Gov. Crist's sophomore effort will test past success and popularity

Published: Saturday, March 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 29, 2008 at 11:44 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE - Last year, Gov. Charlie Crist muscled sweeping plans to cut property taxes and insurance rates through a star-struck Legislature. He also pushed historic changes to reduce greenhouse gases and allow felons automatic voting rights upon their release from prison.

It would seem that Crist could aim for the moon again as he carries public approval ratings of 70 percent and a national buzz that he is a potential running mate for GOP presidential candidate John McCain.

But a combination of a dismal economy, an irascible Legislature and the traditional sophomore slowdown may limit Crist's reach in his second year.

"He's ended up with a tremendous amount of political capital and no way to spend it,'' said Jim Krog, a longtime Tallahassee lobbyist and former chief of staff to Gov. Lawton Chiles.

As lawmakers prepare for the annual 60-day session beginning Tuesday, Crist's priorities are mundane, including more competition among hospitals, mandatory physical education classes for sixth-graders and insuring that new buildings are more energy efficient.

"Obviously circumstances, to a degree, dictate what you need to be working on,'' Crist said last week.

Like any eager employee facing a new job, governors try to make a good first impression.

"When you come in off a big election and you come into that first year, you try to tackle big issues,'' said Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Fort Lauderdale. "There's a natural rebound in the second year where the Legislature reminds the executive branch that this is a system of separate but equal branches.''

Crist also faces a challenge from conservative House Republicans who reluctantly passed his tax cutting plan that voters approved last month. A stiffer rebellion may come from Crist's property insurance proposal that cut some rates but deepened the state's risk of multi-billion dollar losses if a major hurricane hits the state.

"I think it will be different from last year, despite (Crist's) approval ratings,'' said Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland. "The conservative base is searching for some leadership, and I think that possibly you'll see some people in the House realize that we've got to have more free market solutions instead of government solutions.''

But Seiler said Crist's personal touch with lawmakers will keep his relationship strong. "Charlie Crist has built up a lot of good will,'' he said. "I don't think you can lose that good will in one session. He's going to have the ability to get his agenda through.''

Crist's second year is hampered by historic budget woes as tax revenue from construction and real estate dry up. By the time lawmakers leave Tallahassee, the state's budget may be $4 billion less than it was just a few years ago, with dramatic cuts in education and services for the poor. Against that backdrop, it is impossible for any governor to push for any major new programs or initiatives. "The budget (cuts) have a chilling effect,'' said Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. "It will kill a lot of policy initiatives.''

But Crist may be shielded from lingering budget criticism. The state constitution only requires the governor to propose a budget, while lawmakers have the unpleasant duty of deciding which programs to cut. "You've got to take that heat for six weeks until the Legislature meets, and then you're done,'' said Pete Dunbar, a lobbyist and former chief of staff for Gov. Bob Martinez. "(Crist) has really side-stepped all of that.''

It would be hard to find a lawmaker who wants to raise taxes or insurance rates, so Crist was able to shine by leading the public battle on those issues last year.

But now, as he moves on to more intricate policy battles, he may find legislative support less warm. An example is Crist's surprising push this year to loosen up the state's "Certificate of Need'' process that limits hospital expansion. Crist does not see any nuance in the issue, saying he simply wants more competition. He calls the strict state limits on where hospitals and emergency centers can be built "offensive'' and "too much government.''

"I want quality control, but I want more competition,'' Crist said.

But opposition to the plan is bipartisan with concerns that willy-nilly building of hospitals would allow some to siphon off rich patients and leave others forced to care for those with no insurance. And the public won't apply the same supportive pressure on this issue that Crist enjoyed with property taxes and insurance.

"The second year is less sexy with more detailed policy changes,'' Galvano said. "That's where you start to develop some friction.''

Shadowing everything is the November election. Unlike last year when Crist and lawmakers loitered in the Capitol for most of the year in special sessions to cut taxes and deal with insurance laws, few will have the desire to risk controversial battles that could linger beyond the May 2 deadline.

"If he tries to keep us in Tallahassee past June, you're going to hear people say, 'Wait a minute, we've got to get home for elections,' " said Seiler, who is running for mayor of Fort Lauderdale.

And the national election may be affecting Crist's decisions.

"If he's trying to look like some kind of fiscal conservative to make himself attractive to Mr. McCain, those things conspire to keep his agenda very modest,'' said Richard Scher, a University of Florida political science professor and gubernatorial historian. "Mr. Crist really wants to look kind of sober.''

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