Second time around

Published: Tuesday, January 7, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 6, 2003 at 9:54 p.m.
As he takes the oath of office for the beginning of his second term today, Gov. Jeb Bush can certainly lay claim to a record of impressive accomplishments in his first four years.
He has made major - even dramatic - changes in public education, abolished affirmative action, privatized large segments of government, enacted $1.7 billion in tax cuts, and presided over the changes that have consolidated more raw political power in the governor's office than ever before in Florida's history.
So what to expect for an encore, especially since he is the president's brother and widely expected to make his own run for the White House one day?
So far, the goals Bush has articulated for his second term have been decidedly modest, especially in contrast to his first-term accomplishments. He has spoken about emphasizing economic development, improving reading skills in the schools and strengthening the family by rewriting marriage laws.
He is also expected to take a stab at medical malpractice reform, fixing the state's growth management laws and continuing his efforts to rehabilitate the state's always-troubled child welfare agency.
Worthy goals, to be sure, but hardly the stuff that great political legacies are built upon.
Of course, Gov. Bush may have other weighty items on his agenda but is keeping them close to the vest for now for political or strategic reasons. But with Republicans solidly in control of the Legislature, there is little reason for Bush to be coy about his agenda.
No, if our "hard-charging" governor seems less determined to enact sweeping changes in government at the outset of his second term, it is likely because Bush is a realist rather than an idealist.
When he first came to office, four years ago, Bush inherited a healthy revenue surplus and a booming economy that allowed him the luxury of both tax cuts and generous increases to the state budget.
But as he takes the oath of office at the beginning of 2003, the economy is still troubled, the surplus has been drained away, the state is reaching its debt limit and the voters have saddled Bush and the Legislature with several very expensive mandates, from lower class sizes to free pre-kindergarten programs to a new bullet train.
Bush may soon confront a new fiscal year with a revenue deficit of $2 billion or more. The governor has promised not to raise taxes - indeed, he intends to continue to cut taxes - and he rightly opposes such "easy out" revenue raisers as more legalized gambling.
The prospect of deep and painful budget cuts - in education, in social services, in corrections and health care and so on - seems nearly inevitable.
"I'm ready to roll, I'm ready to go," Bush told reporters the other day. "Although we have a difficult budget year, I intend to lead the way."
But what will Bush's legacy of leadership be when he finally leaves the governor's office? Halfway through his service in Tallahassee, it is difficult to say. But the fiscal realities that face the governor in 2003 will almost certainly make it more difficult for Bush to accomplish the sort of program and policy changes he wrought in term one.
No, if Bush truly intends to be a "great" governor, he must place an item that he flatly refused to consider in his first term at the top of his "to-do" list for term two. That agenda item is tax reform - not tax increases, not new taxes, but fundamental tax reform.
Florida is in trouble because its tax structure is a leaking, jerry-built monstrosity that has been tinkered with over the years by special interest lobbyists and politicians of limited vision.
We have a sales tax law that exempts more goods and services than it taxes. We have business tax laws that reward some enterprises and punishes others. We have a regressive tax structure that punishes low-and-middle-class consumers and coddles the wealthy.
Florida's tax structure is wholly unsuited for a modern, fast-growing state like Florida, and it is inadequate to support the sort of public services that Florida's children, elderly, working poor and disadvantaged need and deserve.
In his second term, Gov. Bush has it in his grasp to become a statesman. He can choose to use the newly enhanced power of his office to help fashion a new, more equitable and more adequate tax structure; a new revenue structure for the new millennium.
For four years, Bush stubbornly insisted that Florida's tax structure was fine and that no changes were needed. Now the state is facing a budget crises that threatens to undermine many of the things Bush accomplished in his first term.
Now, fiscal reality has seemingly forced the governor narrow his focus to rewriting the marriage laws, beefing up reading and finding ways to boost economic development.
Bush's agenda ought to be bigger and more ambitious than that. Florida deserves better than that.
Have some courage, governor. Embrace a goal worthy of your talents, ambition and capabilities. If you won't champion tax reform, who will?

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