Crist sidesteps state’s woes in address

Mar 5, 2008

Miami Herald--Mar. 05, 2008

After moving the annual State of the State speech to 6 p.m. so Floridians could watch their government in action, Gov. Charlie Crist turned his 30-minute address into a laundry list of his initiatives, making scant mention of the state’s economic turmoil or solutions for getting the state out of its jam.

Instead, the governor flatly declared that Florida faces ”extraordinary economic times” and moved on.

His recipe for improving the economy: a call to legislators to stay the course “by keeping taxes low, by creating jobs and fueling an economy that ranks ahead of most nations of the world.”

Absent were any clear directives to a Legislature that’s ideologically torn over how to approach what will be $4 billion in budget cuts — a 16 percent reduction in state revenues since last year. He not only offered no new policies or solutions, he dwelled on his insurance reform’s successes from last year and said nothing about sacrifice or about the budget cuts.

Crist’s speech and his de rigueur self-mention of his optimism left legislators wondering, if not simply bored.

”There was no wow moment,” said Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, a Miami Republican. “There was no goose-bump moment. There was no acknowledgement of severe economic times. He says he’s an optimist, but he needs to be a realist when things are this bad.”

Of all Crist’s lines, this one stood out the most in these trying times: “The state of the great state of Florida is strong.”

The statement stood in stark contrast to the speech given hours before in the same chamber, the Florida House of Representatives, by House Speaker Marco Rubio of West Miami. In his impassioned address to legislators, Rubio dwelled on every economic indicator showing times in Florida are worsening.

Rubio began with a bleak assessment of how ”anxious” Floridians are. He then took veiled shots at the Senate and Crist for scuttling one of the House’s property-tax plans last year, which he suggested would have improved the economy.

”And now, we are facing the consequences. Our real estate market is in complete collapse. Florida is second in the nation in foreclosures. Three of the top 20 cities for foreclosures are in Florida,” Rubio said. “Soon, our construction industry will have worked its way through its commercial construction backlog. With no new work in either the residential or commercial sector in the pipeline, unemployment will rise.”


In his speech, Crist acknowledged that property taxes remain a pressing concern and repeated his pledge that the Jan. 29 voter-approved Amendment 1 tax cut is “just the beginning.”

But like Senate President Ken Pruitt, Crist skipped the chance that Rubio seized to get the Legislature to take up the issue of property-tax cuts. He instead said the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, an independent body that meets every 10 years, would take the matter up this year.

Crist said he provided direction to legislators by noting the state has reserves that it should use to help ”those who rely on us most” and to ”invest in ourselves [and] in our future.” He also thanked his fellow Republican predecessor, Gov. Jeb Bush, and urged legislators to put partisanship aside this year.

Crist’s modest agenda foreshadows a cautious time for him and for the Republican-controlled Legislature this election year. More so than Crist, Pruitt urged lawmakers to focus on the severe state of the budget and not take up major new policies that could sidetrack legislators.

Shortly after Pruitt and Rubio addressed their chambers, the Senate budget committee unanimously approved a bill to cut $506 million from the current year’s $70 billion budget. The measure will be ready for a floor vote as early as Thursday.

Normally, right after the Senate and House leaders address their chambers to open the 60-day legislative session, the governor gives the State of the State speech. But Crist this year decided that Floridians should be able to watch his speech live from home.

Compared to his address last year, when he engaged in an excited call-and-response dialogue, Crist’s speech this year was as modest and flat as was the applause.

The governor used his talk to broadcast video stories about people and businesses affected by the property-tax cut, his push to restore rights to felons who have served their time and his adoption initiatives. Among them: a West Palm Beach mother of four, who served 30 days in jail for stealing money from the bank where she worked; a Southwest Floridian who’s happy Amendment 1 passed; and two Wellington residents concerned about health insurance.

”This lack of access to healthcare is unacceptable,” Crist said.

He urged lawmakers to pass a three-year pilot program that provides healthcare to the uninsured. He cited his prescription drug benefit card, his obesity program, his focus on increasing adoptions and alternative fuels, and his push to use electronic monitoring devices for child-welfare caseworkers. He even thanked Publix Supermarkets for its ”leadership” in selling environmentally responsible products.


Several Democrats noted the ”somber” and ”subdued” reaction from legislators, which they attributed to the ”mixed messages” delivered by Crist when he said higher education and healthcare are a priority while legislators plan to start slashing state spending on Wednesday.

”It sounds like he’s spending a whole lot of money we don’t have,” said Rep. Susan Bucher, a West Palm Beach Democrat. “It sounds like everyone in leadership is not on the same page.”

But Crist noted there is only so much he can do.

”I admit to not having all the answers,” Crist concluded in the speech. “But we know where to find them. We can find answers in the hearts of the people of Florida.”