When the Florida Legislature finished its annual lawmaking blitz last Friday, no one seemed more satisfied than Gov. Jeb Bush. Buoyed by a Republican-led Senate and House, he fulfilled his promise to create a voucher program that redirects tax dollars from public to private schools, all the while preserving the honeymoon status of his first few months in office.
"We have kept our word to the people of Florida," he said at session's end.
Not everyone felt that was reason enough to celebrate.
There was bipartisan support for a $1 billion tax cut that will benefit mostly big business, and sluggish approval for added spending on fire prevention that passed only when brush fires broke out again. But if the far right had expected to rejoice in the work of the conservative-GOP majorities, they were disappointed.
Both parties saw at least two bills vetoed by former Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles sent once again to the new governor's desk: the creation of a "Choose Life" license plate, the proceeds from which will promote adoption, and a bill that requires at least one parent to be notified before a daughter under the age of 18 can get an abortion.
"My nose was bloodied this year by my defeats, but I can also stand tall because of my accomplishments," says Ernie Bach of Common Cause Florida, which lobbies for government reform. "I have been working on campaign-finance issues since 1990, but this is obviously not the year for those bills to pass. ... We came close to seeing campaign-finance reform, but that fell apart near the end, too," he laments. "It could be depressing, if we didn't have next year to look forward to."
"It could have been a lot worse," agrees Larry Spalding, legislative director for the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "We won some and we lost some, but it wasn't as bad as we initially expected."
The ACLU's biggest loss was the most hotly contested of Bush's bills. School vouchers passed in both the House and the Senate along party lines. Democrats vehemently opposed the program, which gives tax-funded private-school vouchers to students in struggling public schools. Republican proponents say vouchers are the best way to ensure that all children have the same educational opportunities.
Says Spalding: "We believe that this will mean less government money for struggling public schools. Many of these vouchers will go to parochial and church-affiliated schools, which is a clear violation of the separation of church and state. ... We have no choice but to fight this new law in court and prove its unconstitutionality."
He did see some bright spots. "We were encouraged by the defeat of several bills, including the display of the Ten Commandments and the ban on partial-birth abortion," he says. "I really assumed that these bills would pass without problem, so the outcomes are a pleasant surprise.
"I don't want to call them victories," he adds. "Instead, I'll say that we dodged a bullet on these bills until next year."
Others also assumed the Republican leadership would take a stronger conservative tack. A Christian Coalition-sponsored measure restricting abortion clinics failed, as did a school-prayer bill. "It's surprising, but not shocking," says Janelle Ribison of Florida for Life, an anti-abortion group.
But there were also victories for the right. The "Choose Life" license plate will soon be available, with proceeds going to nonprofit agencies that promote adoption. And Ribison lauded the bill requiring parental notification before a minor's abortion. "These are steps in the right direction," she says. "And I'm sure next year will be even better."
Others echoed that pervasive ambivalence. "[The 1999 session] was a mixed bag, to be sure," says Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation, a public-records watchdog. Her big win was a bill that safeguards the records of pregnant minors. But thoughtful consideration was not the norm; of nine other records-related bills that passed, "four of them were created within the last hour of the session," she says. Those bills removed from public scrutiny such things as health-care employees' home addresses, wireless communication transactions, medical records and reviews of child-abuse deaths.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, found much to cheer. Clay Henderson, president of the Audubon Society, proclaimed the session the best in more than 10 years, with money approved for both Everglades studies and the Florida Forever program to buy and restore sensitive lands. "Last year, the Legislature was hostile toward environmental issues," he says. "This year they were very forthcoming. Most people win the lottery, then go to Tallahassee. I feel that we went to Tallahassee and then won the lottery."
And what can they expect in the election year ahead?
"Bush will stay middle-of-the-road, especially next year," predicts Spalding. "He's got his big brother's presidency to worry about. George W. doesn't want to have his brother being a loose cannon down here in Florida."