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Republicans buck Bush agenda

Term limits are forcing many lawmakers out and causing some Republicans to "push the envelope.''

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 2, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Rain threatened to fall from the darkening sky, and bunting hung from the balconies of the George Bush Republican Center as the son of the renovated building's namesake addressed the adoring crowd.

"People around the country are looking at us, they really are," Gov. Jeb Bush said one evening last week at the dedication of the sprawling new headquarters of the Florida Republican Party. "They're looking at Florida, sometimes with admiration, sometimes saying, "Man, they're doing stuff that is really out there. They have courage. They have the courage of their convictions, and they're not being cautious about it.' I like that."

But three blocks up the hill, Republican legislators in the state Capitol have thrown so much caution to the wind even the governor and some of their colleagues are uncomfortable. Their own issues could give the GOP more election-year trouble than any maneuvering by Democrats.

Several Republican-backed bills would relax growth management laws and give publicly owned land along lakes, rivers and streams to private property owners. But Bush has not embraced the most dramatic growth management changes and has not taken a position on the lands issue.

Proposed amendments to the state Constitution would add justices to the Florida Supreme Court and hand legislators more control of court procedure. Those efforts are primarily backed by Republicans upset that some of their legislative initiatives, from tuition vouchers to streamlined appeals in death penalty cases, are tied up in the courts.

Then there's the sweeping overhaul of the state university system unveiled last week that would give the governor even more control over education than envisioned by a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1998. It's supported by legislative leaders but opposed by university system Chancellor Adam Herbert, who said he believes lawmakers are moving too fast.

"There are several things that push the envelope," observed Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville.

The governor, legislative leaders and the state Republican Party chairman downplay the possibility that the most ambitious proposals affecting the environment, the courts and the universities will become law as they are written. Those Republicans point out that the 60-day legislative session is just nearing the halfway point, and they say Republicans should be judged by the quality of what becomes law rather than initial proposals.

"The purpose of the Legislature is to consider all of the possibilities, even those that may be considered outrageous by mainstream Florida," Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas said. "I think it's healthy to talk about all of this stuff. I don't get the sense much is going to happen."

Recalling Gingrich lesson

Just the consideration of the most sweeping changes has captured most of the media attention. A side benefit for the GOP has been to steer public attention away from the controversy over One Florida, Bush's initiative to replace affirmative action in university admissions and state contracting that brought 11,000 protesters to the capital on the legislative session's opening day.

But also forced into the background are broadly supported initiatives that Republicans expect to campaign on in the fall. They include restoration of the Everglades, more money for schools and roads, and tax cuts.

At the same time, the more controversial proposals have united Democrats in the Legislature. The Democrats lack the votes to defeat legislation but portray Republicans as arrogant and power-hungry.

Last week, a group of three dozen Democrats who held a news conference to protest changes to the Supreme Court included a conservative from North Florida, moderates from Central Florida and liberals from South Florida.

"Many of you might ask, "What is a farmer from North Florida doing standing here defending the court system?' " said Rep. Dwight Stansel, D-Wellborn. "These plans are troubling to me. They border on radical, and they're giving me heartburn, I don't mind telling you."

Some observers compare the situation to Congress after the 1994 elections, when Republicans took control of the U.S. House, installed Newt Gingrich as speaker and pursued an agenda that proved so aggressive and unpopular it cost them seats in the next two elections.

"Newt Gingrich's Contract With America should have taught all of us a political lesson," said Rep. Bob Henriquez, D-Tampa. "When you try to do too much too fast, it winds up hurting you. I think you could draw some analogies."

Selling agenda to voters

Florida Republicans were ambitious last year, too, but there was a difference.

Bush, the energetic new governor, had just taken office and aggressively pushed through the Legislature the cornerstones of his campaign agenda: An overhaul of public education, an extension of a popular land-buying program and longer prison sentences for gun-carrying criminals.

This year, Republican legislators, not the governor, are the strongest advocates of many of the most far-reaching, most controversial proposals.

When Democrats occupied the Governor's Mansion and controlled the Legislature as firmly as Republicans do now, they also embraced fundamental changes in areas such as the tax code and growth management.

In the 1970s, then-Gov. Reubin Askew persuaded the Legislature and then voters to embrace the corporate income tax. In the 1980s, then-Gov. Bob Graham and Democratic lawmakers pushed through far-reaching growth management laws. They also laid the groundwork for the tax on services, which Republican Gov. Bob Martinez signed into law in 1987 and then successfully advocated its repeal after public criticism.

In most cases, some legislators and independent observers contend, the Democrats spent more time selling the initiatives to voters and interest groups before enacting them. The criticism that some Republican legislators are moving too quickly without building consensus is the same charge that was leveled against Bush about his One Florida proposal.

Lance deHaven-Smith, associate director of the Florida Institute of Government at Florida State University, said some of the Republicans' rush to enact broad changes reflects pent-up frustration after decades of being the minority party in state government.

Bush is just the third Republican governor since Reconstruction, and he is the first to work with a Republican-controlled Legislature.

"They just have had these windows where they wanted to get in and get what they could," deHaven-Smith said. "They have the business approach, which isn't the consultative approach."

Shunning compromise

Term limits, which kick in for the first time this year, are another contributing factor to the push for big initiatives.

More than 50 House members and nearly a dozen senators will be forced into retirement by the eight-year term limit approved by voters in 1992. For some of them, there is little incentive to compromise this year when they know they won't be around next year to bite off another piece of the same issue.

Describing what motivates some of her colleagues this year, Senate President Toni Jennings, R-Orlando, said, "It's not projects. It's not "I'm going to get a building named after me or something.' "

For years, Republican Rep. George Albright of Ocala has been an outspoken critic of growth management. Now in his last legislative session because of term limits, he is sponsoring the most sweeping overhaul of those laws. He contends journalists and environmentalists have conspired to use scare tactics to shape public opinion against even minor changes.

"I am not a demon," Albright said last week, acknowledging he would not be so outspoken without term limits looming. "I wouldn't be a wild, wild man. But my position has always been the same."

House Speaker John Thrasher, R-Orange Park, and other Republican leaders said they will not put Bush in an awkward position by sending him legislation that does not have broad appeal. The governor has remained in the background on most of the very controversial issues while promoting education, transportation and the Everglades.

"Those are the issues for conservatives in November," Bush said in a brief interview. "We'll take that to the hoop."

There may be a reason Bush has not taken the lead on the more volatile issues, deHaven-Smith said.

"It seems to me he lets some legislators carry the water, lets them stake out extreme positions," he said, "and then he comes back in as the moderate."

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