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Politics

Reality soon may confront governor

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Tallahassee bureau chief
Published July 28, 2007


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Little by little, the walls are beginning to close in on Gov. Charlie Crist.

Let us count the ways.

Florida is in the throes of its worst tax revenue shortfall in years.

Homeowners are still in a foul mood about insurance. Crist's e-mail in-box is full of messages from consumers upset that their rates aren't going down or angry that they have to pay more for sinkhole insurance.

What Crist called "the largest tax cut in Florida history" can be reduced by local officials willing to take the heat for a super-majority override vote.

Crist's headache du jour is House Speaker Marco Rubio, the man with the "100 ideas" book and the self-anointed heir to the conservative Jeb Bush legacy that, little by little, Crist is disassembling.

By taking aim at Crist's stands on gambling and global warming, Rubio really sticks out because he's virtually alone.

Few others in politics are willing to fight with a guy with a 73 percent approval rating.

In fact, when Rubio came out swinging this week in a pair of columns, it was Democrats who sprang to Crist's defense.

But Rubio seems to be spoiling for a fight, and Crist has to deal with Rubio for another year.

Imagine what Rubio might say if Crist's poll numbers dropped by 15 points.

But they both have a bigger problem at the moment.

The tax picture is so troubling that the Legislature has called another special session for mid September to whack $1-billion or more to balance the budget.

Now, as you watch lawmakers take an ax to an already-lean budget, remember this: They and Crist told us they would protect public schools from the projected cuts in education imposed by lower property taxes, estimated at $7-billion over the next four years.

If the budget has to be reduced, where's all the money going to come from to "hold harmless" public schools?

Cutting programs and services is never politically popular.

The way state legislators score points at home is not by saving money. They do it by spending money on boat ramps, ballparks and other projects. No senator ever brought home a plaque from the Rotary Club for taking money away from sick kids.

But, as lawmakers vividly recall, Crist vetoed $459-million in local projects from the budget, making more than a few of them unhappy.

Democratic state Rep. Jack Seiler says the budget shortfall underscores the need for a fresh evaluation of the tax system, with an eye toward closing some of the hundreds of business-friendly tax exemptions or taxing commerce on the Internet.

Seiler said the atmosphere in Florida would be a lot worse right now if not for Crist's always optimistic nature.

The revenue shortfall opens the door for legislators - senators mainly - to ponder higher user fees, or raising "sin taxes" on tobacco and alcohol, to offset the need for cuts.

But at a time when Crist could be putting all options on the table, he's closing doors.

"I'm not a fee fan, as you know," Crist said this week.

At the time, Crist was surrounded by public health advocates happy with him for signing a bill reviving a $57-million-a-year antismoking effort.

But they took the opportunity to lobby Crist to support raising the cigarette tax, which is the sixth-lowest in the U.S. and has been unchanged since 1990.

Crist only smiled.

"Nothing ventured, nothing gained," he said.

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

[Last modified July 28, 2007, 00:21:22]


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