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For Bush, a new round of challenges

By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 2, 1999


TALLAHASSEE -- So far, Jeb Bush has been both lucky and good.

Florida's new Republican governor had a remarkably successful first legislative session in part because of timing. He did not face an immediate crisis. The Legislature was firmly controlled by fellow Republicans. A booming economy provided plenty of tax dollars to spend.

But timing isn't everything.

Bush took full advantage of those favorable circumstances by relying on the same skills he used as a candidate. He focused on his top priorities: education, tax cuts and crime. He also sought out legislators from all backgrounds to chat, from Republicans to Democrats to women to blacks.

Republican Sen. Jim Scott of Fort Lauderdale, who was first elected in 1976, could not recall another governor who would show up unannounced in his Senate office. Democratic Sen. Skip Campbell of Fort Lauderdale, who was first elected in 1996, talked of how Bush spoke with Democrats who had different ideas.

"He called me in for five minutes," Campbell said, "and we talked for an hour."

The results of Bush's efforts are impressive, even to those who disagree with him. A record tax cut, an unprecedented overhaul of education and a string of other wins would be a career for some governors.

But legislators and voters have short memories. Tougher challenges lie ahead.

First, Bush has to wade through several hundred bills and the $49-billion state budget and decide what to veto. No more focusing on a few issues and giving fuzzy responses to the rest. Yes and no will be the only answers coming from the governor's office on the first floor of the Capitol.

"The hardest thing for him," Senate President Toni Jennings said on Bush's 100th day in office, "is going to be dealing with these issues once they get downstairs."

The governor has repeatedly indicated he will have a low tolerance for budget turkeys, the pet projects legislators stuff into the budget for their districts. Yet legislators have reacted to those warnings like teenagers testing the curfew set by their parents. They have jammed hundreds of millions of dollars in pet projects into the budget, from boat docks to an Orlando airline terminal.

"It will be tough," Bush acknowledged. "A lot of these folks have been very helpful to us in the agenda we laid out. There is not an easy way to say "no' without an exclamation point, which is what a veto is."

But for long-range political risk, nothing comes close to the Bush-backed tuition vouchers. Even before the final vote last week, the governor was receiving national attention for pushing what will be the nation's largest voucher program.

No crystal ball can reveal now how Floridians ultimately will react to using public tax dollars for private tuition for thousands of students in failing schools.

Voter exit polls in November indicated voters opposed vouchers, 63 percent to 37 percent. But many voters did not hold that against Bush, who downplayed vouchers as just one part of his overall education plan. More than 31 percent of the voters who opposed vouchers voted for the Republican anyway.

Even so, Democrats expect vouchers to be a major campaign issue in 2000. Term limits will create at least 55 open seats in the 120-member House and seven seats in the 40-member Senate. Both political parties will spend this summer recruiting dozens of new candidates.

"What we see is the dismantling of public schools," said Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, who will lead House Democrats into the 2000 election.

All sorts of things could shape voters' views on vouchers in the coming months.

Countless details about the practical aspects of grading schools and awarding vouchers to students in failing schools will have to be worked out. A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the plan also could derail it. Those plaintiffs are likely to reach beyond the teachers unions and the American Civil Liberties Union to include groups Republicans can hardly criticize as special interests that are out of the mainstream, groups such as the League of Women Voters.

By the election, voters may be swayed by how Bush's plan affects their own households and neighborhoods instead of by a debate over educational philosophy.

Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas said a GOP poll taken within the last month indicated 46 percent of voters oppose vouchers and 42 percent support them. "I don't believe based on that it is the wedge issue they think it is," he said of the Democrats.

Indeed, even the editorial boards of some of the state's major newspapers are divided over whether vouchers are a good idea. Among the supporters: the Miami Herald, the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville and the Tampa Tribune. Among the opponents: the Orlando Sentinel, the Palm Beach Post and the St. Petersburg Times.

Bush and Republicans in the Florida Legislature are not receiving national attention because they cut taxes while raising spending on social services. Or because they increased prison sentences for criminals carrying guns.

They are in the spotlight because of vouchers, which will affect schools and families in every corner of Florida. They have wagered their political futures on vouchers like poker players risking it all on a single hand, and it is anything but a sure bet.

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