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Robert Trigaux

As Crist's alternative energy leadership wanes, will industry still invest in Florida?



CristschwarzeneggerAP Wake up and good morning. Why do I have this image in my head of Gov. Charlie Crist ordering off an extensive menu at a fancy restaurant. First he orders one item with enthusiasm but then calls back the waiter to change his order. Again and again it happens. Then Crist gets up and leaves with a big smile and a wave, saying he wasn't hungry after all.

So it goes with Crist's apparent flagging interest in climate change and the alternative energy movement in Florida. Yes, I know he's now running for the Senate. Yes, I realize he's playing politics by distancing himself from the climate change movement -- and from formerly joined-at-the-hip (but out of favor) California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (AP photo). Yes, I understand a canceled annual climate summit conference is not the same as a repudiation of endorsing alternative energy.

Still, it matters. A lot. Especially to a business community that's still assessing government support of a fledgling and controversial industry like alternative energy. What does Crist's "never mind" message on the climate summit tell business leaders and entrepreneurs now measuring that state commitment? What is industry's willingness to invest in it here -- as opposed to other states or countries?

According to the Palm Beach Post, some environmentalists say Crist's record has been tarnished by his recent openness to offshore drilling and his support for a new law that weakened limits on growth.

You don't have to be an enviro-activist to recognize a wobbly stance on what was once solid footing. As the Post story notes in this remark from House Speaker Marco Rubio, who is challenging Crist in the GOP Senate primary.

"The political circumstances have changed. I guarantee you he won't be touting the work he did with Sheryl Crow as part of his primary platform."

Note the evolution of Crist:

* 2007:"I think that as a state, beautiful as Florida is, we need to be a leader controlling climate change and protecting our natural resources," Crist said in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times. "It's vital to Florida's future."

* 2008: Crist opened his second climate summit in Miami this morning saying he hoped the meeting would "chart the course of the green future of the Sunshine State."
He used the occasion to sign the state's new Energy Bill #7135, calling it "Florida's most comprehensive energy economic policy in the history of our great state."

It would be misleading to say Crist has disavowed his commitment to an alternative energy industry in the state. It would not be misleading to say he is losing his leadership in the arena. And any first term governor opting to run for a Senate seat amid a disastrous state recession may have to answer questions about passing the buck.

For the business community, it boils down to this. Is Florida really committed to building a viable alternative industry -- certainly no less than Florida was keen (at least in the Jeb Bush administration) on building a biotech industry? Short-term, feel-good Tallahassee talk is a far cry from serious infrastructure building and public policy support for a new industry still feeling its way.

It would be a dangerous economic trend for Florida leaders to get excited about "Industry X" and throw their support behind it, only to lose the passion a few years later.

If Crist returns to that restaurant, look for him to order waffles. Lukewarm, please.

-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist 

[Last modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 11:25am]


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