Elvis Back? Crist Decides
Almost four years after he left the state Capitol, former Gov. Jeb Bush is hovering over this spring’s legislative session, with measures sweeping through the Republican-ruled Legislature that appear ripped straight from his political playbook.
“I don’t know if he’s back, but a lot of his ideas sure are flourishing,” said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who as House Speaker from 1999-2000 was one of Bush’s closest allies, likening their relationship to that of Col. Tom Parker, Elvis Presley’s longtime manager, and the King.
But whether the King is really back may depend on the fate of the teacher merit-pay plan sponsored by Thrasher. Bush’s successor, Gov. Charlie Crist, has signaled he may veto the measure.
If Crist strikes down the legislation (SB 6) he’s likely to draw the wrath of Republican leaders looking to impose a stricter standard on teacher reviews, expand standardized testing, and dilute the political strength of the Democratic-leaning Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.
House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, declined to speculate Monday on how lawmakers would react to a Crist merit-pay veto.
The governor has already rejected a bill aimed at reviving “leadership funds” that had been heavily lobbied by Cannon and incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island.
“I’m so optimistic, he’ll sign it, if he chooses to veto it, we’ll figure out where to go from there,” Cannon said.
Other Bush legacy issues appear a more certain bet.
Looking likely to advance this spring are a drive to get voters to soften the state’s class-size standards; another to expand corporate vouchers for schools; and more than $100 million in business and industry tax incentives, including a one-percent cut in the state’s corporate-income tax rate.
There’s even legislation advancing that would erase the state’s century-old “Blaine amendment,” designed to prohibit public money going toward religious-affiliated institutions.
Bush acolytes had once advanced a similar idea to blunt a court challenge to his signature private school voucher program, the nation’s first statewide initiative.
Some of the controversy surrounding “Blaine” has eased, however, since the voucher program was overturned on grounds it violated the state constitution’s required “uniform” public school system.
Still, Bush’s ideological fingerprints seem everywhere this spring in Tallahassee.
In an E-mail, Bush declined a request to be interviewed for this story.
But the two-term governor hasn’t been completely silent. He lent his voice last week to a Florida Chamber of Commerce statewide robo-call seeking to gin-up calls to lawmakers to demand they support the teacher-pay bill, which would partially tie salaries to student performance on standardized tests.
Bush’s education policy organization, the Foundation for Florida’s Future, also aired a television ad supporting poor and disabled children – part of a pitch for expanding tax-incentives for companies giving to the corporate scholarship program.
Theories abound about what’s brought Bush-tinged ideas back.
But a central driver appears to be the shifting political sentiments of the Senate – where moderate Republicans once stymied Bush’s policy advances and now, a new conservative nucleus has emerged.
“It’s Jeb’s best legislative session,” said Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. “There are so many things that eluded him as governor that have come roaring back, with strong pushes from him. It is a little bit like Oz.
“But it’s the Senate,” Gelber added. “The Senate has taken a sudden shift to the right. And it was the Senate that had vexed so much of the Bush agenda. Without that barrier, the waters are flowing in.”
Thrasher, who doubles as chairman of the Florida Republican Party, was elected to the Senate in a special election last fall, replacing the late Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, a clear moderate.
Another conservative-leaning lawmaker, Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, was elected last summer to replace retiring Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, a staunch ally of Florida trial lawyers, a Bush nemesis.
During his eight years in the Governor’s Mansion, Bush’s fiercest opponents were the trial lawyers and the teachers’ union, groups which continue to form a powerful Democratic base for the party but who have clearly lost strength in the Senate.
Although controlled by Republicans, the Senate during the Bush era rejected the governor’s attempts to scale-back the class-size measure he campaigned against and whose cost he famously warned would “blot out the sun.”
But this spring, the Senate is no longer a graveyard for Bush-tinged conservatism.
“Why are his ideas coming back? Because they work,” Haridopolos said. “Jeb Bush was, I think, the greatest governor Florida ever had. He fundamentally turned around our education system…he got rid of frivolous lawsuits, preventing crimes from taking place with 10-20-Life and other tough sentencing standards. He was a very successful governor.”
Bush’s political rebound also may be a reaction to Crist, a middle-of-the-road, less-detail oriented chief executive now embroiled in a U.S. Senate Republican primary contest with former House Speaker Marco Rubio, a favorite of the former governor.
“He established a track record of focusing on policy and (was) willing to get into great detail,” Cannon said of Bush. “It’s exciting that there’s a resurgence of emphasis on bold public policy."
“If there’s an advantage to tough economic times, it’s that people are willing to consider aggressive policy reforms, because you may not have any other choice,” he added.
Bush’s 2002 Democratic challenger, Bill McBride, was virtually created by the teachers group, which recruited him and poured more than $2 million into ads supporting his candidacy.
The FEA also was behind virtually every legal and political challenge to Bush’s education initiatives, including his A+ school and student grading plans, earlier merit-pay moves aimed at weakening union control, and the corporate voucher proposal likely to be further enhanced this spring.
It may not be a complete coincidence that McBride’s wife, Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, is the Democratic Party’s presumptive candidate for governor this year.
While not a direct attack on Sink, the merit-pay and class-size moves are seen by Democrats as policy swipes that could command the attention and financial resources of a big party spender and supplier of political foot soldiers as state campaigns loom.
Senate Democratic Leader Al Lawson of Tallahassee called the merit-pay measure a “sucker punch to the gut of the teaching profession.”
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, whose 2006 election contributed to the Senate’s tilt to the right, said lawmakers considered themselves “insurgents” this year. But when reminded that a lot of ideas were being drawn from the Bush past, paused.
“Well, some things in history were revolutionary – like the Revolution,” Gaetz said.