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    Bush growth plan is back for a new try

    The governor again pushes a bill to make classroom availability a consideration for approving development.

    By JULIE HAUSERMAN, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published December 28, 2001

    TALLAHASSEE -- For the second year in a row, Gov. Jeb Bush says he will try to get the Legislature to pass a law to make communities take school crowding into account before they approve new development.

    It seems like a simple concept that should have been part of Florida's growth management laws long ago, Bush said in a recent interview. All over Florida, parents watch as bulldozers clear the way for new subdivisions in places where schools are already overflowing.

    But Bush has been unable to get his proposal to pass the Legislature. The idea bogged down because lawmakers, lobbyists and the governor disagree about how to pay for new classroom space.

    This year, Bush is softening his position somewhat in hopes of getting the law passed. And Bush, who said little about growth management when he ran for governor in 1998, now says he wants to make growth management a campaign issue when he runs for re-election in 2002.

    "This is a powerful issue," Bush said. "I don't think people have connected all the dots yet. They look at it as: "My roads are crowded, or the schools are overcrowded.' They are not looking at it in a comprehensive way."

    A year ago, Bush went up against the powerful Florida Homebuilders Association when he declared that communities should simply say no to developers if the local school district is overcrowded. The developers cried foul. They asked: Why should we pay because a community has failed to plan? A debate then began in the Legislature about how best to pay for added classroom space.

    The homebuilders, the Florida School Boards Association and some leading Republicans in the state Senate said school boards and county commissions should be able to raise a half-penny sales tax with a "super majority" (the majority plus one) vote of the board or commission. If every school board passed the half-penny tax, school officials estimated, it would raise $800-million a year statewide.

    Bush opposed the idea, saying communities shouldn't be able to raise taxes without a vote of the people. Last week, Bush softened his position: He said he won't propose the super majority taxing authority himself, but he will support it if it will get the bill passed.

    "The tax issue was the one we couldn't get through," Bush said.

    Bush says his growth management proposal, which hasn't yet been publicly released, would require every local community to add a new "intergovernmental coordination" element to its comprehensive plan, requiring school boards and county commissions to plan together for growth. Counties and school districts that do a good job planning together might be eligible for more state money, and more flexibility in spending it, Bush said.

    Only communities that have "exhausted every opportunity" to ease school crowding and curb out-of-control development should tax residents to pay for schools, Bush said.

    "I have been trying to get out in front of this because it is an economic development issue," Bush said.

    Of course, Bush isn't the first Florida governor to say it's time to do a better job shaping the state's growth.

    "Growth in Florida must pay for the cost of growth in Florida," former Gov. Bob Graham, now a U.S. senator, declared in his opening speech to the Legislature in 1985, the year the state's Growth Management Act passed. "The alternatives are unacceptable. We are not going to pay for growth through a deteriorated quality of life."

    Last week, Bush sounded a similar note: "If we strain the infrastructure of our communities, the quality of life diminishes," he said. "And lifestyle is our competitive advantage. I think it's a problem when people make a major investment -- their home -- and have their dream shattered because we didn't plan properly for the roads and the schools and the water."

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