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Special session on schools starts on conciliatory note

Everybody mostly played nice on Monday, the first day of a special session of the Legislature on building more schools.

The governor did not threaten to veto anything.

The Democrats did not call the Republicans a bunch of evil tightwads who are ignoring our kids.

The Republicans did not call the Democrats a bunch of liberal tax-and-spenders.

Instead, all sides said they were working together, determined to reach a compromise this week.

With the 1998 election just around the corner, there is a lot of potential for this session to collapse into a partisan disaster, each side blaming the other.

That still could happen easily. Plenty of special sessions start with happy words on Monday and end with bitter finger-pointing on Friday.

But to the extent that raw politics was involved Monday, it was defensive. Each party was more interested in not looking bad itself than in attacking the other side.

For example, the Democrats seemed to be losing their steam on the sticky question of requiring an election in each county to raise the local sales tax.

The Republicans demand these elections. The Democrats started out opposing them _ but do they really want to go on record as the party that tried to shut out the voters?

Answer: No.

Meanwhile, the Republicans are in remarkable agreement that they need to pass something. They say they care only about kids. But in the back of their minds, they understand that the Democrats will have a field day next year if they fail.

I asked Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, who is running for governor next year: Wouldn't it be better for you politically if the whole deal collapsed, and the Republicans did nothing?

MacKay protested vigorously. It is absolutely more important to accomplish something this week, than to try to finagle any kind of political gain.

"He who tries to finesse this," said MacKay, "is at great risk."

The big picture is that the state House and Senate each will vote today or Wednesday. Both sides' plans cough up a lot of money _ at least $1.5-billion over the next five years in the House, and maybe $2-billion-plus in the Senate.

But there are a lot of differences between the House and Senate on exactly where that money comes from, and exactly how it will be spent. Should the state use lottery dollars to sell bonds? Watch also for a snippy debate over exactly how to count portable classrooms in this formula.

The third partner in all this is Gov. Lawton Chiles, and it will be fun to see where he comes down. He named a commission that came up with a figure of $3.3-billion needed. How much less will he take?

If the Legislature meets him only partway, can he afford to veto the bill? Will the voters agree with him that half a loaf is not enough? Or will they buy the Republican argument that the liberal Democrats rejected their responsible compromise for political gain?

Monday was too early for such crass calculation.

"Everyone's going to compromise here," said David Bishop, a spokesman for Republicans in the Senate. "All three sides have been sitting down the last couple of weeks, really working on a plan. I think the governor, Senate and House are closer than people think they are."

So give both parties a little credit. Chiles the Democrat has brought the Republican Legislature to Tallahassee and has helped bring about the consensus that something needs to happen. That consensus did not exist six months ago.

Meanwhile, the Republicans are almost certain to prevail in their core goal of passing a plan that does not involve any new state taxes.

So far, so good.

Of course, the week is still young.