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A Times Editorial

On vital issues, legislators fail

Barring a Tallahassee miracle, when the Legislature adjourns Friday it will have failed in every respect to responsibly address the state's most pressing issues. It is hard to imagine re-election campaigns based on a record of imposing painful spending cuts, protecting special interest tax breaks, forcing universities to cap enrollments and raising local property taxes to keep public education limping along. But incumbents will try to paper over the sins of the spring with misleading campaign ads in the fall, and voters should not let them get away with it.

House Speaker Marco Rubio and Senate President Ken Pruitt will be leaving their leadership posts with records that charitably could be described as undistinguished. On their two-year watch, lawmakers answered a property insurance crisis by placing too much financial risk on the state and its taxpayers following a hurricane for too little relief in premiums. They placed property tax relief on the ballot that makes the system more unfair and susceptible to legal challenge. Now they are forcing deep budget cuts that would have been less hurtful if they would have taken even small steps to close tax exemptions and broaden the tax base. Leadership, even at a time of historic drops in state revenue, requires more than cobbling together a spending plan with one-time patches to avoid some of the most egregious cuts in services.

Rubio, the young Republican speaker from Miami, has been a particular disappointment. There is no denying his engaging personality and considerable energy, but his lack of experience has been glaring. He was outmaneuvered by the Senate in the tax amendment showdown. He recently responded to an uprising by House Democrats by immaturely locking members in the chamber, shutting down the Internet and taking Democrats' bills off the agenda. Now he is venting his frustrations with the Senate and Gov. Charlie Crist. But Rubio would have had more success if he had learned from Crist's populism and willingness to compromise instead of clinging to the hard-edged conservatism of his mentor, former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Pruitt, the Port St. Lucie Republican, has had the benefit of long experience and a more seasoned leadership team. But he has been no less stubborn in his refusal to consider broadening the tax base. His personal obsession with abolishing the university system Board of Governors and protecting an unsustainable scheme of low tuition and expensive Bright Futures scholarships is foolish. If Rubio does nothing else in the coming week, he should prevent this vendetta from being carried out.

That is the modest definition of success for this legislative session as it thankfully heads into its final week: Preventing a bad situation from becoming worse. It is avoiding a nuclear meltdown over a higher education system starved for resources. It is saving some Medicaid programs by raiding a state endowment that was supposed to improve public health, not maintain the status quo. It is blocking Rubio's unworkable property tax caps that would bankrupt local governments.

These would be hollow victories, but they would have a silver lining. The Legislature's failures mean public frustration will continue to grow over unaffordable and often unavailable property insurance, inadequate health coverage, underfinanced higher education, inferior public transportation, unfair tax systems and poor growth management.

One day, that growing demand by Floridians for enlightened solutions to difficult problems will have to be acknowledged by even the most tone-deaf state legislators.

On vital issues, legislators fail 04/26/08 [Last modified: Sunday, April 27, 2008 9:07pm]
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