Sunday, 31 December 2006

Even Bush's strongest critics could not doubt he had Florida's best interests at heart.

Like any departing governor, Bush leaves behind some festering issues. The crisis in property insurance will have to be addressed by incoming Gov. Charlie Crist and the Legislature. So will property tax reform, the future of privatization and problems carrying out executions by lethal injection. Higher education also didn't get the attention it deserves during the Bush years.

As the state grapples with those challenges, changes in tone and attitude will come more quickly in Tallahassee. After years of being dominated by the executive branch, the Legislature can be expected to assert itself again. Bush held tight to conservative values and was slow to compromise or accept opposing views. He had little use for legislators who challenged him or judges who disagreed with him in areas ranging from tuition vouchers to the Terri Schiavo feeding tube controversy. Crist is more of a populist whose early appointments reflect his greater willingness to delegate responsibility and hear alternative views.

As Bush leaves public life (at least for now), he leaves behind a state government with an impressive AAA bond rating and significant reserves. Despite a housing slump, the economy remains relatively strong with low unemployment and an annual job growth rate that is more than twice the national average. The crime rate is lower than it has been in decades, and the woeful high school graduation rate has risen by some measures. The governor deserves a measure of credit for these positive trends, although how much is due to his policies and how much should be attributed to other factors will be up to historians to decide.

Although Bush's administration was plagued by the occasional ethical lapse, the governor's personal integrity was never in question. His concern was genuine for improving the lives of the less fortunate among us who could use a helping hand toward a better education, a bigger job and a brighter future. We continue to have significant philosophical and policy differences, but we admire the intensity and energy he brought to an extremely challenging job. Even Bush's strongest critics could not doubt he had Florida's best interests at heart.

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