Bush staying course in 2004

Bush has adopted a narrower, yet less specific strategy in the year ahead.


Published: Sunday, January 4, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 3, 2004 at 11:20 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE - Nearly three years ago Gov. Jeb Bush stood before the 160 members of the Florida Legislature and asked them to elevate "the quality of life for all Floridians."
Bush told state lawmakers during his 2001 State of the State speech that they could do that by revamping growth laws that he said didn't work.
"Our roads remain clogged with traffic, important natural resources are threatened or destroyed and community needs like public schools aren't fully met," he said.
Bush called on legislators to make it harder for new developments to spring up unless there was classroom space in local public schools.
"It is time to stop doing business as usual in this state," Bush declared. "Today is the day we say, 'We will not allow our residential communities to swell without new classrooms. We will no longer allow Florida to be sold on the cheap.' "
Legislators did not adopt Bush's recommendations that year and appear unlikely to anytime soon. Bush now says his only hope for changing the state's growth management laws is through small "incremental" steps unless someone in the Legislature champions his proposals before he leaves office.
This is just one example of how Bush has changed his agenda, his strategy and his ways of governing during his five years in office. Gone are the dizzying array of initiatives that Bush once embraced and pushed through with a combination of blunt force and political savvy.
In their place, Bush has adopted a narrower, yet less specific agenda that focuses primarily on three goals: strengthening families, diversifying the state's economy and improving the reading skills of children.
Bush's top priorities for the coming year include the re-election of his brother President George W. Bush to a second term. But the governor has so far said little about what he expects legislators to do when they return to Tallahassee in March.
He will likely ask them to again consider setting up a statewide database to track prescription drugs. Bush also wants lawmakers to give voters a chance to repeal constitutional amendments mandating a statewide bullet train and the reduction of class sizes in public schools.
In year-end interviews held with reporters last month, Bush conceded he would be "less ambitious" in the coming year. But he said he had to remain vigilant against legislators tempted to dismantle the programs he pushed for during his first term in office.
"Most of what I'll be involved in are to continue the reforms the Legislature has passed," said Bush, who in 2002 became Florida's only Republican governor to win re-election.
"It may be less ambitious to a certain extent as it relates to the legislative process but the ambitions for success in these reforms continue on," said Bush. "I've learned if I don't fight for them and sustain them and remind people of them, but for me, who?"
Narrowing his focus Part of Bush's decision to narrow his focus may be due to his relationship with Florida lawmakers.
In his first term in office Bush was enormously successful with the Florida Legislature, winning approval for tax cuts, his A-plus education plan that led to the annual grading of schools, Everglades restoration and civil service changes that made it easier to fire state employees.
He helped draw up the plan to eliminate the Board of Regents, and he pushed ahead with the One Florida initiative that eliminated affirmative action in state purchasing and university admissions.
But Bush's ability to win approval from lawmakers for his legislative agenda has waned the last two years. Bush this past year wanted a flat $250,000 cap on damages in medical malpractice lawsuits, but after a series of failed special sessions he accepted legislation with a much higher cap than he had originally sought.
Bush did score a significant victory in October when legislators agreed to set aside $310 million to persuade the Scripps Research Institute to build a branch campus in Palm Beach County. But lawmakers at the same special session rejected Bush's request for a $190 million "mega fund" that he would control and use for other economic development initiatives.
"The first two years he accomplished a heck of a lot," said John Thrasher, the Orange Park Republican who was House speaker when Bush took office in 1999. "When he came in he had two presiding officers that were in agreement where he wanted to go. That's not the case now."
Thrasher said Republicans had just taken control of state government for the first time since the Reconstruction period following the Civil War and they wanted to show how effective they could be.
"Those were two unique years," he said. "(Bush) is more of a realist now."
Current Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, even praised Bush for changing his tone and tactics with state legislators, citing his willingness to now compromise.
"The Legislature appreciates him more today than when he first took over and tried to run roughshod," King said.
Comparing leadership Florida State University political science professor Thomas Carsey said it's not unusual for governors to spend their second term in office "trying to maintain what they've accomplished."
Bush, for example, threatened this past year to veto the entire state budget unless lawmakers kept intact $130 million for school recognition grants that were part of his A-plus plan. Legislators at one point talked openly of eliminating the program and using the money elsewhere until Bush made his veto threat.
Carsey said many still view Bush as displaying "strong ideas about the way the state should operate," citing his ongoing effort to repeal the class-size reduction amendment.
But University of Florida political science professor Richard Scher contrasted Bush's second term to those of Bob Graham and the late Lawton Chiles. Chiles, for example, led the state's successful fight to recover the costs for treating poor smokers from tobacco companies that resulted in a $13.1 billion settlement.
Scher, who co-wrote a book on Florida's governors and their politics, said Bush was running into the same kind of problems that Democratic governors had with a Democratic-controlled Legislature.
"It seems the bigger the majority is the more recalcitrant the Legislature becomes," Scher said. "In some sense, it's the lack of partisan conflict that might be forcing the governor to sharpen his focus. When the Republicans were brand new and there was some vague semblance of partisan conflict, they rallied around this hero they elected in 1998."
Scher said the question is whether Bush is worrying about his legacy once he leaves office in early 2007 or if he is losing his enthusiasm for his job.
Bush has repeatedly waved away any speculation that he may seek the presidency after his eight years as governor, saying he intends to go home to Miami once his term is up. But the broader goals he has been advocating the past year could play well on a national stage.
"The question is whether he is positioning himself for something else or if he just getting tired," Scher said.

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