Bush Winning Power Game in Florida Politics

Article excerpt

TALLAHASSEE -- With an impressive list of accomplishments in his first two years as governor, Jeb Bush could be even more influential in the second half of his term as he presides over a government structure that he has molded to suit his goals.

Although Florida has traditionally been considered a weak-governor state in which power is shared with a Cabinet, a strong Legislature and an independent judiciary, Bush has been quietly assuming more control.

He has been aided and abetted by a Republican legislative leadership that has generally acceded to his wishes, if at times reluctantly.

"His quest is to make the governor's position geometrically more powerful than it has ever been," said Senate Majority Leader Jim King of Jack- sonville. "The Legislature has begrudgingly given and given and given."

Bush said the office has always been inherently more powerful than some think.

"I haven't tried to enhance the power," he said. "I've just tried to use it."

And use it he has.

He has tightened control over the budget process, pursued an activist legislative agenda and enthusiastically wielded his veto power.

He battled with judicial nominating commissions, criticized Supreme Court opinions and took the lead in education reforms.

A reorganization approved by the voters will eliminate three of the six Cabinet offices in 2003 and centralize power even more, giving the governor a larger role in education and possibly insurance and banking.

"For the first time, you're going to have a governor that's going to be a governor," said Lance deHaven-Smith, associate director of the Florida Institute of Government at Florida State University.

DeHaven-Smith noted that for most of its history, Florida limited governors to one four-year term, while Cabinet members could serve forever and sometimes seemed to.

When governors were granted a second term in 1968, a start at correcting the imbalance, it was offset by the Legislature moving to annual sessions and developing the ability to propose its own budgets.

Agencies were required to submit budget requests directly to the Legislature in addition to submitting them to the governor for incorporation in his budget request. That made it easy for agency heads to bypass the governor and work directly with the Legislature to get the money they wanted.

"I don't think people realize how screwy that process is," deHaven-Smith said.

But he said Bush has whipped the agencies into line.

"He tells agencies if they do an end run on him, they'll get a veto and other punishment," deHaven-Smith said. "He's very tough."

A STRONG GOVERNOR

Bush's first two years have been more auspicious than those of other recent governors.

Bush won passage of education accountability reforms and vouchers for students in failing schools, limits on civil damage suits, $1.5 billion in tax cuts, protection of the Everglades, tougher criminal laws and limits on death penalty appeals.

"I think he's got to be rated as one of the strongest governors we have ever had," deHaven-Smith said.

Thirty years ago, Gov. Reubin Askew pushed a corporate income tax through a reluctant Legislature while cutting taxes on individuals shortly after taking office, but his overall agenda was much narrower than Bush's.

Since that time, governors have frequently stumbled in the early going as they tried to work out an accommodation with a quarrelsome Legislature.

In contrast, Bush was blessed with a Republican Legislature that was eager to show its allegiance.

"I'd take a bullet for him," said former House Speaker John Thrasher of Orange Park, who shepherded many of Bush's proposals through the Legislature before being forced from office by term limits.

Bush's dogged determination also was a factor in his success.

Peter Dunbar, who was a general counsel for former Republican Gov. …