Crist sounds upbeat note

Early Edition: In his State of the State address, the governor called on legislators to make the "Florida dream more affordable." His speech won high praise, even from Democrats.

By Steve Bousquet
Published March 6, 2007

TALLAHASSEE -- In his first State of the State address, Gov. Charlie Crist today called for an end to “out of control” property taxes that he said are threatening Floridians’ home ownership dreams.

“The American dream of home ownership is being crushed under the weight of property taxes,” Crist said. “It will require bold and decisive leadership to reverse this trend and make the Florida dream more affordable.”

Property taxes was a central theme of Crist’s speech, which he delivered in a crisp, earnest cadence to a joint session of the Legislature as the 2007 session got under way.

Crist called for a referendum on tax changes in 2007 -- even though getting that on a ballot this year will require approval of three-fourths of both houses.

“It must be put before the voters this year,” Crist said.

The opening-day mood was unusually upbeat, a reflection of the hopeful tone Crist has set in his first two months. Adding to the enthusiasm was the presence of 44 newly-elected lawmakers at their first session.

Crist called for higher teacher salaries, a reduction in greenhouse gases and paper trails in elections. He ended the speech by quoting a Democratic icon, Robert F. Kennedy.

“You could almost see Al Gore give that speech, but Al Gore would not be that passionate,” said Bob Butterworth, Crist’s child welfare secretary and a Democrat.

The moderate tone left Democratic lawmakers in the unaccustomed position of praising a Republican.

“There’s not much to argue with,” said Rep. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, the House minority leader.

Recalling passage of a homeowners’ insurance relief bill in a special session in mid-January, Crist introduced a video of Stan Whitney.

The Port Charlotte retiree became the human face of high insurance rates after he wrote a letter to Crist in which he said he was thinking of moving back to Vermont.

“I was very impressed. Very easy man to talk to,” Whitney said of Crist on the video, produced with the help of the Republican Party of Florida.

Also introduced by Crist was the Rev. Larry Lynn, pastor of the Lady Lake Church of God that was demolished by tornadoes that ripped through central Florida on Feb. 2.

Seated nearby in the House visitors gallery were Crist’s parents, Dr. Charles Crist and Nancy Crist, and his sisters.

The governor’s speech hit on familiar priorities of his campaign. They included $295-million in bonuses for outstanding teachers, “and it will not be based on a (FCAT) test alone,” Crist said.

He also urged lawmakers to spend $26-million to hire 400 more reading coaches, one for every 20 teachers; a tougher law to crack down on probation violators; $20-million in grants for adult, amniotic and umbilical cord stem cell research; and creation of a “Children’s Cabinet” to coordinate physical education in schools, private adoptions and other programs.

Before Crist spoke, House Speaker Marco Rubio also hit on the theme of bold leadership and provided his own definition of it.

“If we are to truly lead, then we must allow history, not tomorrow’s newspapers, to be the ultimate judge of our work,” Rubio said.

The newest member of the House, Rep. Clay Ford, R-Gulf Breeze, took the oath of office, replacing former Rep. Holly Benson of Pensacola, who took a high-level job in Crist’s administration.

Times political editor Adam C. Smith and staff writers Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler and Alex Leary contributed to this report.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.