With Tallahassee as his backdrop, Jeb Bush vowed Monday to “disrupt” the Washington establishment if he’s elected president, by shrinking government, seeking a line-item veto, campaigning for a balanced budget amendment and imposing a six-year ban on the revolving door of Congressmen entering the lobbying corps.
“The ultimate disruption of Washington is to reject, as I do, the whole idea of a government forever growing more, borrowing more and spending more,” Florida’s former governor told 350 supporters at Florida State University. It was the first in a series of speeches intended to outline his priorities in his presidential bid.
Standing before a sign that proclaimed “DC Reform,” Bush took a subtle dig at some of his rivals — Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky — by emphasizing his outsider status. He called for legislation to pay Congress only on days they show up for work and joked that “it would at least get them to show up for a vote.”
He then launched a multi-part proposal that he said would reform Washington the way he changed Tallahassee. His proposals include many of the spending limits Republican candidates have been touting for decades — asking states to ratify a balanced budget amendment, embracing the line-time veto, reforming government contracting, and imposing limits on agency spending.
But Bush offered a few updated approaches, based on his time in Tallahassee.
IDEAS FROM FLORIDA
Noting that he was the first governor to make his budget available online, he said agencies should have to justify their spending and provide more transparency. Citing his push to reduce the state workforce by 13,000, he said he would shrink government payroll 10 percent by freezing hiring and then hiring only one worker to replace every three that retire.
He called for lobbying reforms, noting that in Washington “spending on lobbying has risen by more than 45 percent over the past decade, translating to $12.5 million per member of Congress at last count.”
Referring to the Florida lobbyist reforms, backed by Bush but initiated in Florida by former-Senate President Tom Lee, he said he would end the revolving door of Congressmen getting jobs as lobbyists by imposing a six-year ban on the practice.
“We need to help politicians to rediscover life outside of Washington, which — who knows? — might even be a pleasant surprise for them,” he said.
The friendly audience of supporters included former campaign and agency staff he had hired throughout his career — many of whom have now become lobbyists. He nonetheless took aim at the livelihoods of some of them calling them an “ambiguous class of consultants who lobby but call it something else.”
“The definition of the term ‘lobbyist’ should be expanded to address the cadre of ‘government relations’ and ‘government affairs’ specialists now populating the Capitol,” he said.
CIVIL SERVICE REFORMS
Bush blasted the federal civil service system as “ruled by inertia” where “people are hired, promoted, and given pay increases often without regard to performance.”
As governor from 1998-2006, Bush reduced the state workforce by shifting state jobs to private contractors and privatizing hundreds of state services. The exercise angered state employee unions and, according to a Miami Herald analysis, steered at least $667 million in state services and 9,787 jobs to private companies.
Bush abolished the state Department of Labor and gave new contracting authority to all his agencies, especially the Department of Management Services. His successors, former Gov. Charlie Crist and Gov. Rick Scott, continued the trend and private companies now run state toll collections, law enforcement communications systems, Medicaid collections, payroll functions, mail services, prison canteens, janitorial duties, office leasing and oversight of foster care for the state’s neediest children.
The share of the state budget “outsourced” to private companies exploded under Bush — and so did Tallahassee’s cottage industry of executive branch lobbyists, who made a living off negotiating and capturing state contracts.
Their clients rewarded the Republican Party with millions in campaign contributions during Bush’s term, and continue to be a major source of revenue for GOP candidates.
The experience was not without its headaches. The head of the Department of Children & Families resigned after he and two top aides accepted gifts from contractors. The state’s payroll system, run by Cincinnati-based Convergys, got into trouble for subcontracting work to an company in India, breaching security on hundreds of credit cards and bank records for state employees.
Private prison vendors were overpaid more than $13 million. The head of the Department of Corrections was convicted for taking kickbacks from a company that sold snacks at the prison canteen. And state auditors found that since private contractors took over the state’s foster care program, more children were abused and costs had climbed.
Bush said he had no regrets about the reforms, but noted that the successful contracts didn't get as much attention as the troubled ones.
Meanwhile during Bush’s term, the state budget ballooned from $49 billion to $71 billion, much of it as a result of a robust economy. The state’s debt also grew — from $15 billion to more than $23 billion and the annual debt service payments rose from $928 million to $1.7 billion.
Bush’s popularity has recently risen to frontrunner status as he leads the pack of 16 presidential hopefuls in fundraising. According to a recent Miami Herald/el Nuevo Herald poll, he has also pulled ahead of Rubio 35 percent to 25 percent among GOP voters in Florida.
“People are so fed up with the culture in Washington, there is broad, bipartisan support to be able to change these things,’’ Bush told reporters after the speech. “It may not happen overnight. The balanced budget amendment is going to take more than a day ... But we’ve got to get broad Democratic support, and changing the culture will help with that.”
Former state senator and House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber challenged Bush’s assessment of his term, especially his budget cuts, vetoes and spending priorities.
“Florida was an austere state before Jeb was governor, which is why he ultimately cut more marrow than fat,” Gelber told the Herald/Times. “Much of Florida’s safety net was severely frayed. I think his rush to privatization did more harm than good as evidenced by the well-documented tragedies in our child care system and prison mismanagement” and he shifted “by the billions” the burden of property taxes from the state to local government.
The Democratic National Committee also quickly pounced on Bush’s promises.
“What we have seen from Jeb Bush before, we will see again – greater income inequality, sky high debt, allegiances to lobbyists, and a failed economic agenda that benefits the wealthy,” said DNC spokeswoman Christina Freundlich.
She noted that, unlike the federal government, Florida’s governor is is constitutionally required to balance the budget, that spending grew 45 percent during Bush’s term and debt increase and many of Bush’s campaign also relied on advisors who are former lawmakers turned lobbyists.
Bush used the 30-minute speech to launch a web video featuring Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, recalling his nickname as “Veto Corleone.”
He said he grew to like the name, a pun on the name of the fictional crime kingpin, as he “vetoed more than 2,500 spending items” over eight years, producing $2 billion in savings. “I’m glad somebody was keeping count,” he said.
Bush opened his second inauguration by pointing to the government buildings around him and suggesting “we can make these buildings around us empty of workers; silent monuments to the time when government played a larger role than it deserved or could adequately fill.”
He said Monday, he agrees with that sentiment today and would take it to Washington where he would focus on targeting deficit spending.
After the speech, he told reporters he supports a line-item veto that gives Congress the authority to take an up or down vote on a president’s veto. “The line-time veto, you recall, was declared unconstitutional,” he said.
Bush is scheduled to continue to take his “DC Reform” campaign on the road and will travel to South Carolina on Tuesday.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and @MaryEllenKlas