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As the smoke clears, watch for the real bad news

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© St. Petersburg Times, published December 4, 2000

The government likes to release bad news when it thinks the citizens aren't paying attention. The optimum time is just before 5 p.m. on a Friday that begins a holiday weekend.

For the past four weeks, however, the government has had an even better smokescreen -- the all-consuming battle over the presidency.

Florida's leaders have even joked publicly about not getting any bad press while the big national story is going on. At a meeting of the governor and Cabinet on Nov. 16, the week after the election, Gov. Jeb Bush laughingly dared his colleagues to try to make the headlines.

"You can't match controversy right now," Bush said. "I dare you to become controversial. Please -- some controversy!"

Tom Gallagher, our state education commissioner, replied: "This is the time to do it because nobody would notice."

Well, let's look at one of the recent announcements from Gallagher's office, namely, the fact that Florida's latest graduation rate was 62.3 percent.

Sixty-two percent! Wooooooooo, doggie! That is something to write home about.

Oh, by the way, Gallagher announced this tidbit on Nov. 14 -- the same day as Katherine Harris' deadline for recounts in the presidential race.

A week later, on Nov. 21, with the controversy still flying, Gallagher's office had a new announcement:

* * *

TALLAHASSEE -- Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher today released the results of the October 2000 High School Competency Test (HSCT), which show that the percent of 11th-grade students passing the test in October is slightly lower than the percent in October 1999.

* * *

Crummy graduation rates! Low test scores! At this rate, they're going to start confessing to dead bodies in the basement.

But let's don't pick on Gallagher. What about our governor, Jeb Bush? Do you remember what a big deal he made, a few months ago, of protecting the gentle manatee? Well, forget it.

On Thursday, we learned that Bush and the Cabinet had flip-flopped and approved a yacht club project in Sarasota County that they had earlier blocked in the name of protecting manatees.

Oh, and did you also see the news Thursday about the Cabinet discussing our state debt? Here's the story from one of our capital reporters, Diane Rado:

* * *

Like a college kid with a first credit card, state lawmakers have been on a borrowing spree over the last decade -- tripling Florida's debt to pay for new schools and environmental and transportation projects.

The state's indebtedness grew from $5.8-billion to $18-billion in 10 years, while lawmakers were handing out tax breaks and approving special-interest projects that soak up taxpayer money.

To pay off the debt, Florida is now spending $1.17-billion a year . . . Florida doesn't have the capacity to take on new debt until 2003, according to the analysis.

* * *

Want more? How about the fact that Florida didn't get around until after the election to the final disastrous prediction about Medicaid -- a bill soaring to $996-million, not the $600-million predicted earlier?

"When all those (satellite) trucks go away and all the smoke clears, we've got a hell of a job ahead of us," said state Senate Majority Leader Jim King.

Let's see, what else have we got? How about our water district choosing this week to float a trial balloon about a total ban on outdoor watering, car washes and filling swimming pools?

For that matter, how about FAMU's announcement that it was settling the controversy over the site of its new law school by choosing Orlando?

They'd better settle the presidential election soon -- not for the sake of Bush or Gore, but because we can't take much more other bad news.

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