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    A Times Editorial

    Poor priorities

    Legislators should look for ways to help Florida's schoolchildren, the elderly and struggling families, not focus on tax breaks while cutting social services.

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001


    Having been fortunate to have governed the past two years in times of plenty, Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Legislature face a tougher test of their priorities this year. On Tuesday, they open the 2001 session not knowing how they will pay for schools and roads and programs for the elderly and the poor. Yet House Speaker Tom Feeney wants to spend the first week granting tax breaks to corporations and people of relative affluence.

    Is this to be their legacy?

    The Feeney tax breaks are consistent with the agenda of the governor, who over the past two years has pushed through $1.5-billion in tax cuts and wants $300-million more this year. But the order of the legislative agenda is instructive. Before lawmakers are asked to drop 20,000 poor women from the Healthy Start program, to leave 55,000 children without pre-kindergarten help, to give universities no new money to grow, to try to recruit 160,000 new teachers with a salary well below the national average, they will be asked to give away some money. They want to reduce yet again the state intangibles tax, 64 percent of which is paid by people and corporations with holdings exceeding $1-million.

    "The question is: Who is our commitment to in this state?" asks Lois Frankel, the House Democratic leader. "Is it to the children who are going to school . . . to our growing group of retirees . . . to working people who have two jobs and no health insurance . . . or is it really to the upper echelon of society?"

    In both the budget and the policies, this session may help to separate the rhetoric of the new Capitol leadership from the reality of its actions:

    School vouchers. Gov. Bush two years ago pushed a system of school vouchers with the expressed intent of using them to spur public schools to do a better job of teaching students. Under his plan, vouchers were to be used only when schools failed. Now the House and Senate are both pushing a plan to give vouchers to students in overcrowded schools. How does that possibly square with the governor's A+

    plan rhetoric? In Pinellas, for example, the most overcrowded high school is rated an A. Wouldn't vouchers for those students undercut the governor's A+ incentives? More glaring, the overcrowding problem is purely a function of money, construction and development practices -- none of which teachers have any control over. The blame for overcrowding rests almost entirely with the Legislature itself, which tried to answer the problem in 1997 with a plan that relied on extensive borrowing and burdensome state rules.

    School tax credits. Feeney supports a corporate tax break that would essentially give businesses back a dollar in tax for every dollar they give to private schools. The impact on public schools is mind-boggling, because the state could lose up to $1.2-billion in tax revenue that then would be redirected to private schools. Supporters have said they want to give more educational opportunities to students, but their rhetoric was challenged in a House committee when Republicans rejected an amendment to extend the same tax breaks to companies that give to public schools. This is a blatant attempt to siphon huge amounts of public money into private schools with no accountability and represents legislative mischief on a grand scale.

    Strong universities. Phil Handy, a political friend of the governor, headed up a task force that is determined to dismantle the university regents system. When asked why, he says the universities are failing. But there is no demonstration that any of the academic deficiencies that Handy cites relate to the system of governance. So Handy and Gov. Bush are trading one system for another, with all the attendant instability such change creates, for what amounts to little more than a whim. In the meantime, the universities continue to see their budgets, in real dollars, decline.

    Development growth. Though Bush, Feeney and Senate President John McKay all say they want to protect the state from the ill effects of urban sprawl and unplanned development growth, they are all pushing a change in the landmark 1985 Growth Management Act with no legislative consensus. The task force that Bush appointed spent so much time fretting over the complexity of growth regulation that it acted as though state oversight is frivolous. The kind of responsible growth to which Bush speaks can be accommodated with a responsible government budget to pay for roads and sewers and schools and other necessary services.

    The courts. Speaker Feeney says he wants "a court more respectful of the law and the Constitution," but what he really means is that he wants the courts to subscribe to his political view of the world. The judiciary, however, exists largely for the opposite reason: It is intended to be a constitutional check on the power of the legislative branch. If the two always agreed, then there would be no reason for one of them. Those who are truly "respectful of the law and the Constitution" will want to steer clear of Feeney's attack on the courts.

    Term limits have cleared out a generation of politicians, bringing 64 new lawmakers to the Capitol this year. Though they may arrive with different political ideologies and party affiliations, they have a chance to bring a fresh approach. They can reject the partisan games, they can refuse the lobbyists, they can insist that legislative issues be considered on their individual merits and not tied to other bills or other considerations. They can agree to debate their differences openly and with respect.

    In the session of 2001, freshmen and sophomores will begin to make their mark, to establish their own legislative value systems. Their leaders will be telling them to give tax breaks and school vouchers and not to worry about the impact on public schools, to attack the court system and turn the universities upside down, to let cities guide development growth again -- to legislate in ways that could fairly be described as radical.

    But that's not what Florida needs. It needs lawmakers who make schoolchildren, struggling families and livable communities their priorities. It needs lawmakers who will end the fiction that tax breaks will make Florida great.

    For a better Florida: An annual preview of the legislative session

    Little spared in Bush's proposed budget cuts (February 25, 2001)

    Growing out of control (February 25, 2001)

    The university system teetering on the edge (February 18, 2001)

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