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End of session, but not issues

For 60 days the Florida Legislature fought over spending billions in tax dollars, improving public education and adjusting government's role in private lives.

Over the next six months, the battle will take place all over again. Candidates for governor, state Cabinet and the Legislature will try to convince voters that Florida is heading in the right direction _ or veering seriously off course.

In an election year, public policy and politics are entwined like a pretzel, and the legislative session that ended Friday produced plenty of fodder for campaign slogans, speeches and negative attacks. Lawmakers' spending priorities, education policies, children's programs and new restrictions on abortion are at the top of the list.

"These are going to be the issues we debate," predicted Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for governor. "People care about quality child care, they care about choice, they care about schools. That's what the debate is going to be about, and it starts right here."

MacKay and Jeb Bush, the Republican candidate for governor who stayed in touch with Republican legislative leaders throughout the session, agree on that much.

"Children's issues and education are going to be huge," Bush spokesman Cory Tilley said Saturday.

Minutes after the session ended Bush was congratulating legislators for expanding Healthy Families, a program aimed at preventing child abuse. MacKay and outgoing Gov. Lawton Chiles also support the program.

Some of the campaigning won't be divisive.

Legislators from both parties will take credit for the unprecedented $50 checks from the state that more than 3.6-million property owners with homestead exemptions are expected to receive before the election. They also will brag about creating a sales-tax-free week in August on clothing and shoes that cost less than $50 per item.

"This is one time Mr. and Mrs. Joe Citizen, the people who pay taxes and buy clothes for school, will come into play," said Sen. Anna Cowin, R-Leesburg.

Florida's first Republican-controlled Legislature in this century also will be credited for investing more in children. While Chiles has been the state's most persistent children's advocate, legislators have been slower to embrace the cause.

Until now.

With Washington dangling millions in federal matching dollars, legislators expanded a subsidized health insurance program to cover more than 250,000 additional low-income children. They also created thousands of additional day care slots for families unable to afford commercial rates.

"Clearly, children are now more fashionable," said Budd Bell, who has been lobbying on children's issues for nearly 30 years. "I think they are beginning to get it."

With a booming economy and the tobacco settlement providing more than $2-billion in additional spending money, legislators also poured more cash into public schools without raising taxes. Spending will rise by 4.6 percent per student.

But some Democrats said so much more could have been done for education and children if lawmakers had not given away millions in tax breaks and had not feasted on "turkeys" _ special interest projects for their districts.

"When you look at what is not in the budget and what are our true state needs and then start trying to curry favor with local projects, that is not a wise decision," said Rep. Anne Mackenzie, D-Fort Lauderdale.

Countered Senate President Toni Jennings, R-Orlando: "There's always a good way to spend more money. We tried to take care of our priorities first. I'm not ashamed one bit of our commitment to education."

The $45.3-billion budget was an issue with the candidates for governor before Chiles even issued his veto list. Bush complained there was too much waste in the budget. Former Sen. Rick Dantzler of Winter Haven, who is challenging MacKay and Rep. Keith Arnold of Fort Myers for the Democratic nomination, said he would have vetoed the entire spending plan.

"We had a great opportunity to reduce class sizes and reduce teen pregnancy," Dantzler said, "and we let it get away."

Voters also will hear plenty about whether Republicans have steered the state too far toward big business and social conservatives.

Even with Bush urging them on, legislators could not agree on a successor to the Preservation 2000 land-buying program. But they did approve a change backed by the sugar industry that could cost taxpayers more to acquire land to restore the Everglades.

"We should have been moving forward," MacKay said of the environment. "We took a step back."

As business lobbyists cheered, legislators also rammed through sweeping changes in the civil justice system that critics say are too one-sided. Trial lawyers already are mounting a campaign to persuade Chiles to veto the bill.

With Republicans calling the shots, the Legislature overrode the governor's veto of a ban on partial-birth abortions. A constitutional amendment that would have required minors to get their parents' consent before obtaining an abortion was narrowly defeated. But lawmakers then voted to prohibit minors from obtaining an abortion unless their parents are given 48 hours' notice by a doctor.

Motorists even could be reading about abortion as they drive. The Legislature approved a new specialty license tag with the slogan: "Choose life."

Those weren't the only breakthroughs for conservatives. Ignoring Chiles' opposition to using public money to pay for private school tuition, legislators came closer than ever to approving a test of vouchers. The effort failed because the Senate would accept vouchers for prekindergarten but not kindergarten, as the House wanted.

Some of the happiest lobbyists in the Capitol at the end of the session were those representing conservative groups such as the Christian Coalition and Florida Right to Life. Until Republicans gained control of both the House and Senate in 1996, Democrats usually were able to keep the conservatives' issues bottled up.

"These last two years have been a marked change from the liberal leadership that wouldn't even let us be heard," said Matt Ozolnieks, vice president of Florida Right to Life.

Democrats expect Republicans to pay a price at the polls.

"I thought Republicans were smarter than they appear to be as far as strategic positioning," said Rep. Mary Brennan, D-Pinellas Park. "They have positioned themselves so far to the right, from vouchers to abortion issues, and I don't see how that is going to resonate with voters."

Brennan and other Democrats said Republican legislators made the case for keeping a Democrat in the Governor's Mansion as a counter-balance.

"People in this state don't like extremists in either direction," said Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach.

Moderate as well as conservative Republicans insist the criticism is off-base.

"There are some litmus test issues that people and the media tend to use in evaluating the left, the middle and the right, but you have to look at everything in balance," said Rep. R.Z. "Sandy" Safley, a moderate Republican from Clearwater. "We are in the mainstream."

The most intriguing subplot as the campaign season begins may be the evolving relationship between black Democrats and white Republicans.

The Florida NAACP, U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings of South Florida and some black state legislators still have not forgiven white Democrats for removing a black lawmaker as their incoming House leader. And Republicans, who rarely attract many black voters, took full advantage of the dispute.

The Republican-controlled Legislature accomplished something that Democrats failed to do for more than two decades. It passed legislation that would allow compensation to Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee, two black men who spent 12 years on death row for murders another man admitted committing.

"We were always told Republicans were next to the devil, but once we had an opportunity to engage in direct conversation we found they're human," said Rep. Willie Logan of Opa-Locka, the black Democrat removed.

But some black Democrats were angry with their new GOP allies on Saturday. Some local projects put into budget at the request of black lawmakers appeared at risk Saturday, because of the Legislature's failure to pass a separate bill describing the projects.

The bill was among several that fell to defeat after being loaded with amendments Republican leaders had no time to review.

House Majority Leader Jim King expressed concern over the measure Saturday, saying he didn't realize some of the projects depended on passage of the bill.

_ Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.