Capitol's happy talk not enough

Published May 6, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - All of this sweetness in the state Capitol reminds me of my mother's chocolate cake.

It's great, but the icing is so rich that too much of it can make you sick.

After everyone finally acknowledged last week there would be no agreement on property tax relief, a bit of candor might have been in order. Instead, what Senate Democratic Leader Steve Geller of Hallandale labeled the "kumbayaness" of the legislative session continued unabated.

Senate President Ken Pruitt of Port St. Lucie laid it on thick again in his praise of House Speaker Marco Rubio. He confided to reporters that when he talked to Gov. Charlie Crist about how negotiations had crashed and burned, "there was a lot of optimism."

In turn, Rubio praised Pruitt. "I'm optimistic," the Miami Republican said. "This is the closest we've been."

The governor acknowledged he was disappointed, which for him is the equivalent of throwing a temper tantrum. Then he quickly said he also remains optimistic. "It's good to stay upbeat," Crist said.

But it shouldn't sugarcoat reality.

The fact remains that the governor and the Legislature failed to accomplish their top priority. As far as sound tax policy, it is the best thing that could have happened, given some of the terrible options on the table. As for politics, it isn't good at all. And things aren't going to get easier before June's special session.

Rubio is going to go home to Miami and continue to whip up unrealistic expectations about tax cuts. Crist will be doing the same statewide if he keeps saying he wants taxes to "drop like a rock." Cities and counties now have more time to warn residents that huge property tax rollbacks would trigger deep cuts to programs and services. And the real estate market is going to continue to stagnate as everyone waits to see what happens.

There are political realities to keep in mind about high-profile special legislative sessions.

First, governors take center stage. In a single-issue special session like this, they can dictate the outlines of an agreement. Governors, not House speakers or Senate presidents, can draw television cameras in every corner of the state. And they can force lawmakers to stay in Tallahassee all summer until they get what they want.

"The governor now becomes the 1, 000-pound gorilla," said Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, who was first elected to the Legislature in 1986 and has seen plenty of special sessions.

Yet despite his sharp political instincts, Crist is still learning how to use the power of his office. He has brought a fresh atmosphere to the Capitol with his pleasant, open approach. There is more balance between the executive and legislative branches than when Gov. Jeb Bush dictated what he wanted to Republican legislative leaders. Democrats are more included in the discussions.

But asking politely doesn't always work with the Legislature. Despite all of the platitudes, Crist had the quietest first legislative session of any governor in nearly 30 years. He didn't get property tax relief. His budget priorities, from increased spending on teacher merit pay to money for stem cell research, were ignored or slashed. He had to personally appear at legislative committees to get his property insurance bill unstuck. He lucked out on his push to replace touch screen voting machines when the federal government, not the Legislature, agreed to pay for it.

Not since Bob Graham got off to a slow start in 1979 and went on to be labeled "Governor Jello" later in his first term by the St. Petersburg Times editorial board has a governor had so few big wins to show for his initial efforts. But Graham turned out to be a pretty good governor over the long haul, and Crist takes the long view as well. The St. Petersburg Republican's voter approval ratings remain sky-high, his agency appointments are highly regarded and he already has made history by successfully pushing for the automatic restoration of civil rights for many convicted felons.

Now Crist is going to have to get tougher in the tax relief debate. He will get the credit or the blame for the outcome, and he will deal with the consequences long after many legislators are gone.

There are two ways for governors to help ensure success in special legislative sessions. One is to make sure there is a consensus on a specific plan before legislators return.

"If you don't have the end already planned out and in the bag," King said, "don't come."

The other way for a governor to force a deal is to align himself with the House or Senate and beat the odd chamber out into submission. Two against one usually works. In recent years, Bush usually lined up with the conservative House against the more moderate Senate. Now the dynamics are different. Crist and the Senate are steering away from Rubio's radical plan to abolish property taxes on homesteads and raise the sales tax up to 2.5 cents.

"This is a legislative matter," Crist said of property tax relief after negotiations collapsed and he was asked if he should have played a larger role.

With all due respect, no it's not. There's nothing wrong with being polite. But to get responsible property tax relief, the well-mannered governor is going to have to throw a few elbows.