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Missed opportunities

A booming Florida economy, and the resulting windfall in tax revenues, has made life easy for Gov. Lawton Chiles and the Legislature this year. Money greases the squeaky wheels of Tallahassee's partisan machinery, and there's some available for everybody's pet cause, worthy or otherwise.

The governor acknowledges that the Republican-controlled Legislature, after weeks of posturing, turned out to be relatively generous in funding his priorities for children's health and education. Overall, the $45-billion budget sent to Chiles makes incremental improvements in most important funding categories. Floridians probably should be thankful for small favors.

However, Floridians may soon look back at the 1998 session as a time of missed opportunity. Good times do not last forever. The next recession, or even a return to normal growth patterns, will endanger the small advances made this session. This year presented the governor and Legislature with a chance to take bold moves _ to lower class sizes in early grades, to provide more need-based assistance for college students, to protect the health of Florida's neediest children. Instead, they produced cautious, grudging results.

Consider the Republican leadership's late-session talk of new tax cuts.

Returning money to taxpayers in times of budget surpluses certainly is a valid idea, particularly if the tax breaks go to those who need and deserve them most. However, the priorities of House Speaker Dan Webster and other Republican leaders are curious.

When the choice was between turkeys and tax breaks, Webster and his colleagues chose turkeys.

Webster and other leaders approved a budget larded with what Florida TaxWatch identified as more than $300-million worth of special-interest projects, such as $300,000 for fiber-optic wiring at an exclusive Dade County tennis center. If Webster was so fired up for additional tax breaks, he could have paid for them by lopping all those turkeys from the budget he sent to the governor. But he didn't, and Chiles _ using a more delicate scalpel than he might have _ carved away $96.2-million from the turkeys that landed on his desk.

That's $96.2-million that now could be diverted to far more worthy causes. House Democrats suggest using the money to pay for school nurses and other education programs that could make our schools safer, less crowded and more efficient.

But now that the choice is between school kids and tax breaks, Webster suddenly is for tax breaks. Is there any priority that is lower than Florida's public schools in Webster's mind?

The budget presented to the governor is not a disgrace. The economy has been so strong that even our honorables in Tallahassee aren't capable of screwing it up completely. But Florida's elected leaders had a chance in 1998 to begin making up for years of diversion and neglect. Missed opportunities usually aren't recognized until well after the fact. In this case, the day of reckoning is as close as the next recession.