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On the big issues, much still to do
By PHILIP GAILEY
Published June 24, 2007
He has been governor for less than six months, so it's a little early for any kind of definitive assessment of Charlie Crist's leadership. But I think we can say that Crist's record so far has been a mixed bag, with more to applaud than to criticize.
Most voters are showing no sign of buyer's remorse. Crist's approval rating is above 70 percent, and even Democrats, who have some major policy differences with this Republican governor, like working with the guy. He has made surprisingly good appointments and has shown a strong commitment to open government, consumer interests and environmental protection. The political debate seems more civil since Crist arrived in Tallahassee, largely because of the St. Petersburg native's style and persona. Charmin' Charlie makes it almost impossible not to like him.
So yes, after eight years of Jeb Bush, Crist is a refreshing change. He bills himself as "the people's governor, " and he plays the role brilliantly. He is no policy wonk, micromanager, cultural warrior or ideologue. However, for all of his strengths, on some of the biggest issues facing Florida - hurricane insurance, property tax relief and the needs of higher education - Crist has been somewhat of a disappointment.
Crist says Florida is a great place and he can't imagine anyone wanting to live anywhere else. Look around, governor. Florida's money-starved universities are beginning to announce enrollment freezes, and the price of a modest home is increasingly beyond the reach of many working families. In case Crist hasn't noticed, the moving vans are rolling in both directions these days. A growing number of Floridians, especially retirees, say they can no longer afford to live here, largely because of crushing increases in property taxes and hurricane insurance costs.
As a candidate, Crist promised to make the insurance crisis and property tax relief his top priorities as governor, and he has done that. He called a special session of the Legislature in January to address the insurance issue, and another in June to lower property taxes. Some of us are still trying to figure out the winners and losers.
The insurance reform bill Crist signed into law substantially increases the state's liability for hurricane losses. We won't know whether the state's insurance levees will hold until the next catastrophic hurricane. Meanwhile, many homeowners are paying more for their storm insurance, not less, as the politicians promised.
In this month's special session, the Legislature passed and Crist signed what they call "the largest tax cut in Florida history." The new law rolls back and then caps future increases in the property tax base local governments rely on. Voters also will have an opportunity in January to approve a "super homestead exemption" that would take an even bigger bite out of local government revenue.
So tax relief is on the way, but not many Floridians are dancing in the streets. Small businesses and other nonhomestead property owners accuse the governor and lawmakers of tossing them a few crumbs while directing most of the tax relief to the people who need it the least - homeowners who already are covered by the Save Our Homes amendment that limits annual increases in property values to 3 percent.
Crist said property taxes needed "to drop like a rock." But some homeowners are unhappy with the projected drop in their tax bill, less than $200 on average this year, not even enough to cover the increase in their storm insurance premiums. Meanwhile, local government officials have started cutting personnel and services.
The worst decision Crist has made as governor was to veto a 5 percent increase in tuition at Florida's 11 public universities, which already have the lowest tuitions in the nation. But the people's governor says he will not sign anything that raises the cost of an education for Florida university students. Florida State University, his alma mater, responded by announcing an enrollment freeze, and other state universities may have no choice but to follow FSU's lead.
Crist's veto is worse than short-sighted. It says as far as this governor is concerned, higher education will remain an orphan and he has no intention of ending the decades of neglect that have held Florida's universities back.
This one is too important to get wrong. The governor should reconsider his position and resolve that his greatest legacy will not be insurance reform or tax cuts but the rescue of higher education in Florida. It's not too late.