Revolutionaries at work
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001
The ceremonial opening day of the 2001 legislative session was more revealing than our Tallahassee honorables may have intended it to be.
In his State of the State address, Gov. Jeb Bush called on Floridians to join his "revolution" and attack "the enormity (sic) of the challenges" facing the state. And he told the Legislature's unusually large freshman class to ignore those who counsel them "to slow down . . . and learn the system" before jumping into decisions that can affect the lives of millions of state residents.
With the exception of wild-eyed House Speaker Tom Feeney, our well-fed lawmakers don't look much like revolutionaries, but most of them are following Bush's advice to rush right into things without too much unnecessary thought. Feeney set his agenda Monday in a much more combative speech than the governor's. And by Tuesday, he already had the House speeding along to approve a $300-million package of new tax breaks our strapped state can't afford.
Some nervous Nellies in the Senate were suggesting that it might be better to consider tax breaks later in the session, once lawmakers figure out just how painful the state's $1-billion-plus revenue shortfall will turn out to be. But if you're in the midst of a "revolution," instead of responsible stewardship of the state's business, you shoot first and add numbers later.
The talk of revolution is not just rhetoric for Bush, Feeney and much of the rest of the current Tallahassee hierarchy. Feeney, who fancies himself a constitutional scholar, urged his colleagues this week to support his plainly unconstitutional proposals to strip away the independence of Florida's court system. The House began moving quickly this week to approve some of those changes, too.
Meanwhile, Bush continues to demonstrate that he has no patience for collaborative dialogues that might slow down his "revolution." In the process of overhauling affirmative action, growth management, public school accountability and university organization, the governor has systematically shut any potentially dissenting voices out of the process. And afterward, he wonders aloud why so many people develop what he considers inaccurate perceptions of his intentions.
This is more a matter of management style than ideology. Florida's public schools, universities, growth management laws and affirmative action policies are all logical candidates for meaningful reform, but Bush hasn't even bothered to try to build consensus among the constituencies most affected by any such changes. After all, consensus often takes time and compromise.
Bush's brother, our new president, has a quite different management style. He, too, has strong beliefs, but he often has reached out to those whose own strong beliefs may differ from his. He forged honorable compromises with Democrats as governor of Texas. And while congressional Democrats complain that he closed them out of talks over his tax cut plans, he already has sought out the counsel of his potential adversaries several times in his first weeks in Washington.
It will be interesting to see which Bush style produces more positive results in the long run.
With such a huge Republican advantage in the Legislature, the governor probably can get away with being a revolutionary, at least in terms of winning approval for his agenda. But there are still advantages, personally as well as politically, in seeking common ground, keeping a sense of humor and not taking oneself quite so seriously.
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