President takes feel-your-pain message on economy to Florida, where tourism is down

Tuesday, December 4th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) _ Microphone in hand, President Bush took the stage of a town hall meeting Tuesday and expressed sympathy with workers and business owners struggling in a sagging economy.

``There's nothing that hurts me more than to know, as we head for the holiday season, that some of our citizens and some of their families hurt because they've been laid off as a result of'' the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings over Washington, New York and Pennsylvania.

Tourism, a key industry in this area, has been hard hit by the attacks.

In the first town hall meeting of his presidency, Bush strolled the stage and called for questions from a crowd of several hundred displaced workers and business owners.

One of them complained that his company's request for a Small Business Administration loan had gotten lost in red tape. Bush's response was blunt.

``First, get in your car and find out why your case is bogged down in bureaucracy,'' Bush said. He got serious later, sending an aide to the man's side to find out more information about the case.

He joked about his mother's cooking, saying she was the best ``fast food cook of all time.'' His brother, Jeb, the governor of Florida, recoiled at the remark and shook his head from side to side.

Later, a young girls asked the president for a handshake. ``I'll do better,'' Bush said. ``I'll give you a kiss.'' He gave the girl a peck on the cheek while she blinked tears from her eyes.

Bush touched on the war in Afghanistan and the fighting in the Middle East, but most of the questions involved the economy.

He pledged to makes planes safer, which would help the tourism industry, and demanded action from Congress on an economic stimulus package.

`I urge the United States Congress to stop talking and to get an economic stimulus bill to my desk,'' he said.

He brushed aside a question about giving tax incentives to people who travel. ``That hasn't made it to my radar screen yet,'' Bush said.

Bush was looking to coax Americans back onto planes and trains during his fifth visit as president to Florida, which decided the presidency a year ago.

The last time Bush visited the state, he was addressing a classroom full of students when he learned that jetliners had struck the World Trade Center.

On other topics, the president:

_Urged Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to ``respond forcefully to rout out those who kill.'' He has increased pressure on Arafat since the suicide attacks in Israel last weekend.

_Defended his decision to form military tribunals that could try noncitizen terrorist suspects. ``It seems like to me that the president of the United States ought to have the option to protect the national security interests of the country and therefore protect America from further attacks,'' Bush said.

_Vowed to oversee anti-terrorism investigations that will trace every lead ``within the confines of the Constitution.'' His anti-terrorism initiatives, including secret detentions and expanded wiretap authority, have drawn criticism from civil liberties groups.

_Urged lawmakers to pass his energy plan and an initiative giving religious groups working in the community access to government money. Both plans are stalled in Congress.

The president met with laid-off workers in Orlando, home of Walt Disney World, and pushed his proposal to spend $3 billion to help them get by financially, maintain their health insurance and train for new work.

Among those at the job center was William Richards of Sanford, Fla., a graphic artist who has seen his work dry up at the Disney and Universal Studios theme parks.

Richards said he would prefer the kind of subsidies for enhanced health insurance that Democrats envision over more grants for job centers like the one he was sitting in.

Labor Secretary Elaine Chao told reporters aboard Air Force One that Bush's $3 billion expansion includes $3.4 million to help some 2,000 unemployed workers in the Orlando area, partly through centers like the one Bush visited. Jeb Bush said he had asked his brother's administration for $35 million.

Orlando has been hit harder than most communities because of the slowdown in travel. Orange County's collections from the resort tax on hotel and motel rooms declined by nearly a third for September.

An estimated 60,000 to 80,000 workers have had their work schedules reduced, been laid off or faced pay cuts since Sept. 11.

To revive the economy, Bush has called for a blend of corporate tax cuts, accelerated personal income tax reductions and aid to hurting workers, but on Tuesday the emphasis was on government aid.

Tourism is Florida's largest industry at $50 billion annually in gross sales. But the number of visitors has declined by 6 percent compared with last year, with a drop apparent since Sept. 11, said Tom Flanigan, a spokesman for Visit Florida, the state's public-private tourism marketing corporation.