EDITORIAL: Tax commission does Bush’s bidding

Apr 29, 2008

St. Petersburg Times–April 28, 2008

In devoting two ballot questions to school vouchers, the constitutionally empaneled Taxation and Budget Reform Commission removed any doubt about its agenda. The commission, which includes three members of former Gov. Jeb Bush’s staff, placed his education legacy at the top of the list.

Never mind that the Florida Constitution directs the commission to “examine the state budgetary process, the revenue needs and expenditure processes of the state, the appropriateness of the tax structure.” Forget that the public hearings held throughout Florida were dominated by talk about property taxes. In the end, two of the seven questions for the Nov. 4 ballot will be about school vouchers.

The tribute was led by a commission member, Patricia Levesque, who serves as paid director for the two foundations created to keep Bush’s political fortunes alive. And let no one be fooled by what lies ahead. The commission has assured that pro- and antivoucher groups will make Florida a national battleground. The campaign will be ugly, costly, divisive — and just the kind of politics that Bush relished.

The way the commission put the items on the ballot hints at the deceptions that lie ahead. Neither question mentions the word “voucher.” The first would remove the prohibition on spending tax dollars “directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination.” The second would rework the constitutional guarantee of a “high-quality system of public schools.”

Commissioners traded votes before adopting both questions, and then added camouflage to the second one. They added a formula — 65 percent of education funding must go to the classroom — that is widely regarded as a gimmick. A 2006 federal assessment, in fact, found that Florida schools already surpass that threshold. Then again, the formula is intended to entice voters who know no better.

Call this Bush’s postgubernatorial “devious plan.” He and the Legislature repeatedly expanded voucher programs even as courts were ruling against the first program, Opportunity Scholarships. Now he gets a chance at payback, and had the familiar cheek to issue this statement on Friday: “Florida voters, not activist jurists, will ultimately decide the best way to provide a quality education for all of our students.” Apparently, “activist” commissioners who go beyond their constitutional power don’t bother him.

The worst part about this upcoming voucher fight is the extent to which it will again polarize the debate on education reform. Gov. Charlie Crist has tried to restore trust with educators who under Bush were treated as though they were obstacles to progress. Some teacher union officials and voucher supporters have even worked behind the scenes to try to find common ground, and none of the remaining voucher programs have been challenged in court.

That cease-fire is about to be blown apart. It’s a high price to pay in pursuit of the Bush legacy.