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    Our Legislature may bring an unpredicted storm of changes

    By PHILIP GAILEY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001


    Next to the hurricane season, the convening of the Florida Legislature has become the most dangerous time of the year. Some years, the politicians in Tallahassee pose a greater threat to the state than do hurricanes, and the damage is not covered by insurance. Both are unpredictable, and they often bring surprises. We've still got three months until the hurricane season officially begins, but the Legislature blows into session on Tuesday. We had better brace ourselves. Even by the standards of recent years, it could be a doozy if the Republican majority has its way. And it probably will, given the weak and often ineffective Democratic opposition.

    It will be a season of tax cuts and budget cuts, of fuzzy math and scuzzy dealmaking, of court-bashing and teeth-gnashing. The fat budget surpluses of recent years are rapidly disappearing and, with the state facing a shortfall in projected revenue, the Republican leadership is about to show its true priorities. For them, that's easy: Tax cuts first, then everything else.

    There will be cuts in Healthy Start, the prenatal program for low-income mothers, and other social services. However, there will be money to finance another round of tax cuts, $285-million worth. This would be on top of the $1.5-billion in tax cuts enacted in the past two years. We also can expect legislation that would give businesses essentially a dollar-for-dollar tax break for their donations to private school vouchers. The Republican budget tells public schools that times are tough and everyone has to share the pain. In real dollars, the public schools would get no new money in this year's budget. Everyone knows Florida, like most other states, is facing a critical shortage of teachers in the years ahead, but lawmakers are like Scarlett O'Hara: They'll think about that tomorrow. After all, tomorrow is another day.

    There's one problem, however, that can't wait until tomorrow: the need to modernize Florida's broken voting system, the one that made us a laughingstock in last year's presidential election. Everyone agrees that it has to be fixed, but with the state budget under stress, the question is whether lawmakers will try to do it on the cheap, as they do so many other things.

    It's anyone's guess what ultimately will emerge from the Republicans' efforts to rewrite the state's growth management laws. Environmentalists and conservationists have reason to worry, as do all Floridians. Something is out there crashing around in the forest, but no one is yet sure what it looks like. Let's hope it's not a legislative monster that will spoil what's left of Florida's fragile ecosystem.

    The assault on higher education began last year, with the abolition of the Board of Regents and the approval of two new law schools and a medical school the state doesn't need, and this year should be a clean-up operation. Crucial details of Gov. Jeb Bush's reorganization of the university system still need to be worked out, but it is a given that the final plan will put more power in the governor's hands -- and probably more politics into our universities. This is a crucial time for public universities in Florida, and lawmakers have a responsibility to make sure this reorganization does not lead to turmoil and controversy that could further diminish the state's reputation in higher education.

    Under the leadership of House Speaker Tom Feeney (our Tom DeLay), conservatives will be taking aim at the Florida Supreme Court, which is in bad odor among Republicans for its rulings on abortion, the death penalty and last November's presidential recount. As Feeney sees it, the court is too damned independent for its own good. An independent judiciary -- what a horrifying thought! One pernicious constitutional amendment Feeney is carrying for the Christian Coalition and its allies would, among other things, make it easier for a minority of voters to get rid of a Supreme Court justice in a retention election. Under this proposal, any justice who didn't win at least two-thirds of the votes cast would be kicked off the court.

    Who knows what hidden agendas will be at play in this session? We are in Year 3 of total Republican rule in Tallahassee. In his first two years in office, hefty budget surpluses allowed Gov. Bush to afford his tax cuts and substantial spending increases in social programs that provide services to families and children and the elderly. But this year, our most vulnerable citizens didn't fare so well. Money is tight, and priorities change. We'll know soon enough who the winners and losers will be when this Legislature finishes its work just a few weeks before the hurricane season begins.

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