Crist agenda takes a hit

Smiles aside, several of the governor's opening initiatives were ignored or slashed.

Published May 6, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - Ever the optimist, Gov. Charlie Crist never misses a chance to praise legislators for "incredible" work.

He did it when they passed an "antimurder" bill, a new teacher bonus program and paper trails in elections. Even when they stumbled over property taxes, Crist gave them an A for effort.

But in the session that ended Friday, legislators didn't always return the compliments.

Despite Crist's 77 percent approval rating and an uncommon goodwill throughout the Capitol, lawmakers rejected or watered down several Crist initiatives and reduced or rejected money for others.

To be sure, Crist got much of what he requested, including an insurance rate freeze extension, a 6.5 percent school spending hike, restoration projects for rivers, the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee and more money to lure businesses to Florida.

But Crist's sunny optimism can't hide the fact that several of his priorities were rejected by his fellow Republicans.

They included a stockpile of antiviral flu drugs, stem cell research grants, mandatory civics education in public schools and across-the-board pay raises for state employees.

When Crist demanded action, such as cracking down on probation violators or requiring paper trails, he often got results. When he took a low-key, deferential approach, lawmakers sometimes reacted with indifference. But Crist doesn't mind.

"I respect their right to do it. If I got offended by everybody not doing exactly what I want to do, I wouldn't be a very fun guy," Crist said. "I'm not the king. I'm just the governor."

Crist counts as a major victory the mandate for paper-trail voting equipment to replace touch screens. But lawmakers refused to ante up the money, so federal funds will be used.

"He had a rough session, " said Rep. Jack Seiler, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat and a Crist admirer. "But I don't think that was his fault."

Seiler said parts of Crist's centrist agenda faced resistance from conservative Republicans or from House staffers who had strong ideological ties with former Gov. Jeb Bush.

One such example is Crist's request for $20-million for medical research using adult stem cells, or other stem cells that wouldn't require destroying a human embryo.

Although Crist's call for the funding was hailed across the ideological spectrum as a sensible way to move forward on stem cell research, the House stripped out any money for such projects.

No governor ever gets everything he seeks. But Crist's predecessor, Jeb Bush, practically wrote the script in his first legislative session in 1999, easily winning $1-billion in tax cuts, a grading system for public schools and the nation's first statewide school voucher program.

The times were different. Bush had just wrested control of the Governor's Mansion after eight years of Democratic rule and he enjoyed delving into the deepest details of policy. As the years went by, Republicans chafed at what they felt was Bush's heavy-handed style in dealing with the Legislature.

Crist is well-liked by lawmakers, but after the Bush years they seem eager to reassert their independence from the executive branch.

"The Legislature was beaten up by Jeb Bush in a lot of ways, " said lobbyist Ron Book. "But Charlie Crist will get plenty of what he wants and he'll get what he needs."

Lawmakers blamed the trimming of Crist's budget priorities on tight fiscal times caused by a slide in tax collections, not any philosophical disagreements.

"When you have a billion dollars less after the governor puts his budget out, that has an effect on a lot of initiatives," said Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie.

Lawmakers still found hundreds of millions of dollars for projects in their hometowns, largely one-time expenditures for parks, water systems, courthouse renovations and anticrime programs. They paid for them using one-time money, which is largely not allowed for continuing programs. They also socked away more than $1-billion in the state's rainy day fund.

An unusual set of political dynamics resulted in Democrats praising Crist's priorities, and criticizing Crist's fellow Republicans for falling short, as in the case of providing bonuses for state workers but no raises.

"If he Crist could factor it into his budget, we could have factored it into ours, instead of giving state employees what's left over," said Rep. Curtis Richardson, D-Tallahassee, who represents tens of thousands of state workers.

A few of Crist's forceful policy pronouncements became faint echoes as the 2007 session drew to a close Friday.

For example, in his inaugural address on Jan. 2, Crist listed as a priority "quality, affordable, accessible health care" for all Floridians. A bill that would have expanded access to KidCare, a federally subsidized health insurance program for children, failed when the Senate refused to consider it in the session's final days.

Health care advocates said Crist could have used his bully pulpit to get the bill passed. On May 1, he sent a one-sentence letter to Pruitt that said: "I respectively request your assistance in placing the following bill on the Senate Calendar for consideration."

The Senate did nothing.

What others call lobbying, Crist calls "encouragement," which raises a question: Is Crist so polite that lawmakers aren't afraid to say no to him, and should he be more forceful?

"I don't think the word 'forceful' could be used for Charlie Crist," Pruitt said. "He's genuinely the nicest guy I've ever met."

The governor acknowledged that his manner of dealing with lawmakers was more deferential than Bush. Crist said his legislative lobbyists and Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, a former House member, worked feverishly behind the scenes to advance his agenda, largely with successful results.

"There's a different style, no question about it," Crist said. "And I think, I hope, that we have communicated effectively on the things that are important on behalf of the people."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.