Crist veto sends no-frill message

Published May 25, 2007

Some were ridiculous on their face, such as the $1.5-million rowing center and $50,000 for an orchid conference. A few were worthy projects. But Gov. Charlie Crist laid down some serious markers Thursday in vetoing $459-million from next year's $72-billion state budget. He has forced lawmakers to confront the political pain of spending cuts in advance of next month's special session on property taxes. By vetoing many legitimate projects, Crist underscored how cutting services will affect all Floridians. He also sent a message that the state would join local governments in making do with less.

Crist left few sacred cows, slashing tens of millions of dollars in university construction, vetoing dozens of health and social services programs and eliminating hundreds of pork projects -- even many in the home districts of the legislative leadership. His cuts exceeded the single-year record set by his predecessor, Jeb Bush, and reached deep into the human services that help define Crist's moderate Republicanism.

But the governor made clear Thursday the vetoes were meant to set an example. "If we're asking local governments to tighten their belts, then we can do no less," he said. Crist didn't dance around key legislative districts or even spare his home of Pinellas County. He slashed dozens of projects in Miami-Dade, the home of House Speaker Marco Rubio, cutting millions for transportation, drainage, juvenile welfare and sports programs. In the Tampa Bay area, he vetoed $2-million for a much-needed multihazard shelter for the severely retarded, $1-million in reasonable startup expenses for the just-established Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority and millions in Hillsborough and Pinellas for urban development projects. Crist also vetoed $7.5-million for economic development efforts in Pasco County and $1-million for emergency management in Citrus.

Some major cuts are particularly unfortunate, such as his veto of the 5 percent tuition increase for colleges and universities, preventative health and student preparedness programs. Crist showed he can push back at a Legislature that refused to fund several of his priorities, including money for environmental protection, stem cell research, teacher merit pay and new voting machines. But the larger story is how these cuts foreshadow a much bigger fight ahead over how local governments will pay for billions of dollars worth of road, drainage and other bread-and-butter projects should legislators drastically roll back local revenues.

But in his first outing as governor, Crist shot some real turkeys from the budget and sent the right message to the Capitol crowd: state and local governments are in this together. The hypocrisy of lawmakers larding up the budget while they bad-mouth local government for its spending deserved a firm rebuke. Legislators should return to Tallahassee next month with a greater sensitivity to what any tax reduction plan will mean to local governments.