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Debate showcases differing visions

The candidates for lieutenant governor not only disagree about the issues, but they seem to be living in two different states.

They laid out their visions at a breakfast debate Friday for the Dunedin Council of Organizations as the sun rose over the Dunedin Country Club golf course outside.

In the Florida of Democratic Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, disaster reigned four years ago. The state had been left in crisis by Republican Gov. Bob Martinez.

Since then, MacKay and Gov. Lawton Chiles have locked up criminals, improved the schools, expanded health care insurance and started a national model for welfare reform.

But in the Florida of Republican Tom Feeney, the disaster is now. Crime is rampant, schools are lousy, health care is about to be taken over by the government and welfare is a cruel trap for the downtrodden. The state desperately needs Feeney and Jeb Bush in charge.

Both MacKay and Feeney have stories and statistics to bear them out, and their facts are more or less true.

The men took turns answering questions from the audience. Here are some highlights:

School vouchers

MacKay: This is a major point of difference between the Bush-Feeney approach to government and the Chiles-MacKay approach. We strongly and bitterly resist the idea of school tuition vouchers. It's the idea of ripping $1-billion out of the already underfunded public school budget and putting it in tuition vouchers so that rich people can keep their children in private schools.

If you get it, you're going to have to think very carefully how you keep it from being exploited by, essentially, cults who will suddenly become the fastest-growing education system in America. You've had some experience with some of that with Scientology in this county.

Feeney: Do you know that in the city of Miami, for instance, in poor neighborhoods, we're spending as much _ if you include capital costs, infrastructure, debt costs _ as $9,000 per student to take kids from poor backgrounds, broken homes? We know to a moral certainty those children will not get an education, they probably won't even graduate. Suppose we experimented and said instead of spending $9,000 to fail, we would give their parents a scholarship for $3,000 or $3,500 maybe to succeed in a private school. Wouldn't that be a radical concept promoting freedom, opportunity and choice for poor people?

Business and tourism

Feeney: One of the biggest reasons we're finding a decline in both tourism and business is that we do have the most violent rate of crime in the state of Florida. But Jeb Bush and I have signed the STOP initiative. We would force criminals to serve not 40 or 50 or 60 percent of their sentences but 85 percent.

MacKay: Well, this is extraordinary. Let me tell you what happened over the past four years. Florida's economy has created 300,000 new jobs in the past four years. The Florida economy is now creating one out of 10 new jobs that are being created in all of America. We have the strongest economy in any state in America today.

Feeney: The new jobs that you refer to, in fairness, are predominantly low-wage, service-sector jobs and government jobs and temporary jobs. The high-tech and highly paid, skilled manufacturing jobs in Florida are disappearing.

The other thing is taxes. They've suggested professional taxes for everybody who's an accountant, an engineer, an attorney. That would punish business and slow job creation. Let's have a moratorium on tax talk in Florida.

MacKay: Let's start talking straight about taxes in Florida.

Tom Feeney said "read my lips" wasn't enough. He said, "I'll resign if I vote for any taxes," and then he voted for a $100-million gasoline tax. And then when asked why he didn't resign, he said, "I didn't know that was a tax." Let me tell you what. That second answer is the reason he should have resigned.

Jeb Bush was the secretary of commerce under the Martinez administration. You need to understand the biggest tax in the history of the state of Florida was the services tax. Now believe it or not, that wasn't a Democratic tax. That was Bob Martinez's tax. And guess what? Jeb Bush, who is now against all new taxes _ "read my lips" runs in that family _ against all new taxes, he supported the services tax, the biggest in the history of Florida.

Welfare

Feeney: Welfare in America was designed by compassionate, well-intentioned people, people like Lawton Chiles and Buddy MacKay when they were in Washington. But it is a system basically at its core that pays people not to work, not to marry anybody who's working and have additional children while they're stuck on the system. It ends up being cruel. Jeb and I believe the only truly compassionate welfare program is a program that's temporary, that's based on the notion of strong families and based on the notion of work.

MacKay: You can say you're reforming welfare and you can cut everybody off, and it makes great rhetoric. But two-thirds of the people on welfare are children. And when you cut everybody off, you better decide what you're going to do with those children. Some of them will fit into prison because they're old enough. The rest of them, you better start thinking about putting them in the world's largest orphanage or maybe expanding our highly touted foster home system.

We have passed two pilot projects which are the most far-reaching welfare reform pilot projects in America. People are being given help with job training and day care, but they're being told that at the end of two years, you're going to take a job.

Health care

MacKay: We have made a strong beginning on health care in the state of Florida. We have volunteer community health purchasing alliances. We are already saving tremendous money for small business and making health care available to working people who've never had that before.

We can save $1-billion a year and we propose to put that money into subsidizing health care for the working poor in the state of Florida, the people who are making too much money to qualify for Medicaid but who are working every day and don't have health insurance.

Feeney: If you look at their approach, it ultimately is the same approach that Bill and Hillary Clinton have tried to take at the federal level.

What I'm afraid of is that if we force everybody into government collectives and let government bureaucrats make the most personal decisions in our lives . . . (it will lead to) an enormous deterioration in quality of health care and soaring costs. If you think health care is expensive in America today, wait until you see how expensive it is when government gives it to you for free.

MacKay: If distortion were a crime, Tom, you'd be on your way to boot camp right now. Actually, our proposal is a free-market proposal for health reform. It does not rely on government at all. It is very similar to the Republican proposal in the U.S. Congress and it is really the opposite approach to the approach that was taken by the Clinton administration.

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