Florida: Bush takes aim at initiatives - Governor warns of costs of class size, bullet train amendments - Constitution no place for pregnant pigs, he says

By Bill Cotterell


Gov. Jeb Bush wants a rematch at the polls - asking Florida voters if they are willing to pay higher taxes for smaller classes in public schools and a bullet train between major cities.

He also wants to make it a bit harder to put things on the ballot by public petition.

In his State of the State speech Tuesday, Bush told legislators the initial cost of the voter-mandated rail service between Lakeland, Orlando, West Palm Beach and Miami could be $2.7 billion. He said completion of the line, which voters approved in the 2000 election, could run $12 billion - and "the class-size amendment costs will be even higher.

"So I believe we must go back to the voters and have them make a decision with all the information in hand, information about the new challenges our state faces, and information about the massive tax increases that will be necessary to pay for them," Bush said.

During his re-election campaign, Bush once joked that he had "a couple of devious plans" for thwarting the constitutional amendment requiring the state to reduce average class sizes to 18 in kindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth grade and 25 in high schools by 2010. His opponent, Democrat Bill McBride, supported the constitutional amendment, vigorously disputing that its long-range cost would be up to $27 billion.

Bush and Republican legislative leaders have blamed most of the unpopular service cuts proposed in pending state budget plans on the bullet train and class-size amendments. But Democrats contend that tax cuts approved by Bush in his first term as governor have cost the state money it now needs to build more schools, hire more teachers and finance mass rapid transit.

U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, said Bush and legislators took an oath to obey the Florida Constitution - not try to find ways around amendments they dislike. Meek was head of the petition campaign that put the class-size proposal on the ballot.

"Perhaps if voters had known Gov. Bush would propose closing the state library while protecting tax exemptions for the adult entertainment industry, they would have voted differently," Meek said. "But we don't do elections over in a democracy."

State Sen. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon, said many voters in the 13 Big Bend counties she represents have told her they don't like the constitutional amendments. Argenziano said lawmakers are obligated to implement them but she would not mind a re-vote.

"If they send it back to us the same way they voted in 2000 and 2002, then that would really say something for us," she said.

Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee, said Bush and McBride talked a lot about the class-size amendment, "so it's not like the voters didn't now what it was about" when they approved the measure.

Bush also said legislators should consider ways of making it harder to put things in the constitution. It currently requires petition signatures of 8 percent of the voters, drawn from over half the state's congressional districts, then a simple majority at the polls. Amendments passed that way have brought about the state lottery, eight-year term limits for legislators and Cabinet members and the measure forbidding use of "gestation crates" at pig farms.

Bush said "I have no set plans" for changing the method but that he thought citizens might be allowed to adopt statutes by public initiative. Statutes can be altered or repealed much more easily than constitutional amendments.

"The bottom line is that pregnant pigs don't belong in our state constitution," Bush said, drawing applause from lawmakers.


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