Crist: Let public vote on taxes

The governor, in his State of the State speech, wants a property tax relief plan this year.

Published March 7, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - Seeking to capitalize on a can-do spirit, Gov. Charlie Crist used his first State of the State speech Tuesday to frame a centrist agenda and told legislators not to squander "this gift of public service."

A primary message in Crist's 30-minute address to a joint session of the Legislature was the need to rein in "out of control" property taxes by putting tax-relief proposals before voters later this year.

"The American dream of home ownership is being crushed under the weight of property taxes," Crist said on the opening day of the 60-day session. "It will require bold and decisive leadership to reverse this trend and make the Florida dream more affordable."

Crist touted his own ideas for cutting property taxes, but he made it clear he's open to others.

He did not advocate a cap on how much money cities and counties can spend, which House leaders have proposed. But he did call for a public vote on tax changes in 2007, even though scheduling a statewide special election in a nonelection year requires approval of a politically difficult three-fourths of both houses.

"It must be put before the voters this year," Crist said as the packed chamber broke into applause.

Crist campaigned as a nonideological candidate who emphasized helping people. On Tuesday, the 50-year-old Republican governor gave a speech that could have been made by a Democrat.

Crist endorsed bonus pay for outstanding teachers, smaller class sizes, a reduction in greenhouse gases and paper trails in elections. He defined civil rights as "doing what is right," and he closed by paraphrasing a liberal icon, the late 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.

With little to criticize, Democratic lawmakers found themselves in the unaccustomed role of praising a Republican governor - something they never did when Jeb Bush was in office.

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

Republican Sen. Jim King of Jacksonville said some in his party would dislike the tone of Crist's speech, but added: "Not every good idea that's come down the pike has come from a Republican. What he said today is pretty much where Floridians are."

Optimism reigns

The unusually upbeat opening-day mood was a reflection of the optimistic tone the new governor and legislative leaders have set since Crist took office Jan. 2.

The Republicans lost a surprising seven seats to Democrats in the Florida House, and the party lost control of Congress in what was widely seen as a repudiation of partisan bickering.

Recalling the passage of a homeowners insurance relief bill in a special session in mid January, Crist credited lawmakers, who he said "worked as a team."

Then he introduced a video of Stan Whitney. The retiree from Port Charlotte 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.

Singling out Whitney in the crowd of visitors watching from an upstairs gallery, Crist told him: "Please rise and wave to your employees."

Crist also introduced the Rev. Larry Lynn, pastor of the Lady Lake Church of God that was demolished by tornadoes that tore through Lake County on Feb. 2.

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

Staying on point

The governor's speech covered a lot of familiar territory as he ticked off priorities of his campaign and the $71-billion budget proposal he submitted to lawmakers last month.

They included $295-million in bonuses for outstanding teachers, which many teachers have opposed, preferring across-the-board raises instead.

Crist said his bonus plan "will not be based on a test alone," Crist said, in what some saw as a veiled criticism of former Gov. Bush's preoccupation with the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

He also urged lawmakers to spend $26-million to hire 400 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 the creation of a "Children's Cabinet" to coordinate physical education in schools, private adoptions and other programs.

"Isn't it wonderful to have a governor saying Democratic things?" said Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat.

Crist drew a connection between the intense storms that have driven up insurance rates and global climate change. After the session, he said, he will develop a plan to put Florida "at the forefront of a worldwide movement to reduce greenhouse gases."

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

State of the state address excerpts

"In public service, it is always important to remember that we serve the people - our boss."

* * *

"The state of our state is strong, and it is promising. But you know our work is not done."

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"Civil rights is simply a matter of doing what is right. And we will always pursue that."

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"Our children need a voice. They need to be at the table because soon it will be their table. That is why I support the creation of a 'Children's Cabinet' to coordinate state services and oversee child welfare issues."

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"I am persuaded that global climate change is one of the most important issues that we will face this century."