Budget could burst bubble

Published: Sunday, January 4, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 3, 2009 at 10:52 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE - With school funding and services for the poor on the chopping block this week as lawmakers try to close a $2.3 billion state budget shortfall, Gov. Charlie Crist is facing the biggest political challenge of his charmed career.

Despite a dismal economy that has led to cuts in the most basic of services, Crist has maintained a 60-percent-plus approval rating from Floridians.

But with a budget-chopping special session starting Monday, and $3 billion more to be cut for the next fiscal year, the state's spending will have dropped more than 10 percent from just three years ago. Education and health-care services face the biggest cuts.

Crist, however, seems unwilling to risk his political capital on tax increases that could reduce the need to cut government programs.

So how will Florida make up billions of dollars in lost revenue?

Richard Scher, a University of Florida political science professor and gubernatorial historian, said Crist has had a good start to his term. But he said the "cheerleader" style of leadership may finally see its limit.

"He is relentlessly optimistic and hopeful, and that itself is a positive message Florida needs now," Scher said. "Now, maybe it's time for some hard-nosed decision-making, something he has not shown - we can only cut so much more, and then we will have to start closing down schools, universities, hospitals, health care and other essential state services and programs.

"Charlie has not shown a willingness to tackle the controversial but fundamental questions of public finance we need to face if we are not going to collapse as a state," Scher said. "But if he wants to leave a positive, substantive legacy - even if he is not wholly successful - he needs to get the ball rolling. Otherwise he will be remembered as the governor who cheered and smiled as we went down like the Titanic."

If that sounds like hyperbole, it isn't, according to Republican state Sen. Nancy Detert, who calls the state's budget shortage "dire."

Detert said it would be unfair to blame Florida's problems on Crist or the Legislature, because many other states are also facing fiscal crises.

Detert agreed that the governor has no grand plan, but she also said his options are limited because of the severity of the recession. Raising taxes, for example, might lessen the government cutbacks, but it would also be a blow to residents and businesses.

Instead, Detert said, Crist's direction - largely agreed upon by the Legislature - is to weather the storm for the short term, hoping for an infusion of stimulus funding from the federal government under new President Barack Obama. Hundreds of millions of dollars could be sent to Florida under Obama's plan, Florida leaders hope.

Crist, in an interview in mid-December, showed little signs of worry.

"You have to have enthusiasm in order to get things done. You also have to have cooperation," he said.

Crist's proposal for the upcoming budget cuts is to borrow from savings accounts set aside for other purposes and ratify an agreement that would protect some Indian gambling in Florida in exchange for annual payments of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Lawmakers have already ruled out taking up any gambling options in the special session. And the GOP-dominated Legislature seems intent on cutting more spending rather than piece-meal fixes that would only have to be addressed again in March when they take up next year's budget.

But polling numbers matter in Tallahassee. And Crist's knack for maintaining his popularity makes him the undisputed leader in the Capitol.

Crist has shown no interest in investing some of that political capital for raising taxes, even on cigarettes, a tax in which Florida ranks among the lowest in the United States. Detert said she expects a proposal to raise the cigarette tax by $1 a pack will be made during the special session, but without support of Crist or the Republican leadership, it won't pass.

Crist's former chief of staff, George LeMieux, said bipartisan moves like extending early voting hours and reinstating automatic voting rights for felons have helped the governor keep public support.

"People know he's not responsible for the economic slowdown. They know he goes to work everyday and tries to do what's right for the people," said LeMieux. "It would be a mistake to think that Charlie Crist is any less powerful politically than he was when he first got elected. He has great support among the people and that's where all political power comes from."

Scher said Crist deserves credit for trying to spare Floridians from the budget cuts.

"He has shown a sensitivity to the human side of budget cuts which the Legislature has not, " said Scher. "Indeed, I think the major impression of Charlie's first two years is that he governs by the grand gesture. In contrast to (former Gov. Jeb Bush), who was systematic, dogged, substantive, and sneaky, Charlie goes for the big play, the headline, the smile and the microphone."

Crist says his biggest accomplishment so far as governor is not a particular agenda item or decision, but the change in political tenor.

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