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District 48 race one of substance

If political campaigns were like books, this one would be titled Building a Better Government.

No, you wouldn't call it a thriller.

But the campaign in state House of Representatives District 48 would draw attention from the critics.

It may not have the zip and flash of some other campaign battles, but this one has substance.

State Rep. R.Z. "Sandy" Safley, R-Clearwater, and Democratic challenger Stephen Knowles both promise to push for fundamental changes in the way state government does business.

Both agree the current political setup in Tallahassee can be embarrassingly inept. Therefore, state government often fails even at simple tasks.

One warning: If you ask Knowles or Safley for specifics, clear your schedule for the next hour or so.

Safley and Knowles are running in a district that includes Oldsmar, Safety Harbor, the Countryside area of Clearwater, most of Palm Harbor, and the area of Hillsborough County adjacent to Oldsmar.

Roughly 54 percent of the district's voters are Republicans, 33 percent are Democrats and 13 percent are independents or in minor political parties.

The final chapter comes Nov. 3, the day of the general election.

Safley

Safley, 40, a state representative since 1988, wants state government to produce. State agencies should have standards for measuring their productivity, he said. Highly productive ones should get bonuses.

"Productivity shouldn't be a novel concept," he said. "That's precisely what most of us in the real world deal with every day."

The state also ought to come up with better ways of evaluating the work government does, he said. Citizen committees should audit government programs to make sure they're performing well. He said those "external audits" would be more meaningful than the regular internal audits already in place.

Such programs are important, because they can help the state assess how well it is spending its money and put a spotlight on failing programs that ought to be cut.

"You've got to get ahold of the way you're spending the tax dollars," he said.

The state needs to set up a "rainy day fund" to help it get through lean years in recessions. In spite of Florida's needs in education, criminal justice and other areas, and the budget crisis that gripped the state last year, he says "Florida doesn't have a revenue problem. It has a spending problem."

Like most candidates in Pinellas County, he is upset that violent state prisoners often serve a small percentage of their time behind bars. He said the state needs to focus more on work-release and house arrest programs for non-violent offenders, so there is more space for the violent ones in prison.

"I'm not opposed to building more prisons for those prisoners who need to be in jail," he added.

Safley supports the "education accountability" legislation passed recently, which will set up community advisory councils to set policy for individual schools.

Knowles

Knowles, 44, is the director of substance abuse services for the Human Development Center of Pasco County.

He says state government needs to learn that prevention is the most efficient way of solving a problem. Instead of paying huge amounts to care for low birth-weight babies, the government should make sure it adequately funds prenatal health care for women, he said. That way, more babies will be born healthy.

By the same token, he said the state should make sure it properly finances immunizations for children, early child care and early childhood education. "It saves money," he said.

Studies show that children who have positive experiences at school before age 8 will stay in school, he said. So it only makes sense for the state to do all it can to make sure those children get off on the right track.

Instead of pouring vast amounts of money into new prisons, the state ought to funnel more money into programs designed to get youthful offenders off the path to crime. "I want to be in a state that's become known for prevention instead of a state that's known for being first in violent crime," he said.

Like Safley, Knowles is fed up with the number of ineffective government programs. "There's a lot of systems and programs that don't work; why the hell do they have to be perpetuated?"

His solution is what he calls strategic planning. He would like to start with the Department of Education and develop concrete goals for the department. The Legislature should be actively involved in setting those goals and insisting on performance.

The education department is a good place to start, he said, because it is overstaffed. Too many of its employees simply monitor programs at schools, work that could be done through audits, he said. By cutting the staff, more money would be available in the classroom, he said.

Then, a similar approach should be used at other state agencies.

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