Legislative leaders grumble about Crist


Published: Sunday, March 1, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 28, 2009 at 9:37 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE - The seeds of resentment have been planted in the Legislature as lawmakers from the left and the right grumble under the pressure of budget blues that have dropped state spending by $7 billion in the past two years.

But their anger may be vented toward Gov. Charlie Crist as lawmakers open up their annual 60-day session Tuesday with deep cuts in education and health care spending likely.

After lawmakers made a difficult decision to cut spending for a popular environmental land-purchasing program in January, Crist vetoed the cut despite feelings among some lawmakers that he had promised to support them.

While even conservative Republicans are taking tentative tiptoes toward the sensitive topic of tax increases, Crist proclaimed they weren't necessary.

And as legislative leaders like Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, have made a point of encouraging frugality to the point of selling off state airplanes, Crist has ramped up his frequent flier status by flying from Pensacola to Miami with the King and Queen of Spain last month while lawmakers analyzed the budget line by line.

Crist stopped in Tallahassee for his budget announcement before flying to Washington, D.C., for a meeting with President Barack Obama and an appearance on "Meet the Press."

Combine that whirlwind with the nonstop chatter about whether Crist will run for U.S. Senate in 2010 or run for re-election with an eye on the White House in the future and many lawmakers wonder where Crist's focus really lies.

"As soon as he got the job, he seemed to be looking on to the next thing," said Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota. "He's interested in the job, but he's just as interested in being in the national spotlight."

Brian Ballard is one of Tallahassee's top lobbyists and a top fund-raiser and friend of the governor.

He said Crist's forays into national politics and international relations are performed with Florida in mind as he seeks federal aid and foreign investments.

Ballard said Crist may avoid the historic challenges that Florida's governors usually face as the two-year honeymoon ends.

"I think they traditionally give governors the first year and maybe a little bit of the second year and then they start challenging him," said Ballard. "So far, I think he's done better with the Legislature than any governor I've been around."

Crist was not in Tallahassee last week and did not return calls requesting comment.

Despite the worst economic collapse in modern state history, Crist maintains approval ratings of nearly 70 percent and even his staunchest critics realize there is little political gain in battling him.

It's more likely that opposition will come from lawmakers simply ignoring Crist rather than attacking him.

Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, has critiqued Crist's plan to spend $1.34 billion from the South Florida Water Management District to buy U.S. Sugar and restore the Everglades.

But rather than a frontal assault, Bennett was conciliatory in a letter last week.

"Under normal circumstances, I would wholeheartedly agree with the governor," the letter said, "But I am also committed to the constituents I am elected to serve and the state interests I am elected to defend. I believe, in the current economic slump, we simply cannot afford this purchase."

Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, has served in the Legislature for nearly 30 years.

Asked if Crist's anti-tax optimism was making it harder for lawmakers to sell the depth of the crisis to constituents, Jones said, "Some could look at that and draw that conclusion, but the bottom line is we do not have enough money to meet the expectations of our population."

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