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Chile's pitch: steady at the helm

Tampa executive Dennis Ross, an avowed Democrat and chief executive of Jim Walter Corp., thinks the governor has gotten a bad rap from business.

"(Lawton) Chiles offered an agenda when he first became governor that covered a range of human and physical capital requirements, from education to infrastructure," Ross said.

Then the Chiles administration ran smack into a recession.

Now the governor, like most other incumbents, must defend his record despite a nasty public mood against government.

"There's been a tendency in the last year to indicate that anything that involves government is bad. I see that as an extremely shortsighted and superficial analysis," Ross said.

Chiles may not get a lot of standing ovations from the business community, but there are plenty who approve of his goals. To many in business, Walkin' Lawton and his Cracker colloquialisms are kind of like a pair of old shoes _ well-worn but at least predictable.

Still, more than a few business folks say they are ready to shop for some more contemporary footwear.

In Florida's business community, there's plenty of griping about a state government that's too big, too meddlesome and too unresponsive. It's that very drumbeat that got Jeb Bush's campaign off to a strong start.

"I think there's a rumbling all throughout the country that things are not the way they want them to be," said Shirley Ryals, senior vice president of SunBank of Tampa Bay and one of the area's most prominent business women.

A lot of her peers say they are undecided, but younger people in business are leaning toward Bush, she said. "They feel like Bush is a fresh face, and that might be good."

But the banker takes exception to Bush supporters who insist a businessman can step into Tallahassee and run a public body like a private enterprise.

"A CEO may dictate how a business achieves its goals, but government does not work that way," she said.

"Certainly, Chiles has had his turn to do a lot. But giving people the time to work through what they are trying to put in effect .

.

. may be more favorable to business than bringing in someone brand new," she said.

Bill Herrle, state lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business, doesn't take sides in a governor's race. But he does credit Chiles with some successes for small business.

Foremost among the federation's priorities is workers' compensation. The cost to small businesses had spiraled out of sight until the Legislature stepped in last year to control costs.

Last November, Chiles pressed lawmakers to cut employers' costs for the coverage of on-the-job injuries. In 1995, for the first time in years, workers' compensation rates won't go up.

The cost of workers' comp has been one of the biggest problems for small businesses in higher-risk industries like construction companies and roofers, said Jose Valiente, a CPA in Tampa.

"Workers' comp expenses have been outrageous, and ultimately those costs get passed on to the consumer," the accountant said. "Anything done to curtail it is good, and I have seen some improvements."

But Valiente, a Republican, said he still backs Bush.

Chiles also led the drive to establish Community Health Purchasing Alliances, called "chippas," a series of regional health insurance purchasing pools created to help lower medical costs for small business. The chippas are young, but some (including two in Tampa Bay) appear to be taking hold.

Ross' Jim Walter Corp. is too big to participate in the chippas. But his building materials company benefits anyway because it will stop subsidizing small companies in its insurance premiums.

"We already have an impact on our own medical costs by what Chiles initiated," Ross said.

To counter criticism that Chiles has done little for economic development, the governor points to Enterprise Florida.

The public-private partnership offers job-training grants to attract and retain companies. And it is setting up a venture capital fund, consulting help for manufacturers and assistance in transferring new technology from the laboratory to the factory.

So far, the fledgling Enterprise Florida has little concrete to show. And Bush, a former state secretary of commerce, charges that Florida remains a state that is unfriendly to business.

"Chiles has been a disappointment to me as a business person," banker David Dunbar said. He sees little that has been pro-business.

Dunbar said Chiles committed to streamline government to create a one-stop place for business to get state applications and permits.

"It never happened," Dunbar said. "Chiles was just playing to an audience."

Ross, on the other hand, believes that even if Bush wins the election, he lacks the experience to run the state.

"I know of nothing in his background that suggests the leadership to implement a modest agenda, much less the radical one he has," Ross said.

With the election only eight days away, the governor's race could go either way, according to the latest polls. Chiles and Bush are engaged in a burst of negative advertising, and they are scheduled to debate again Tuesday in Tampa.

A factor in Chiles' favor is the Florida economy. It is robust.

Had the state's economy been in trouble, Bush would have had another formidable weapon with which to attack Chiles and call for change.

If only his father had enjoyed a national economy in 1992 that was as strong as that in Florida today. Perhaps he would never have lost the election to Bill Clinton.

Gov. Lawton Chiles

Net worth: $1.6-million

Chiles, a millionaire, own shares in a number of restaurants and rental properties. His biggest stake is a 50 percent share in four Red Lobster restaurants in Florida. Below are the governor's chief investments and assets based on his 1993 financial disclosure statement.

What Chiles owns (major assets):

Real estate in Florida and North Carolina, including $720,000 Chemonie Plantation in Tallahassee: $1.4-million

Business partnerships in Red Lobster restaurants and mobile home park: $1.3-million

Stakes in Sandbar and other Manatee County restaurants; Governor's Inn, Tallahassee; employee leasing company; Glow-Worm fishing lure manufacturer: $400,000

Cash and securities: $100,000

Major sources of income in 1993:

Property rentals to Red Lobster: $270,000

Salary as governor: $98,000

Other restaurants, property rentals: $90,000

Retirement income, U.S. Senator: $39,000

Major debts:

Real estate loans from banks (Barnett, NationsBank, Chase Bank) and others, including $928,000 note for Governor's Inn: $1.8-million.

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