The Jeb Bush Era Ends in Florida

By Linda Kleindienst
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Sunday, January 7, 2007

TALLAHASSEE -- On a bright January day in 1998 marked by bone-numbing 33-degree cold, Jeb Bush took office as Florida's 43rd governor with a pledge to safeguard the interests of the people, not the bureaucrats.

In the ensuing eight years, Bush sent shivers through Florida's status quo as he gathered more power than any previous governor and reshaped state government to fit his vision.

Nicknamed "King Jeb," the Republican transformed what he saw as a tangle of red tape and squanderer of public money into a smaller, business-friendly administration needing fewer tax dollars to run.

Bush, who passed the mantle to Charlie Crist (R) last Tuesday, leaves a legacy of a leader adamant about doing things his way, who fearlessly championed such controversial causes as school vouchers, faith-based prisons and prolonging the life of Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged woman who became the centerpiece of a national right-to-die battle.

Yet, while his tenure coincided with a sizzling economy and an overflowing treasury, Bush's back-to-back terms were marred by frequent ethics scandals, official bungling and the inability of the government he downsized to meet growing demands for state services, including education and aid for the infirm and the elderly.

A policy wonk, Bush pursued an agenda so frenetic that even his efficiency czar resigned in protest.

"I've always felt, if you can do something today, why wait? It's just my nature," said Bush, 53, who grew grayer and slightly stouter in Tallahassee but never slackened his pace, even during his final days.

He championed tax cuts that chiefly benefited business and the wealthy, trimmed the state's payroll, stripped job protection from thousands of mid-level civil servants, gained more power over the judiciary, exploited his Washington connections to prevent the closing of military bases and launched the nation's first statewide private-school voucher program.

While older brother George's administration in Washington badly fumbled its initial response to Hurricane Katrina, Jeb Bush was praised for his actions before, during and after the eight hurricanes that raked Florida in 2004 and 2005. Seemingly everywhere, he warned residents in English and Spanish to gird themselves for the storms' fury, then oversaw relief efforts when the winds died down.

But his administration -- the Department of Children and Families, in particular -- was vilified for losing track of 500 youngsters under state care and for failing to prevent the deaths of several others. A smiling Rilya Wilson became the poster child for all that was wrong with the agency and, by extension, the Bush administration's failure to serve Floridians in need. Although her body was never found, it is believed the 5-year-old Miami girl was killed in December 2000, 15 months before the state realized she was missing.

Despite the controversy that swirled around the botched 2000 presidential election, which saw his brother win Florida and thus the White House by 537 votes, Bush failed to fully restore confidence in an electoral system that is still mired in controversy and lawsuits. He did little to counteract soaring property insurance rates or shorten waiting lists for citizens needing services.

"He led the enactment of tax cuts that will drain the state of needed revenue for health care and children and senior citizens -- and we already rank at the bottom of the nation in those services," said Karen Woodall, a lobbyist for migrant workers and the poor.

Few people have so dominated Florida's political landscape. When Bush moved into the governor's mansion, Florida Republicans reached their zenith of power. Buoyed by a GOP-controlled legislature awed by his personality, clout and family name, Bush enjoyed superstar status and high job performance ratings from voters -- and believed he had the political capital to shake things up.

"Most governors have been committed to the public sector. They grew up knowing and supporting government," said Dominic Calabro, president of Florida TaxWatch, a private watchdog of government spending. "He grew up with a disdain and believed in limited government."

While seeking reelection in 2002, Bush defined "real leadership" as making tough choices. For those who disagreed with him, he said, "You know where I stand."

Bush battled against government intrusion in private lives but commandeered the state's executive and legislative branches to prolong the life of Schiavo, Florida's legislature and Congress. Ignoring the repeated verdicts of judges, Bush, a convert to Roman Catholicism who approached this battle with moral zeal, rammed through a special law to restore Schiavo's feeding tube in what many saw as an attempt to pander to the religious right. But the courts had the final word and on March 31, 2005, the 41-year-old Schiavo died.

"I'm deeply disappointed that a woman was starved to death," said Bush, calling it the most disheartening event during his time in office. "I can respect other people's opinions but, at the end of the day, that's what happened."

Under Bush, Florida earned Wall Street's highest possible bond rating. He led a drive to make Florida a biotechnology center by luring the Scripps Research Institute to Palm Beach County with $369 million in state money as bait. But while Florida led the nation in job creation, much of that was in low-paid service industry jobs that left many Floridians without health insurance and scrambling for affordable housing amid a real estate boom that helped fuel business-friendly tax breaks.

A fiscal conservative, Bush slashed the number of state workers by giving their jobs to private companies. Many public services -- including the state's foster-care system -- were spun off without official oversight, and some ran up cost overruns in the millions. The state budget ballooned by 52 percent, from $48.6 billion in 1999 to $73.9 billion in 2006, though much of the growth was attributable to the hot real estate market and post-hurricane rebuilding.

Though he proclaimed himself the "education governor," Bush's legacy in this field was mixed at best. Test results showed learning gains among fourth-graders, whose scores were easier to improve than those of older children, as well as minorities across all grade levels. But Florida's high school dropout rate and per-pupil spending continued to rank among the nation's worst. While Bush sought spending increases for public schools, they barely offset steadily growing demands on school districts, including the soaring cost of health and property insurance.

During his first year in office, the Legislature approved Bush's A-Plus education reform package, including the nation's first statewide private school voucher program for students in failing schools. But it was struck down as unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court early this year.

Perhaps Bush's most grievous blunder came with the enactment of One Florida, a plan to end affirmative-action preferences for minorities in university admissions and state contracting. It sparked a sit-in by two black legislators in the governor's executive suite -- and hundreds of black college students in the hallway outside his office -- and the largest ever protest-march, led by the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, on the state Capitol in 2000.

One Florida was a prime example of Bush's shoot-first, take-no-advice method of governing. It tarnished his image in the black community and alienated voters he and the Republican Party had been working hard to woo.

Yet, Bush voiced no regrets. He left behind an office he worked hard to overhaul, in a way he thinks better meets the needs of a fast-changing Florida. Summing up his legacy, he said: "This office has more authority to create the agenda and implement it. . . . My gift is that we've shown that governors can be activists, they can be reformers, if they want to."

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