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Session a winner for Bush, GOP

Republicans' legislative clout changes the look of government and gives the governor more power.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2001

Republicans' legislative clout changes the look of government and gives the governor more power.

TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Legislature did more than tinker this spring when they popped open the hood of state government.

They engineered a major overhaul.

From elections to education, from civil service to the judiciary, Republicans used their overwhelming clout in the legislative session that ended Friday night to change how government works and politicians are elected.

The result is a state bureaucracy created over decades when Democrats were in control will look remarkably different. The transformation will be most obvious in Florida's traditionally weak governorship.

Voters enhanced the governor's influence in 1998 by approving a constitutional amendment that will reduce the size of the elected Florida Cabinet in 2003. But the Legislature transferred far more power to state's chief executive.

The governor will have more influence over education policy and the selection of judges. He will have more discretion to fire state workers and award state contracts without competitive bidding. He will have dozens of new appointments to hand out to friends and supporters.

"We've been the loyal soldiers in trying to reform government," House Speaker Tom Feeney said.

The changes come at an opportune time for Bush.

The popular governor endured his toughest legislative session as he prepares to announce his re-election plans in June. His victories were more often compromises than the slam dunks of his previous two years. He suffered his largest legislative loss when his growth management proposal died despite his intervention.

But Bush, a self-described activist governor and just the third Republican governor since Reconstruction, has more power than any of his predecessors to steer the state in the direction he chooses.

"He's like a big octopus," said House Minority Leader Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, "with his big tentacles all over the place."

Republicans reject the notion that their re-engineering of government is a power grab for Bush. They said governors have been held accountable by voters but have not had the proper authority to accomplish all their goals.

"They were blamed for things they didn't have control over," said Sen. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden. "We've empowered the governor."

Bush would be a heavy favorite to win re-election. And lawmakers made it easier.

The Legislature did away with punch card voting machines that have been used for years and were at the center of the presidential election recount controversy. But for the 2002 election it also scrapped the second primary that propelled into office legendary Democrats such as LeRoy Collins, Lawton Chiles and Reubin Askew.

The change means a crowded Democratic primary field could produce a nominee that wins far less than half of the votes. While Bush would be the unchallenged nominee for the Republicans, the Democrats could wind up with a candidate who won over the party's most liberal voters but who would not appeal to moderates in a general election.

Also changed were the rules for public campaign financing. No longer will candidates be able to get public matching money for out-of-state contributions. That will make it more difficult for Democrats to compete with the fundraising machine assembled by Bush, who opposes public campaign financing.

"We made progress in fixing the last election, but we took steps to fix the next election," said Sen. Rod Smith, D-Gainesville.

Countered Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas: "It's simply wrong to expect Florida taxpayers to match campaign dollars donated by people in California or other states."

But Bush built his clearest advantage in the re-inventing of state government.

In education, Bush and Republicans in the Legislature replaced the state Board of Regents that oversees public universities with a system that includes boards of trustees at every school and a seven-member state Board of Education. That opens a door for more patronage for the governor, who will make all 127 appointments.

At the governor's insistence, the Legislature also significantly altered the state's civil service system. More than 16,000 state jobs will be removed from the Career Service System, and managers and supervisors can be fired at the will of the agency heads appointed by the governor.

Lawmakers also changed the screening process for the selection of state judges by diminishing the role of the Florida Bar.

Bush didn't get everything he wanted.

His effort to change the way the state manages growth failed over questions of taxes. Bush wants to require local governments to ensure that enough classrooms are available before approving new housing developments. But legislators disagreed over how school boards would raise tax dollars to pay for more schools.

An initial effort to deregulate the utility industry also was abandoned by the governor in the wake of the crisis in California.

But a legislative session that lacked high-profile issues such as eye-popping tax cuts or popular crime-fighting initiatives will have a lasting effect on government.

"It's been nuts and bolts," Rep. Bob Henriquez, D-Tampa, said of the Republican initiatives. "It almost appears that they want this to be a revolution that happens overnight."

Bush and Republican lawmakers have often expressed their impatience with bringing change to the state since the governor took office in January 1999. Even before the session ended, they were vowing to continue to fight for their initiatives in the coming months.

Sounding like a candidate eager to campaign, the governor pledged to continue his push for changes to growth management laws.

"I'm not going to let it go," Bush said. "We're going to have to come to grips with the fact that we are creating broken dreams by not organizing ourselves properly in communities. People buy homes in areas, they look beautiful. Five years later, they are in double-shifted schools, or they're overcrowded, or their water systems are strained -- the services they expected aren't there. Those things have to be dealt with."

Meanwhile, Senate President John McKay is determined to wade into another politically volatile issue: tax reform.

Almost 15 years have passed since the last major attempt at overhauling the state's tax structure. The Legislature extended the state sales tax to many services in 1987, only to repeal it six months later under pressure from the last Republican governor, Bob Martinez, and an array of powerful business interests.

While Bush is suspicious that tax reform often translates into tax increase, McKay wants to take another shot in next year's legislative session. He plans to make his pitch this week during a speech before the Committee of 100, an influential business group.

"We're going to put together a full campaign," said McKay, R-Bradenton.

The separate priorities set by Bush and McKay reflect the growing independence of Republican legislative leaders. Neither McKay nor Feeney are as wiling to rubber-stamp the governor's agenda as the Legislature did the past two years.

"The governor always has a honeymoon, and the honeymoon is over," said Jon Shebel of Associated Industries, a business lobbying group. "It is a natural progression."

Bush responded to the change in leadership by stepping up his lobbying efforts. The governor and Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan worked as a tag-team on major issues. On many days they spent more time bending lawmakers' ears in their legislative offices and near the chambers than in their first-floor suite.

As a result of those efforts and a new-found willingness to compromise, Bush was able to claim victory on most of his major issues.

The governor settled for $175-million in tax cuts, just more than half of his original request. He won the number of job reductions he wanted only by agreeing that plans to privatize human resources offices will have to be approved later by legislative leaders. He accepted significant compromises on the overhaul of civil service that salvaged the effort and won grudging approval from Democrats.

"Did I want this to happen to start with? No." asked Smith, who helped negotiate the final agreement. "From where we started to where we are we've come along way in protecting employees."

In the back of the committee room where the deal was sealed, Brogan breathed a sigh of relief after days of negotiating.

"A lot of shoe leather," he whispered.

While Bush is the beneficiary, Feeney described the Republican efforts to overhaul government as more philosophical than political.

"If you can do government more efficiently with less folks, if you can reward people who do a better job, if you can run government more like a business, the House has been there with the governor 110 percent of the time," the House speaker said. "I think that's what being a legislator ought to be all about."

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