BLOG: Session opens; “be concerned,” Cretul warns

Mar 4, 2009

Central Florida Political Pulse--March 3, 2009

posted by Aaron Deslatte

By Josh Hafenbrack and Aaron Deslatte, Tallahassee Bureau

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Legislature kicked off its 60-day lawmaking session Tuesday under a cloud of economic worry, with less money, greater demands for services, and a looming ideological showdown over whether and how to accept a financial bailout from Congress.

“During time such as these, with resources frighteningly scarce, we must lead with ideals,” said Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach.

Gov. Charlie Crist, who will address a joint session of the Legislature at 6 p.m. tonight, is urging lawmakers to plug Florida’s budget hole with $8 billion from the federal economic stimulus package over the next 16 months. That money would replace billions of dollars in state spending on schools, health insurance for the poor and elderly, and other services. But Republicans haven’t been eager to follow suit.

With Crist seated a few feet away, Atwater told senators and a half-filled public gallery that using stimulus money to plug the budget hole would leave “leave us with a bigger budget gap three years from now than the one we face today.”

After the usual pomp and ceremony to open the session, Atwater vowed to do “everything in my ability” to avoid further cuts to public education. He also outlined typical Republican themes, like eliminating government regulation and cutting non-essential programs.

The 84th assembly of the Florida Legislature gathers in the grips of recession, with Florida’s growth-machine economy gone bust amid the housing collapse and foreclosure crisis. The state jobless rate stands at 8 percent, the highest in decades. One in 10 Floridians is on food stamps.

“The good news is the Dow can only fall 300 more points for 20 more days,” said Rep. Carl Domino, R-Jupiter, a day after the Dow Jones industrial average fell below 7,000 points.

The House began its work at 10 a.m. with a final bit of house-cleaning following the controversial and short-lived tenure of ousted Speaker Ray Sansom, a Destin Republican.

A resignation letter for Sansom, who is under grand jury investigation for his dealings with a hometown college, was read into the record. Rep. Sandy Adams, R-Orlando, quickly opened up the floor for nominations to replace him.

Rep. Larry Cretul, an Ocala Republican, was the only name offered. And less than two minutes later, Cretul was in charge and Sansom’s extraordinarily quick fall from power was complete.

While he broke with tradition by not giving a floor speech, Cretul seemed to cast some cold water on Crist’s expected cheerful message tonight.

“The state of the state is we should be concerned,” Cretul told reporters. “I love optimism. But I’ve also been here long enough to know sometimes even optimism isn’t necessarily the solution to the problem.”

Crist’s speech tonight is expected to highlight his top initiatives, including a program to cut car pollution and reduce property taxes for businesses, snowbirds and first-time homebuyers. But the budget will be the overriding theme in Tallahassee, with lawmakers still facing the prospect of plugging a $2 billion gap even if they use federal stimulus money, said the Senate’s budget chief, Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

Republicans have made clear they intend to make further spending cuts, even after the state has whittled its budget by some $8 billion from the boom-time high, down to $65 billion. In a sign of the severity of the crisis, Republican legislative leaders are also considering tax increases on items like cigarettes, bottled water and Internet sales.