Crist defends budget vetoes

Jun 2, 2010

The following article by Gary Fineout was published in the June 2, 2010 issue of the Florida Tribune:

Gov. Charlie Crist’s decision to carve up the state budget with vetoes drew howls of protest last week from Republican legislative leaders.

Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander called it “punitive” and part of a “petty personal vendetta” by the governor who vetoed more than $58 million worth of projects in Alexander’s own home county.

But Crist this week insisted that he did not look at the names of legislators while reviewing budget items.  He says he did this even though his own budget staff drew up a list of “member issues” that clearly shows that many of the items he vetoed were associated with top Republicans like Alexander and Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami.

“I don’t really pay attention to who the member is and gave specific instructions not to do that for me,’’ Crist told the Florida Tribune.

Crist this week said that he did a “top line” review of the budget items that concentrated on when the item was included in the process and whether it would be a “tremendous benefit” to the people.

Yet it is clear from documents prepared by Crist’s own budget staff that Republican critics of Crist had their projects whacked while staunch allies of Crist had their own projects remain untouched.

Crist’s budget office, for example, identified $13.5 million worth of projects from Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey and $16.5 million worth of projects from Sen. Durell Peaden, R-Crestview. None of them were vetoed. Peaden got $8.5 million for a Florida A&M University rural health clinic in Crestview and $3.5 million for a neuroscience center facility at Florida International University.

The 44-page document prepared by Crist’s budget office included a brief description of various projects in the budget and just as importantly – which member was associated with the project. Crist’s office came up with a list that totaled $260.6 million.

Crist ultimately vetoed more than $370 million from the state’s $70 billion budget but that amount includes a veto of a sweep from the state’s road-building transportation fund that may not actually reduce spending.

The budget list clearly associates projects like those for the University of South Florida Polytechnic in Lakeland with Alexander. Rivera was associated with other budget vetoes such as $32.5 million for a health clinic at FIU.

Another lawmaker who lost several items to budget vetoes was Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale.

Crist also vetoed $3.5 million that would have paid to install double-gate rail crossings in places such as Deland and Winter Park along the proposed SunRail route. The project, which was sought by Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, would have reduced the need to use a train horn in those communities to warn people of an oncoming train. But the gates are expensive and they were not initially recommended by the Department of Transportation.

But Cannon – who will become the next House speaker – did not have every project associated with him vetoed. The governor kept intact $250,000 for a statewide hurricane preparedness campaign that will go to the Florida Association of Broadcasters even though the Division of Emergency Management was not in support of the earmark. Cannon was also listed on a long list of lawmakers supporting $350,000 for development of an end-of-course assessment in civics education.

Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, also did not have all of his projects wiped out by the governor. Crist left intact $800,000 for a stormwater project in River Oaks, an older neighborhood in Fort Lauderdale. The governor also vetoed only one of two large construction projects for Palm Beach State College associated with Atwater. Crist vetoed $19.75 million to acquire land and start building one building, but he spared $17.69 million for a public safety training center at the college.

Some of Crist’s budget vetoes – like a $9.6 million veto for Shands at the University of Florida in Gainesville – were not included on the list prepared by his staff.

Crist told the Florida Tribune that “these are tight times, everyone is tightening our belts” when asked about that particular veto. He added that “we want to help people in a time of a need, but we also want to help the taxpayer.”

Crist added later that “we just try to do the best we can, you want to try to get it right as much as possible. It’s not a perfect process.’’