Bush keeps low profile, draws criticism
By ADAM C. SMITH
© St. Petersburg Times,
TALLAHASSEE -- Where was the governor?
The question buzzed throughout the Capitol as lawmakers concluded a grim legislative session unable to do much besides paste a bandage on the state's fiscal crisis.
As top priorities such as enhanced security and economic stimulus plans were thrown into doubt amid sniping and rancor, Gov. Jeb Bush's largely hands-off role looked a lot riskier Tuesday than 10 days ago.
"The general rule in a special session is you don't call 160 people back (to Tallahassee) until you have a firm plan," said state Sen. Locke Burt, R-Ormond Beach.
Instead of submitting his own proposal for lopping $1.3-billion from the state budget, Bush merely suggested general principles -- don't raise taxes, protect the frail and elderly, for instance. Bush said Senate and House leaders asked him not to submit a budget.
But even members of his own party gently questioned the wisdom of Bush taking such a low profile as the session grounded to its messy halt. At the very least, several said, Bush could have worked harder to push his fellow Republicans, Senate President John McKay and House Speaker Tom Feeney, toward compromise.
"The governor and the president and the speaker should have gotten together and come to some agreement, but they never could," said state Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Seminole, suggesting the governor came out slightly tarnished by the session, just as lawmakers did. "I think it reflects on the party as a whole that we couldn't pull this off."
"Everybody looks bad in this," agreed state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor.
Democrats see a big issue in Bush's handling of the budget crisis as the governor prepares to gear up his re-election campaign.
"He gave us no leadership, no idea how to get out of this budget bind," said Sen. Tom Rossin of West Palm Beach, leader of the Senate's 15 Democrats. "He's the governor of Florida. He's the leader of Florida. It's his responsibility to lead the state, especially in times of crisis. Now he's got us into a very serious bind -- and he can't blame anybody but himself."
Florida Democratic Party Chairman Bob Poe labeled Bush "the invisible governor" and made no apologies for Democrats offering few specific budget proposals of their own.
"Jeb is the one who drove us into this ditch. Let him drive us out," Poe said. "He is responsible for the financial difficulties this state finds itself in. This is a pre-Sept. 11th crisis only made worse by Sept. 11th."
In normal legislative sessions, Bush has actively exerted strong influence over budget priorities. After calling this special session, however, he appeared content to be a quiet passenger instead of a driver. It also meant the public would see the Legislature -- not the governor -- proposing cuts to everything from education to health care.
As the impasse between Feeney and McKay solidified, the governor endorsed delaying a cut in Florida's intangibles investment tax. But within minutes after Bush made that call, the House voted to keep the tax cut intact. Democratic state Sen. Daryl Jones of Miami, a candidate for governor, questioned whether Bush and Feeney acted in concert, so he could call for a delay in the tax cut and still keep it in place.
On Tuesday morning, with the legislative wrangling and sniping continuing, Bush tried to be upbeat but didn't mask his exasperation.
"From my perspective, there ought to be a realization that there's a constitutional obligation to be doing this right," Bush said, suggesting that if need be, he would make the cuts himself with his powers as chief executive.
"I have a job to do, and if they (legislators) want me to take that responsibility, I have no problems with that," he said.
Whether the messy legislative session winds up haunting Bush politically, of course, depends largely on how the economy fares in coming months. Then there's the question of whether voters, amid war and anthrax scares, are even paying attention to two little-known legislative leaders in a budget feud.
"It looks to me from the sidelines that the governor needed to be a bit more proactive on this one. The question is going to be how this plays out in public," said University of Florida political scientist Richard Scher. "If the public perceives that the governor was more notable for his absence and his distance than his leadership, he may have to account for that."
A number of lawmakers dismissed the suggestion that Bush deserves blame for the inability of the Legislature to reach consensus.
"The lieutenant governor and the governor were trying to work through it ... but ultimately it's up to the Legislature," said state Rep. Mario Diaz Balart, R-Miami. "The governor tried to mediate, but there was a huge difference in opinion as to how deep this problem was."
Feeney likewise dismissed the suggestion that the Legislature embarrassed the governor.
"We have worked out a deal -- it wasn't a perfect deal, but we haven't embarrassed anybody," Feeney said.
The governor won't necessarily stay on the sidelines long over the budget troubles.
Now he has to decide whether lawmakers did enough to patch the budget and whether and how fast more action is necessary.
Said Feeney: "The governor has some tough decisions to make. If he believes the shortfall is bigger than $800-million -- he will have to act."
-- Times staff writers Steve Bousquet, Julie Hauserman, Lucy Morgan and Alisa Ulferts contributed to this report.
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