Pork chopping: Crist's defining moment

Published May 19, 2007

The letter from House Speaker Marco Rubio sounded grave.

Money is so tight, he told lawmakers in February, there isn't room in the budget "for program expansions, new initiatives or member projects."

Did any of them read it?

The $72-billion budget on Gov. Charlie Crist's desk is as laden with pork as any in recent years.

All it needs is a heaping side dish of barbecue sauce.

"There's a lot of stuff in there," Crist said Thursday, sounding a bit overwhelmed. "We're trying to get through it."

In a power play, the Legislature sent Crist the budget May 9, five days after the session ended. By law he has 15 days, until next Thursday, to act.

Lawmakers didn't want Crist to use the threat of budget vetoes as a wedge heading into a special session on taxes.

Amid lobbying Crist calls "intense," he and his staff are going through the 429-page budget, line by line. One line item alone has 99 separate projects.

The betting here is that Crist will veto much of the plundering next week when he signs the budget into law.

Perhaps not as much as Jeb Bush would have, but enough that Crist can claim he's more fiscally prudent than the Legislature.

This is a tight budget year. But lawmakers had a mountain of one-time, non-recurring revenue, which is ideal for one-time grants and generally can't be used for ongoing programs.

Some of the same legislators who blame cities and counties for excessive spending have earmarked public money for rowing centers, fishing piers, picnic tables, community centers and water and sewer projects.

Read the fine print. The budget has $2-million for a Wakulla expo center, $1-million for a Lake Wales recreation complex and $1-million for a Manatee Players performing arts center.

But lawmakers couldn't scrape up state money for the avian flu vaccine or paper-trail voting equipment Crist requested.

As thousands of people languish on waiting lists for human services, should lawmakers be spending $1.3-million for streetscape improvements near Fort Lauderdale beach?

Or $500,000 for a local theatre program on Amelia Island? Or $100,000 for Zo's Summer Groove, a Miami after-school program started by the Miami Heat's Alonzo Mourning? Or $50,000 for the Biltmore Hotel complex in Coral Gables, where rooms start at $400 a night?

Lawmakers set aside $250-million for innovation incentive grants, compared to $100-million this year.

But they added language that steers $80-million to the Institute of Human Genomics at the University of Miami, Rubio's law school alma mater.

The budget-veto process is a defining moment for Crist. Does he have the nerve to veto his friends' projects?

Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, the House minority leader, has a flock of projects in the budget benefiting his Miami-Dade County constituents.

Here's another example: $900,000 to start a gospel music center in Fort Lauderdale, sponsored by Rep. Matt Meadows, who remains close to Crist from their days together in the Senate.

Rep. Ralph Poppell, R-Vero Beach, sought money for a rowing training center at Florida Institute of Technology.

A taxpayer-funded rowing institute? "There's a value to everything, I guess," Crist said.

Crist confirmed that as lawmakers defend their projects, he keeps on his desk the tally showing how lawmakers voted on the property insurance bill he wanted passed.

The 10 House Republicans who voted against it can likely kiss their projects goodbye.

Lawmakers who think Crist is too nice a guy to whack their projects may once again be underestimating the man who quotes Ronald Reagan: "Never confuse kindness with weakness."

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