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Session's true victor unknown till November

Both parties agree the election will be a referendum on Gov. Jeb Bush and the GOP-led Legislature.

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 7, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- After two months of fighting in the Florida Legislature, Republicans and Democrats finally share the same vision for the future.

Members of both parties say the November election will be a referendum on the first two years of a Florida government unlike any other this century, with Republicans in control of both the Governor's Mansion and the Legislature.

They just disagree about how voters will grade the GOP's performance.

"If I were running," said retiring House Speaker John Thrasher, R-Orange Park, as the annual legislative session wound down Friday, "I would be happy to go out and run on it, I promise you that."

Democrats said they are just as confident that voters disapprove of some of the initiatives by Gov. Jeb Bush and the GOP-led Legislature and that they will win more seats.

"The Republican-controlled Legislature has been critically low-performing," said House Minority Leader Les Miller, D-Tampa, using the term the Bush administration uses to describes schools with low test scores.

Bush will be nearing the midway point of his four-year term and won't be on the ballot this fall. But there will be plenty of campaigns.

All 120 seats of the state House and half of the 40 state Senate seats will be up for grabs. So will two state Cabinet positions, congressional seats, a U.S. Senate seat and the White House.

While Democrats aren't expected to gain much ground in the House, where Republicans hold a 75-45 edge, they could gain ground in Senate. Republicans hold 25 seats to the Democrats' 15, and several races this fall will be in swing districts.

The legislative session that ended Friday was not as eye-catching for voters as last year's, when Bush pushed through virtually all of his initiatives from his 1998 campaign. The relationship between Thrasher and Senate President Toni Jennings of Orlando also was strained as their respective chambers disagreed over environmental legislation and budget issues.

But lawmakers and lobbyists said this fall's campaigns will focus on the entire two-year record.

"We have a memory that goes back to the last Election Day and every vote since then," said Bill Herrle, a lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business, which will print a legislative report card for its members.

Many of the themes voters hear now in the speeches from the candidates for president, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore, will be echoed by legislative candidates.

Florida Republicans brag about a two-year record that includes unprecedented tax cuts and an overhaul of public education that includes holding schools more accountable for student performance.

George W. Bush cut taxes and says he reformed the school system in Texas, and he is campaigning for the White House on the same issues. While he failed to persuade Texas legislators to create tuition vouchers like those Jeb Bush won last year in Florida, the presidential candidate would create a form of federal vouchers for poor-performing schools in low-income areas.

"If you measure what he (George W. Bush) says with what we've done in the last two legislative sessions, we mirror each other," Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas said Saturday. "The policies are pretty much in synch."

Just as George W. Bush is doing nationally, Florida Republicans are reaching out to a variety of constituencies before the fall election.

They passed tax breaks this year supported by big business and wealthy investors. They poured money into public schools and social services. They reached out to African-Americans, who traditionally vote for Democrats, by agreeing to establish a law school at historically black Florida A&M University.

"We are providing leadership here where many times we have been stereotyped for not being for those issues," said House Appropriations Chairman Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie. "Who would have thought a Republican-controlled Legislature would pass a FAMU law school? For years the Democrats, which had blacks as their constituents, stopped it."

The FAMU law school could help temper criticism of Bush and his Republican colleagues over One Florida, the governor's initiative to replace race as a factor in university admissions and state contracting.

A session that began with a march by 11,000 protesters ended with the Legislature quietly approving millions for college scholarships for needy students and revising state contracting policies to help attract more minority businesses.

"We kicked butt," Bush said.

Democrats point out that Republicans have had an advantage the past two years that they didn't in the early '90s. The soaring economy has generated several billion dollars in additional tax revenue, enabling the state to dramatically increase spending, cut taxes and pay for projects like two new law schools and a new medical school.

Democrats also argue that more than $1.5-billion in tax cuts over two years could have been better spent on education, although House Democrats voted unanimously for the state budget Friday. They also continue to fight vouchers, which some opinion polls indicate most Florida voters are against.

"Our priorities would have been a little bit different," said Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach.

Many of the issues Democrats plan to use in state legislative races are the same ones Gore is using in the presidential campaign. They point out that Republicans refuse to consider allowing patients to file lawsuits against health maintenance organizations or requiring trigger locks on guns.

"Election-year window dressing," Miller called a watered-down patients' bill of rights approved by the Legislature that would require HMOs to use doctors to make medical decisions. "The Legislature gave patients the best protection the industry could buy."

Many legislative campaigns also are likely to feature debates about the Republicans' approach to the environment.

Bush and the Legislature extended a popular land-buying program now known as Florida Forever, and they earmarked millions to help restore the Everglades. But they also were heavily criticized by environmental groups and Democrats for considering other initiatives that ranged from weakening growth management laws to handing public land along rivers and steams to private property owners.

Those efforts failed in the session's final hours. Senate Majority Leader Jack Latvala of Palm Harbor helped block the sovereign lands bill from coming up for a vote in the Senate.

Cardenas called Latvala and Jennings in the session's final days to relay his concerns about the attacks on the environment.

"We wanted to make sure we had a clean environmental record," Cardenas said. "We already had been doing a lot of good things."

Latvala agreed.

"That would have been one of the worst things that could have happened," he said of the sovereign lands bill. "The Senate has come through for the environment."

Beyond the policy debates, Democrats plan to portray the Bush administration as too power hungry and too driven by campaign contributions.

Republicans attacked the Florida Supreme Court by vowing to add justices more to their liking, and the state budget does not include any money for additional circuit or county court judges. A study commission dominated by members appointed by legislative leaders will review the Supreme Court's workload and recommend whether more justices are needed.

With Bush's support, the Legislature also voted to abolish the Board of Regents in 2003 and created a new appointed board to oversee state universities and all of education.

Florida's Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, a former governor, and former Chancellor Charles Reed were among those who strongly criticized the overhaul.

Graham, Reed and several regents said the changes would make universities more susceptible to political pressure. Bush brushed off the criticism.

"Who are these people wondering around the halls right now in the Legislature, all of these people who aren't interested in politics?" the governor asked, referring to the army of lobbyists for the universities. "I don't see how it could be any different than it is today."

Others suggest that Florida's general direction will be a factor in the November elections as much as anything Bush and the Republican-led Legislature have done.

"When the economy is going good and everywhere you look there are "Help Wanted' signs," observed lobbyist Curt Kiser, a former Republican legislator, "there are not a lot of issues for voters to get worked up over."

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