What Will the Winds of 2004 Bring?
Reading signs in the first few weeks after a big election is a tricky proposition, but some outlines of what the results bode for Florida are discernible.
The president remains the same, but new presidential initiatives are likely to affect Floridians in the next couple of years.
First, there are the president's big policy initiatives: Letting people divert some of the 12.4% Social Security tax to private retirement programs, increasing taxation of consumption and reducing taxation of income and an overall clamp-down on government spending, which has grown over the past four years at a rate not seen since the Carter administration. Those debates will be widely covered and hard to miss. In addition, some other hard-fought national policies may change as the Senate increases from 51 to 55 Republicans. One example is oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which failed in 2003 on a 52-48 vote but which now could have the votes to pass. As for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, the president supports it on the Texas side but backed off drilling near Florida after his brother intervened. There's no reason to think Jeb Bush will change his position or lose his influence on this issue.
At the state level, the biggest unknown will be the effect of Republican initiatives now that the wind is at Republicans' backs. A desperation to win Florida seemed to drive Jeb Bush to moderate his cost-cutting agenda in the year leading up to the election. He got help from the tremendous growth in federal money and a huge outpouring of emergency aid after the hurricanes. If both Bushes now redouble their cost-cutting efforts, however, the reaction of voters and program beneficiaries is likely to affect 2006 politics. The state House and Senate are both two-thirds Republican. The House leadership under Speaker Allen Bense of Panama City seems more moderate than in recent years, but conservatives are clearly feeling their oats after taking away three more seats from the Democrats to gain an 84-36 advantage.
Changes in Congress, particularly the Senate, and in national policy will affect a number of issues, including some less visible.
- Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is up for re-election in 2006. Since 2000 he has positioned himself in the ideological center of the Senate, and the Republican bent of the statewide results has to reconfirm his tendency toward staying at the conservative end of the Democratic Party. He can take heart from two things (at least): First is that newly elected Sen. Mel Martinez, in balloting against a Democrat with an amateurish campaign operation, did three points worse than George Bush's margin vs. John Kerry. Second, that "off-year" congressional elections tend to go against the president's party (though not in 2002). Meanwhile, however, Nelson is likely to have some tough votes as the 55 Senate Republicans look for five centrist Democrats to get the 60 votes needed to break filibusters (think Supreme Court nominees, for example).
- Because of a self-imposed six-year limit on committee chairmanships, some key Republicans are shifting around in the U.S. Senate. In addition, Bob Graham's retirement produces some falling dominoes with possible implications for Florida:
- Veterans Affairs was slated to get a new chairman, Larry E. Craig of Idaho, replacing Arlen Specter (who may move to Judiciary). Two important things about Craig: He doesn't have many veterans or veteran facilities in his state, and he's tight-fisted on spending. Graham, an avid protector of Florida's many veterans, had served on that committee.
- Commerce, Science and Transportation, which includes space policy and telecommunications, is shifting from John McCain of Arizona to Ted Stevens of Alaska, whose big priority is telecom service for rural areas and who is, obviously, not from a fast-growing Sun Belt state. NASA reauthorization, which in its current $86-billion form includes retiring the space shuttle in 2010, is coming up. There is also a new six-year highway bill, in which Florida is trying to increase the amount it gets back to at least 90% of what Floridians pay in gas taxes. Bush is pressuring for a less-costly bill than either house has passed. That will reduce the chances Florida can reach that 90% target. (Nelson is on that committee.)
- Graham is also leaving Finance, the committee that will handle Bush's tax initiatives. At press time, it wasn't clear which committees Martinez will get, but none of those three committees were his first choices. His top choice, not surprisingly for a former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. He has also expressed interest in Foreign Relations, though it hasn't been highly influential in recent years, and Judiciary. Except for Cuba policy in Foreign Relations, neither of those is laden with Florida-specific business or citizen interests, as Graham's memberships were.
- One other change could be important to Florida -- this one in the House. C.W. Bill Young of St. Petersburg is required by the chairmanship term limits to step down as chairman of House Appropriations, the spending committee. It was Young who championed two disaster-relief bills for $2 billion and $11.6 billion after the hurricanes. Young returns to the chair of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, from which he watches out for veterans and military bases in Florida. His communications director, Harry Glenn, downplays the significance of the change: "He will still be vice chairman and works well with all the members of the committee."
- As for federal grants to Florida, "nothing's going to change," says Kurt Wenner, a senior research analyst at Florida TaxWatch. "Florida for a variety of reasons has never done well," ranking near the bottom of states on a per-capita basis. "I don't think anything that happened in this election is going to change that."
For all the talk of how moral values influenced voters' decisions in the presidential race, the broader context of the 2004 voting in Florida doesn't indicate the state's residents have settled on a dominant moral compass. If anything, the voting showed Florida as bipolar. The voters went clearly for George W. Bush, replaced Democrat Bob Graham with Republican Mel Martinez in the U.S. Senate, imposed restrictions on teen-agers' abortions and repealed the bullet train at the same time. But they also overwhelmingly (80%) approved a higher minimum wage and narrowly opened up the prospect of casino gambling, not exactly a "conservative values" outcome. In three constitutional amendments, voters came down on both lawyers and doctors: A pox on both their houses seemed to be the sentiment.