Crist axes $459-million from budget

Published May 24, 2007

TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed $459-million in spending from the new state budget Thursday, erasing a 5-percent increase in state university tuition and axing hundreds of cherished pork-barrel projects in lawmakers' districts.

Crist said the cuts were necessary "to protect the people" at a time when the state is demanding cities and counties make do with less by cutting property taxes.

"We are trying to lead by example, " Crist said. "Honoring the fact that the people across the state are pinching their pennies, so are we."

In the overall context of the $72-billion budget approved by the Legislature, the cuts are miniscule: less than 1 percent, compared to the 20- and 30-percent targets that cities and counties are dreading.

But Crist's use of the veto pen in his first year exceeded the single-year total of his predecessor, Jeb Bush, who canceled $449-million in spending last year.

Asked if he set out to calculate a target amount that would exceed Bush's total, Crist said: "Not really."

The vetoes could strain relations between Crist and some legislators at a time when they must forge a consensus on cutting property taxes.

But the action also helps him solidify his support among economic conservatives who view government spending as excessive.

Among Crist's vetoes:

Crist vetoed nearly $140-million in construction projects at community colleges and universities, including $10-million for the first phase of a new USF campus in Lakeland.

He also vetoed a $500,000 study of the costs, benefits and risks of two of Bush's major outsourcing projects in state purchasing and personnel services at a time when those two contracts are under close state scrutiny.

At times Crist wielded his veto pen surgically -- and parochially.

In one parks category, for example, he vetoed most line items, but protected $500, 000 to restore the fort at Fort DeSoto Park in his home county of Pinellas.

Early reaction from key legislators was muted, but there was one sign of restiveness.

Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, issued a terse statement that included this: "I have no intention of supporting overrides for vetoed projects."

By a three-fifths vote of both chambers, the Legislature can override Crist's veto and revive any rejected project.

That's not likely to happen, with 62 percent of Floridians saying Crist is doing a good or excellent job, according to a recent St. Petersburg Times-Bay News 9 poll.

"I'm very pleased. He was very kind to me, " said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, whose Senate budget panel oversees billions in spending. "We did our job; the governor did his job."

Fasano tallied up 13 hometown projects that didn't get vetoed, such as $750, 000 for a Pasco health center, $650,000 for a Hernando County hurricane shelter and $1-million in underground utility funds for Tarpon Springs.

Fasano also was the author of budget language that would have prohibited a state vendor from selling advertising in the state's official driver safety handbook.

Crist vetoed that, too, to the disappointment of many competing driver safety schools who claim the vendor, Ken Underwood of Ponte Vedra Beach, has an unfair competitive advantage.

Crist did not fault legislators for looking out for the needs of their constituents, but added: "I have a duty to look out for all constituents."

Asked if he now has fence-mending to do with legislators, Crist said: "Perhaps. I don't really think so, though."

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