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Priorities not politics

Amidst that din of the gubernatorial campaign is the “discussion” of the class-size amendment. As usual, people miss the point.

The class-size amendment is a poor solution but a necessary evil. It is the blunt instrument Florida needs to pound its elected officials.

Limiting class size is not going to fix education. It won’t hurt it, to be sure, but it is only one small part of a complicated problem. And an expensive problem. And that’s where the amendment promises to do its best work.

Governor Bush says the class-size amendment will be so expensive it will drive out much more valuable spending including, he wants to tell us, money for the elderly, roads and so on. It doesn’t have to, if he and others of his kind are willing to surrender their own spending pets, including tax breaks. It’s a matter of priorities and passage of the amendment will clearly express the population’s. Interestingly, this idea comes to us through the back door of the governor’s own brother.

President Bush’s enormously expensive tax cut is not about giving people their money, it’s about bankrupting the government. Bush and his cohorts’ priority is a severely downsized government that can’t protect the average person so the rich and powerful can run roughshod. If he “gives people their money,” the government will have less. And soon, when push comes to shove and we have to choose between environmental regulation and Social Security, we’ll opt for the latter. No politician will want to say we need to raise taxes in the amounts the president is cutting them, so those “superfluous” programs we all really want will become unaffordable. And the fox will run the henhouse in terms of consumer protection, market regulation, health care and so on because the government will have made itself powerless. When we Americans accept the tax cut as some sort of gift (even though it only comes to the rich), we are complicit in this coup. It’s about priorities.

Florida, oddly progressive, has turned this idea on its head, first with high-speed rail and now with class size. Floridians said, and will say, “this is what we want” in the broad, general way constitutions speak. When the politicians say there’s no way to pay for it, the public can point out that the constitution is the elected officials’ first priority, by law and sworn oath, and that other matters will just have to follow. If that means pet projects whither and die, so be it. The politicians will try to find a way around this, but the constitution will make it hard.

Admittedly, this process might require yet other amendments concerning the elderly, teacher salaries, growth management or other broadly-defined ideas that will then govern Tallahassee the way it can’t govern itself. The idea is to enshrine in the one irrefutable source of power ideas so basic that politicians can’t get around them: They’ll be forced to comply. Priorities will shift because they will have to.

So even if you don’t quite like the class-size amendment because you’re not sure it will work, vote for it anyway. Tell the governor you care about kids. It’s his responsibility to effect your will. Or he can get another job.

Paul Swider is a USF