Crist slashes state budget

He vetoes a record $459-million "to protect the people."

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief
Published May 25, 2007

TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Charlie Crist on Thursday vetoed a record $459-million from the new state budget, wiping out a 5 percent hike in university tuition and hundreds of projects in lawmakers' districts.

Crist said the spending cuts were necessary "to protect the people" 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."

Crist's use of the veto pen in his first year exceeded any one-year total of his predecessor, Jeb Bush. Bush relished the chance to reject pork barrel spending and canceled $449-million last year alone and $2-billion in his eight years in office.

Crist's first round of vetoes could strain relations with some lawmakers at a time when they must forge a consensus on cutting property taxes. But the action may help Crist's standing among economic conservatives who view government spending as excessive.

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

Crist vetoed more than $140-million in college construction projects. He killed a $15-million program to safeguard mobile homes from hurricanes. He axed $6-million to continue privatization of the state accounting system, suspended by Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink because of numerous problems.

He vetoed a $500,000 study of costs and benefits of two other major outsourcing projects at a time when those contracts are also under close state scrutiny.

In the overall $72-billion budget passed by the Legislature, the vetoes amount to less than one percent, compared with the 20 percent to 30 percent budget cuts cities and counties are dreading when property taxes are reduced.

Dozens and dozens of vetoed projects slipped into the budget, some at the behest of a single lawmaker, would have benefited children, the elderly, disabled and homeless.

Some lawmakers were unhappy.

Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Winter Haven, was upset that Crist vetoed $10-million for a new USF campus in Lakeland and the university tuition increase.

He said that Crist was "misinformed" that the college project wasn't worthy and that the tuition increase is urgently needed to maintain quality in the state university system.

"I was disappointed," Alexander said. "I would like to have talked to him about it."

Aides to the governor said the vetoed university projects had been moved for funding ahead of a timetable approved by the higher education Board of Governors.

Crist's veto of the per-hour tuition increase could draw a legal challenge because he vetoed language even though no money had been appropriated for it. The governor said he trusted his lawyers' advice.

"I know we have some of the lowest tuition in the country," said Crist, a Florida State graduate. "Isn't that a good and just thing to do? I believe that it is."

Rep. Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg, said he was disappointed that Crist vetoed $2-million for a hurricane shelter for use by the Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens.

In a year when the state cut funding for people with disabilities, Heller said, "We thought we did everything we needed. ... I'm disappointed that he vetoed this one, because it's right."

Generally speaking, Crist said the vetoed projects should have been funded privately or by local governments.

He said projects had to meet his criteria, including falling within statewide goals established by him and the Legislature and serving "the people's priorities."

To reach the $459-million total he proclaimed, Crist did some creative math. He vetoed tuition increases at universities and community colleges and claimed a $39-million cut, even though the money never existed in the state budget.

Among the line-item vetoes:

At times, Crist wielded his veto pen parochially. In a parks category, he vetoed most line items but spared $500,000 to restore the fort at Fort DeSoto Park in his home county of Pinellas.

"I'm very pleased," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, whose Senate budget panel oversees billions in transportation-related spending.

Fasano tallied 13 hometown projects that survived the veto ax, such as $750, 000 for a Pasco health center and $650,000 for a Brooksville hurricane shelter.

"We did our job," Fasano said, "and the governor did his job."

Times staff writer Mike Brassfield contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Fast Facts: The big ones

Vetoing these major projects helped Gov. Charlie Crist set a record for the amount of legislative spending rejected in a state budget:

Source: Governor's Office