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    Bush’s wishes buffeted

    The Legislature shows signs of rejecting or scaling back many of the governor's initiatives.

    By TIM NICKENS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 9, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- For two years, the Republican-led Florida Legislature bent over backward to make sure the new Republican in the Governor's Mansion looked like a winner.

    Not this year.

    Halfway through the legislative session, many of Gov. Jeb Bush's priorities are in danger of being rejected or scaled back.

    Gov. Jeb Bush’s agenda

    Facing trouble

    • Tax cuts
    • Nursing home fixes
    • Privatization of some services
    • Growth management
    • Electricity deregulation

    Looking good

    • Election reform
    • Civil service changes
    With a new chief of staff and no high-profile staff lobbyists, Bush and Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan are personally battling for their agenda. Bush held a series of one-on-one private meetings with Republican legislative leaders last week. Brogan intervened in at least one Senate committee meeting and held a private strategy meeting with lobbyists for the governor's agencies Friday afternoon.

    As Bush discussed his legislative agenda during an unpublicized speech last week before business leaders at the private Governor's Club, he mentioned his admiration for former Democratic Gov. LeRoy Collins. Widely regarded as Florida's best governor, Collins helped create the state's modern higher education system and kept Florida relatively calm during the civil rights struggles of the late '50s.

    Bush recently ordered Collins' portrait be hung outside his Capitol office after it was taken down to make room for Gov. Buddy MacKay's portrait in the hallway that features paintings of the most recent governors.

    "The times have changed, but the need to look over the horizon to prepare for the great challenges that lie ahead make my admiration for Gov. Collins relevant," Bush explained later. "He is a role model for an activist governor trying to transform institutions for the better."

    But Bush is having a tougher time this spring persuading the Legislature to go along with some of his proposals.

    Bush, who is expected to announce his re-election plans later this spring, wants more than $300-million in tax cuts. Senate President John McKay doesn't want any cuts and is deadlocked with House Speaker Tom Feeney, who wants even deeper tax cuts than the governor.

    An electric deregulation proposal by a governor's task force appears to be dead in the wake of California's brown-outs following deregulation there. The centerpiece of Bush's growth management proposal, which would require schools to have room for more students before new subdivisions could be approved, was nearly killed by a House committee last week and has not been endorsed yet by McKay.

    Meanwhile, the fate of Bush's bid to ease a nursing home crisis is uncertain. So is his effort to privatize some state services.

    The outlook is brighter for other Bush priorities.

    His proposed overhaul of the state's civil service system is very much alive, although it has provoked a national fight with labor unions. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney will join busloads of protesters today at the Capitol.

    Bush also is pushing election reforms that are expected to include money for new voting machines in response to the presidential election recount.

    But the GOP-led Legislature is acting more independently than it did in the past two years. In the first half of his term, Bush's campaign pledges to cut taxes, toughen penalties for crimes committed with guns, extend a popular land-buying program and overhaul public education all became law.

    "Unlike previous years and previous sessions," said Senate Majority Leader Jim King, R-Jacksonville, "no one has pre-ordained that Jeb has to win at all costs."

    The state's slowing economy, a turnover in legislative leaders and the maturation of the Republican Party as the solid majority in the state Capitol are making life more difficult for Bush.

    The budget battle is taking center stage.

    With tax revenues soaring because of the booming economy, Bush and the Legislature were able to cut taxes by more than $1.5-billion over the past two years and still significantly increase spending in education and social services.

    Now it's much tougher to cut taxes without cutting or reducing programs prized by social service advocates and educators. Tax revenues haven't grown as much and Medicaid costs have soared.

    McKay and the Senate reacted by steering more money into some social services and education and rejecting -- for now -- any tax cuts.

    Feeney and the House would cut taxes by more than $350-million but spend less on some social services and in education.

    Democrats argue that Bush and House Republicans favor tax cuts over meeting education and social service needs. The Democrats are bolstered by McKay and other Senate Republicans who have said the state cannot afford significant tax cuts advocated by the governor.

    "Now there are people besides Democrats questioning his proposals," said House Minority Leader Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach.

    The argument irritates Bush and Republican House members. They point out overall state spending still will grow by about 5 percent. They contend there is enough money to cut taxes and meet the needs of the state.

    "I'm not trying to win a public relations argument," Bush said last week. "I'm trying to defend a solid principle that government shouldn't grow faster than our ability to pay for it, that personal income growth should grow faster than government and that we should fund our priorities."

    But the governor and state lawmakers have become increasingly sensitive about how the budget battle is characterized by the media.

    Last week, Bush e-mailed a Palm Beach Post reporter and demanded to know why a story talked of millions in cuts to the budget. "He's frustrated by how it's being portrayed," said Katie Baur, Bush's communications director.

    Feeney and other Republican House members lectured reporters on how to portray education spending. McKay opened one Senate session with an unusual critique of published reports that the Senate might compromise and support some tax cuts.

    At the same time, the Florida Republican Party aired radio ads in the Tampa Bay area that tout education spending increases and rising test scores during Bush's first two years. The ads pass off criticism by Democrats and teacher unions of this year's proposed tax cuts and marginal spending increases in education as "political attacks that ignore the facts."

    "We made a promise and got elected because we are for less taxes, less government and more individual freedom," said Feeney, R-Oviedo.

    Feeney was Bush's running mate in Bush's unsuccessful 1994 campaign for governor. McKay is the governor's occasional golfing partner. But neither man is as personally close to Bush as John Thrasher of Jacksonville, who as House speaker the last two years made sure the governor got what he wanted.

    Legislators and lobbyists say Feeney and particularly McKay are more independent and more willing to pursue their own legislative agendas than their predecessors. But both legislative leaders predict Bush will fare well this legislative session, which is scheduled to end May 4.

    "Many of the principles he is espousing now will do quite well in the Legislature," said McKay, R-Bradenton. "That doesn't mean they will be rubber-stamped."

    This isn't the first time a governor has run into trouble with members of his own political party in the Legislature.

    Democratic governors such as Bob Graham and Lawton Chiles also experienced defeats when the Legislature was controlled by their party. In the '90s, Chiles never persuaded lawmakers to endorse his most sweeping proposals for tax reform and health care even though Democrats controlled one or both chambers.

    "The Legislature always has been very independent," said Jim Krog, Chiles' former chief of staff. "We got hammered a lot more by the Democrats than we did by the Republicans."

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