tampabay.com

Crist warns business not to take him for granted

Just because he's a Republican, he said, doesn't mean he won't first look out for the interests of consumers.

By ADAM C. SMITH and STEVE BOUSQUET
Published October 13, 2006


To hear Democrats tell it, Republicans are the party for big business.

But to hear Republican gubernatorial front-runner Charlie Crist on the campaign trail, some of Florida's biggest businesses might want to be wary of a Gov. Crist:

"You think I care about insurance companies? No, I don't," he scoffed when asked about insurance companies lamenting Florida losses while making billions in profits nationally.

Of the Public Service Commission's regulation of utility rates, he said, "My appointments to that commission will be very different from Jeb Bush's. They will have to understand that they need to work for the people. It is the Public Service Commission. It's not the utility company service commission; it's not the phone company service commission."

Brushing off questions about why, unlike Democrat Jim Davis, he is not pushing for property tax caps for businesses in addition to homeowners, he says, "It's called Save Our Homes, not save our businesses."

Crist says he rejected Florida Power & Light's offer to pump $500,000 into the state GOP, something the utility denies, after it strongly backed Tom Gallagher in the primary. "They said, 'What's the number that we can give you to contribute to your general election?', I said there isn't one," Crist said. "I don't want their money. This is a company who was trying to take me out in the political sense."

That kind of populist rhetoric hasn't been seen from a high profile Republican since Paula Hawkins won a U.S. Senate seat in 1980.

And considering that Crist is leaning heavily on special interests to raise a record $30-million for his general election campaign, it might seem contradictory.

Crist's primary night victory bash looked like most of the Tallahassee lobbying corps had been transported to the Vinoy in St. Petersburg. Among the groups providing $100,000 to help Crist win were developers, gambling interests and health care professionals.

"The last thing these lobbyists in Tallahassee want is somebody they can't control. That's why they're all lining up with Charlie Crist," Davis, the Democratic candidate, said Wednesday.

"As a homeowner, I'm not aware that he did a single thing to stand up for me and other homeowners and business owners to protect us from these insurance companies," Davis said. "People will judge Charlie Crist and me by what we have done, not just by what we say, and Charlie has done nothing. It's the same thing with property taxes, and voters will see through that."

Crist picked as his running mate state Rep. Jeff Kottkamp of Cape Coral, a partner with Morgan & Morgan, a personal injury firm whose "For the people" motto echoes Crist's "the people's governor." It is no surprise then, that Crist is decidedly lukewarm on pushing for more lawsuit restrictions.

"I don't let my beliefs be defined by what my party is. My heart is with the people ... what they ought to expect is fairness," Crist said of his frequent attacks on insurers and utilities.

He has reserved some of his harshest criticism for FP&L. Crist has opposed the utility's rate increase calls, and the utility invested $225,000 in a political committee that ran harsh ads against Crist during the Republican primary.

Mayco Villafana, an FP&L spokesman, denied the company ever offered a major donation to help Crist in the general election. Villafana said FP&L representatives have had discussions recently with Crist about policy issues. "Those discussions were friendly and cordial," Villafana said. "We look forward to having a productive relationship with Mr. Crist in the future."

Rick McAllister, CEO of the Florida Retail Federation, said his group is "fully endorsing" the Crist-Kottkamp ticket, despite earlier reservations about Crist's strong financial support from trial lawyers and Kottkamp's occupation as a trial attorney.

By hammering insurers and utilities, McAllister said, "I think he's expressing his sensitivity that people are suffering. He's expressing what all of us are feeling. Does that mean that what those two entities are doing is wrong? No, but it's not too politically astute not to recognize that pain."

McAllister said he did not believe Crist is pushing an antibusiness message. "That's just Charlie Crist," McAllister said. "He's a man who listens to all stakeholders."

In a twist from the normal rhetoric of Florida campaigns, Democrat Davis has been stressing the burdens on Florida business more than Republican Crist. "This is the single biggest threat facing businesses in this state right now, exploding property taxes and prices for property insurance," Davis told the St. Petersburg Times editorial board Wednesday.

Davis' $1-billion tax relief plan includes a 10 percent cap on how much businesses and other nonhomestead property owners' tax bills increase annually. But Davis would look to rescinding some recent tax cuts, such as those for wealthy investors.

Crist's $2-billion cutting plans have little to do with helping businesses. He would double the homestead exemption and allow homestead homeowners to transfer tax savings accumulated under the Save Our Homes amendment to new homes. His plan would also require waiting for voter approval in a statewide referendum.

But even at a tightly choreographed discussion on taxes and insurance Tuesday, several Crist supporters pleaded with him to deal with what they called a tax crisis facing commercial and rental properties.

"I know that you are going to be our next governor, but I just want your word you'll address more than just the homestead properties. It's across the board: small business and commercial properties," said Trish Moore of Tampa.

Times staff writer Joni James contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727)893-8241 or asmith@sptimes.com.