The efforts of former Gov. Jeb Bush to legitimize private school vouchers and weaken Florida's sturdy wall between church and state are gaining new life in an unlikely place. The Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, which is charged with reviewing the state's tax and budgeting policies, has veered off into the culture wars. Two measures under consideration would undermine the state's clear and unequivocal prohibitions on tax money flowing to religious institutions. They do not deserve serious consideration.
With Florida facing major tax and revenue challenges, the commission should stick to its primary mandate. Every 20 years the commission is established to make recommendations for statutory changes and constitutional amendments to put the state's fiscal house in order. But with six of the 25 voting members having close ties to Bush, there is another agenda at work here.
At the forefront is Patricia Levesque, who was a top education adviser to Bush and now heads up foundations that exist to protect the former governor's education programs. She sponsored a proposal that has already cleared the necessary committees to repeal the state Constitution's explicit limits on taxpayer funds going "directly or indirectly" to aid sectarian institutions.
Florida's Constitution protects church-state separation in even stronger terms than the U.S. Constitution. But Levesque would weaken this added protection, opening the door for Florida taxpayers to be compelled to financially support a religious faith that is not their own.
The second proposed constitutional amendment — coming out of a committee on which Levesque and other pro-Bush appointees sit — would allow the Legislature to fund private or religious providers of public services, such as health care and education. This is another direct attempt to remove one of the constitutional roadblocks to school vouchers and to increase the tax money flowing to faith-based providers.
The Florida Supreme Court struck down Bush's Opportunity Scholarship voucher program for reasons beyond its use to pay tuition at religious schools. But when the 1st District Court of Appeal considered the matter, it found the voucher program violated church-state separation.
This second measure is scheduled to be voted on Thursday by a final committee. It should be rejected.
This sneak attack on church-state separation is a diversion from the important work of the commission with the added drawback of injecting a highly controversial and divisive subject into a collegial process. Regardless of how the rest of the commission members feel about the virtue of school vouchers or faith-based providers, the subject simply does not belong on the commission's agenda. And as for Levesque and the rest of Bush's fifth column, they have proven that they're not up to the important responsibility they were given.