everyone could be a handicap as the state faces harder choices.

Our decision in this race did not come easily, and the general election campaign has not been nearly as substantive or engaging as we had hoped. What is clear is that Florida is more moderate than the rhetoric and policies coming from the Republican-controlled state capital often suggest. The state's most immediate challenges demand solutions that are more pragmatic than partisan or ideological, and finding those answers will require a governor who can provide some political balance in Tallahassee.

Davis offers the best opportunity to steer state government back toward the middle and the most substantive approach to addressing the pressing issues facing Florida. In a close call between two public servants from Tampa Bay, the Times recommends Jim Davis for governor.

Opportunity to reply: The Times offers candidates not recommended by its editorial board an opportunity to reply. The candidate not recommended should send his response no later than 5 p.m. Tuesday to Philip Gailey, editor of editorials, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731. Fax: (727) 893-8675. They also can be sent through our Web site at Replies are limited to 200 words.

[Last modified October 28, 2006, 10:02:24]

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