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Veto hunt may lead to new breed of turkey

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© St. Petersburg Times, published May 31, 2000

Liz Cloud played a vital role under the Florida Constitution on Tuesday. Even her Tallahassee home telephone number was crucial; the governor's office kept it handy just in case it needed to call her back to work before the deadline at midnight.

As it turns out Cloud was able to spend the evening undisturbed. At 4:47 p.m., a staffer from the governor's office rushed into her office in the Eliot Building, across Monroe Street from the state Capitol, bearing a 26-page letter.

The letter was addressed to Cloud's boss, Secretary of State Katherine Harris. Cloud, who joined the Secretary of State's Office in 1966 at the age of 17, calmly took the first page and stamped it with an electric time clock.

The letter began:

Dear Secretary Harris:

By the authority vested in me as Governor of Florida, under the provisions of Article III, Section 8, of the Constitution of the State of Florida, I do hereby withhold my approval of portions of House Bill 2145, enacted during the 102nd Session of the Legislature, since Statehood in 1845 . . .

The next 2 1/2 pages were essentially speech-making, neither required by, nor of any use under, the Constitution. The governor talked about what a fine state budget he was signing into law, with money being spent for education, the Everglades, children, the disabled and new roads.

Finally, the governor got down to the good stuff -- which items in the budget he was going to veto.

Jeb Bush has proved to be a vigorous user of his power to strike individual items from the budget as passed by the Legislature. In each of his first two years, he has vetoed an identical amount, $313-million. This year, that represents 0.6 percent of the total budget of $50.9-billion.

By comparison, the previous governor, Lawton Chiles, vetoed $96.2-million in 1998, his final year in office. The year before, the agreeable Chiles vetoed an even more puny $35.8-million.

The striking thing is that Chiles was a Democrat facing a Legislature run by the opposing party; the more veto-prone Bush is a fellow Republican.

Last year, the Legislature howled. Everybody figured that since they had one of their own as governor, they could spend money as they liked. Instead, the Senate ended up suing Bush and having some of his vetoes wiped out.

The main target of the governor's knife both years have been "turkeys," which is the nickname for pet projects of individual legislators. Instead of going through the state agencies, and having these projects weighed against all others, members use their influence to stick them into the budget directly.

And so Bush vetoed pet projects at museums, schools, arts centers and shuffleboard courts around the state. He vetoed vagus nerve stimulators for Medicaid patients. He vetoed extra money for mosquito control. He vetoed an equestrian center, a scallop hatchery and a pilot project involving compost.

He vetoed money for the Florida International Museum in St. Petersburg and money for graduate medical education at the University of South Florida (the second being a lot more important than the first).

Yet the local Republican legislators I talked to Tuesday were not angry; they said the governor had acted on principle and they respected him for it.

Heck. What fun is it to be a crony when principle is its own reward?

Still, you can't take the politics out of politics. Just as bacteria becomes resistant to antibiotics, so will lawmakers learn how to hide better. Watch for the advent of "super-turkeys," carefully engineered by the Legislature, the bureaucracy bullied into "asking" for them. They will meet all of the governor's terms, but they will be just as big a bunch of gobblers as the old breed. "Reform" is not a one-time job; it is a never-ending turkey hunt.

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