Changing times challenge Bush
By STEVE BOUSQUET
© St. Petersburg Times,
TALLAHASSEE -- For three years, Gov. Jeb Bush promoted tax cuts and less government, even as a sputtering economy shadowed him. Now, as the effects of the terrorist hijackings wreak havoc on his tourist-dependent state, Bush's leadership skills will be tested as never before.
A governor who has emphasized less taxes and less government now runs a state where people may soon demand more: More security, more spending, more help for people fearing unemployment. Every passing day brings more news of canceled conventions, deserted air terminals and quiet cash registers in a state where one of four general revenue dollars is tied to tourism.
As Bush plans to convene a special session of the Legislature, he faces financial problems that were festering long before Sept. 11.
"It's not a tourism crisis, it's a statewide crisis," said a Bush ally, state Sen. Alex Villalobos of Miami. "This is bad."
Florida's worsening financial situation is the biggest challenge yet for Bush, 48, who has benefited from a generally strong economy and a pliant, GOP-controlled Legislature. But the troubles in the state's dominant tourist industry could try Bush as Hurricane Andrew tested Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1992 or as the 1980 Mariel boatlift tested Gov. Bob Graham.
Faulted by Democrats for not spending enough on schools and human services, Bush and his allies in the Legislature probably will have to cut deeper to balance the budget, yet spend more in targeted areas such as road-building to create jobs. He also must help airports become more secure while reassuring travelers of the safety and convenience of air travel.
The good times are over.
"It's a lot more fun when times are good and revenue is coming in," a wistful Bush told tourism executives at Amelia Island Thursday. "My biggest fight the past two years has been trying to explain to the Legislature that you can't spend everything, and we need to reserve and give back some to people in our state who have worked really hard. Now, that debate is going to change dramatically. We're going to have to make cutbacks."
The message won't be popular, especially with layoffs and business closures looming.
Bush has two basic options. He can raise taxes or cut spending.
Rejecting a tax increase, Bush said Thursday: "The worst time to raise taxes is when there is a downturn in the economy." That leaves politically painful budget cuts, and probably new criticism from Democrats who say he shouldn't have cut taxes in the first three years of his administration.
Political scientist Lance deHaven-Smith of Florida State University sees Bush as the prisoner of recent circumstances, his own policies and an outmoded state tax system that relies too much on a sales tax that already falls heavily on tourists.
"There's an old saying in Tallahassee: 'Don't tax you, don't tax me, tax the guy behind the tree.' That guy behind the tree is a tourist," deHaven-Smith said.
Florida's Constitution bars deficit spending, prohibits a personal income tax and imposes caps on the property taxes levied by cities and counties. A 6 percent statewide sales tax, the basic source of state general revenue, is full of loopholes, many favoring narrow special interest groups.
Senate President John McKay, R-Bradenton, has been urging a modernization of the tax code, but many fellow lawmakers don't seem interested.
Like most Americans, Bush already seems changed by the events of Sept. 11. He grounded his twin-engine state-owned plane and flew commercial to Miami Saturday to meet with leaders of the state's reeling cruise industry, in a gesture meant to show his confidence in the airlines.
As Bush assembles a plan to deal with a potentially devastating blow to the state's economy, he can lean on a budget cushion of $1-billion set up for such an emergency.
Some of that reserve may be tapped by Bush and lawmakers to make up a $673-million shortfall that existed before the hijackings. But that's only the beginning.
"There's going to be a second wave. We don't know how big or how long," said Dominic Calabro, president of Florida TaxWatch, a group supported by business contributions that advocates "economic freedoms" and "economic prosperity."
Calabro offered some bitter medicine: He said Bush should force the Legislature to make $673-million in cuts in programs in a special session so that the budget reserve is still there to absorb the second wave. The hard choices could complicate Bush's bid for a second term. But at the same time, he could greatly benefit from a sense of unity in his state, which for now has made the divisive presidential election a distant memory.
As the younger brother of President George W. Bush, Jeb Bush symbolizes a familial link to the White House. In a nation bound by unity of purpose, Bush urged Floridians to "support our commander-in-chief."
Partisanship is out. Patriotism is in.
One revealing sign occurred Friday when Democrat Pete Peterson abandoned his campaign for governor. Peterson was wishing good luck to the same Jeb Bush he had promised to "send into retirement."
"Frankly, I hope he's successful," Peterson said Friday. "I'm not wishing this state to suffer any consequences from a lack of leadership."
Three weeks ago, Peterson called Bush a "proven divider." Speaking to 650 Democrats in Gainesville, the former North Florida congressman and U.S. ambassador to Vietnam described a state divided by "region, race and economics," and added, "A divided state can never solve its problems. . . . I am the person who can send Jeb Bush into retirement."
Bush's critics have quieted their rhetoric. But their opinions haven't changed.
"I certainly feel we have to support the president during this period of time. But it doesn't take away from the fact that I have strong disagreements with his economic and social policies," said Marilyn Lenard, president of the Florida AFL-CIO, which opposes tax cuts and sees Bush as an enemy of working people by seeking to privatize parts of the state work force. "I just don't have faith in his policies."
Dozens of St. Augustine residents filled a second-story balcony of a historic building Thursday to take advantage of the rare opportunity to shake the hand of a governor. A woman clutched Bush's hand and said she was praying for him "and your brother, too."
"I think we all need to be empathetic. A lot of people just want to know you care," Bush said, flying back to the capital after a well-received visit with National Guard troops in Jacksonville Thursday.
Supporters say Jeb Bush must be more inclusive than ever, a quality critics have found missing in some of his policy changes.
"It's a time of inclusion, having everybody united, going toward the same goal -- and his brother has set a perfect example," Villalobos said.
That will be tough, predicted deHaven-Smith, associate director of FSU's Florida Institute of Government. "The world has sort of changed out from under everybody," he said. "Jeb is a frugal, ideological Republican, and I'm not sure that's what people are going to want."
- Researchers Deirdre Morrow and Stephanie Scruggs contributed to this report.
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