Tags: US | XGR | Jeb | Bushs | Influence

Former Gov. Bush: Still in Charge at the Capitol?

Thursday, 15 April 2010 06:34 AM

Ease class-size limits — check. Cut corporate income taxes — check. End tenure for new teachers and link teacher raises to student performance — check (for now).

All of those measures, and others, championed by former Gov. Jeb Bush have been approved by the Florida Legislature or are advancing through it. The Republican left office nearly four years ago, but he's finding that as a private citizen, he's become a legislative Wizard of Oz — thunder and lightning and pulling the levers of power from behind the curtain.

"Unfortunately, this is his best legislative session ever," said state Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "The more right-wing proposals that eluded him as governor seem to have a lot of momentum this year."

These days, Bush, 57, lives in the Miami area, runs two foundations and a small consulting firm, delivers paid speeches and sits on the board of directors of Tenet Healthcare Corp. Often mentioned as a presidential candidate in 2012, he says he has no interest in returning to elective office.

The brother of former President George W. Bush has not testified during legislative hearings or made any other public appearances in Tallahassee since the 60-day session began March 2, but he has exerted influence through his Tallahassee-based educational foundation and, from a distance, by remote control.

Bush recorded "robo-calls" and sent batch e-mails seeking to build public support for the teacher pay bill. He also expressed support for it during a nationally broadcast radio program.

"Teacher performance would be measured on student learning, which is apparently a radical idea," Bush said during the radio program, hosted by Bill Bennett, an education secretary under President Ronald Reagan. "It's not radical at all. I think it's commonsensical."

The measure has emerged as one of the most polarizing of the session, attracting national attention as his successor, Republican Gov. Charlie Crist — in a GOP fight to run for the U.S. Senate — grapples with the policy implications and political ramifications of signing or vetoing it.

Crist has until Friday to decide. He appears to be leaning toward a veto.

Among the thousands of calls and letters to Crist was a voice mail left Monday — by none other than Jeb Bush.

"He encouraged me to sign the bill," Crist said. "Shocking. God bless him."

The bill was introduced by Sen. John Thrasher, R-Jacksonville, who served as House speaker during part of Bush's eight-year term as governor, remains a close ally and recently became chairman of the state Republican Party. Overall, conservative Republicans have tightened their grip on the Legislature since Bush left office.

Bush did not respond to an e-mail and phone calls from The Associated Press seeking comment for this story.

A close aide said Bush is driven primarily by ideas, not ambition, and he has never been shy about advancing his conservative policies, especially when it comes to education.

"He's not in the shadows," said Patricia Levesque, executive director of Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future, which specializes in educational policy reform. "He is very public and always has been with his actions. And every year, the foundation puts out its legislative agenda."

Asked Wednesday if he senses that his predecessor is looking over his shoulder or breathing down his neck, Crist said: "That's all right. Any citizen that wants to participate and advocate and weigh in on an issue, I would encourage them."

Still, rarely does Bush and his foundation enjoy as much legislative success as they have this year.

Among the measures that have cleared the Legislature or seem likely to:

— A new constitutional amendment to ease the caps on class sizes. Bush vigorously opposed the original amendment, which was approved in 2002 and will be watered down if voters ratify the new measure this fall.

— An expansion of school voucher programs, which were started under Bush and form a centerpiece of his educational reforms.

— A cut in the corporate income tax rate, from 5.5 percent to 4.5 percent, for the first $1 million in taxable income, satisfying a key tenet of Bush's bedrock conservative philosophy.

— An overhaul of the state's Medicaid system that substantially widens a largely privatized managed-care pilot program started five years ago by Bush.

— Conditional authority for property insurance companies to boost premiums without government approval. In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Bush said undercapitalized insurance companies need rate increases, and he urged Crist to sign the measure.

— And the transformation of teacher pay and tenure standards. Coincidentally or not, it punishes the state teachers union, an enduring Bush foe.

Bush recently scoffed at speculation that he is setting himself up for a 2012 presidential campaign.

"I don't wake up each day thinking about running," Bush said during a March 22 interview on Fox News. "And I'm involved in policy, which I love. I'm involved in helping others that are principle-centered, that want to believe in conservative principles and have a passion for reform, particularly in education."

And all of that is playing itself out this year at the Capitol.

"It may be the general pitching to the right of some people in the Legislature," Gelber said. "But whatever it is, it's clearly noticeable that Bush is having a good year here."


Associated Press Writer Brent Kallestad contributed to this report.

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Ease class-size limits check. Cut corporate income taxes check. End tenure for new teachers and link teacher raises to student performance check (for now).All of those measures, and others, championed by former Gov. Jeb Bush have been approved by the Florida...
Thursday, 15 April 2010 06:34 AM
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