TALLAHASSEE — Clutching his budget veto pen for the final time, Gov. Charlie Crist signed a $70.2 billion budget Friday, but only after he wiped out hundreds of millions of dollars in pet projects of some key lawmakers.
His actions enraged some of the targeted legislators, who railed against his vetoes and even threatened to sue him.
House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, accused Crist of playing illegal accounting games when he vetoed a $160 million raid on a transportation trust fund to bolster school spending. By failing to veto classroom funds at the same time, Crist essentially spent school money without legislative authority, Cretul said.
"The rule of law is at stake,'' he wrote, ''and no one, not even the Governor, is above the principles set forth in Florida's state constitution."
Crist has all but dared Cretul and other lawmakers to sue him.
"We should not have to choose between jobs for Floridians or funding for our children's education," Crist said Friday.
Earlier this week, Crist dodged a question about whether he could veto the trust fund, keep K-12 spending up and not wind up in court. He said only that his staff found a way to "bifurcate" and "decouple" the two issues. He said the decision to link the issues was "obvious shenanigans" from a GOP-led Legislature whose relationship with Crist grew overtly hostile after he left the party last month.
Crist's vetoes only intensified the bitterness.
In all, Crist cut $211 million in spending. Of that money, 88 percent was targeted for universities. Legislators said the projects were being accelerated on a list approved by a higher-ed oversight board and would have created tens of thousands of jobs.
The biggest single budget loser from Crist's budget cuts: the University of South Florida, which lost $46 million for a new polytechnic campus and pharmacy program in Lakeland championed by Senate budget chief JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales.
"It's incredible," Crist said in an interview. "I really thought there would have been more discipline exercised financially by the Legislature. Everybody's tightening their belts. But in the end, they just spent like crazy."
Alexander, never a fan of the governor, accused Crist of punishing him for voting to successfully block two Crist appointees to the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities.
"Clearly, it was a personal attack on me because I didn't share his view of his appointments to the PSC," Alexander said. "He decided to be personally punitive. This (USF funding) was broadly supported across the state and across the region. I feel confident that we will prevail one day."
Accusing Crist of being a liar, he added: "He said he supported USF Polytechnic. But what's new? He didn't tell the truth. He was a Republican until he wasn't. He supported Senate Bill 6 (a teacher merit pay bill) until he didn't. … He's all politics and he doesn't have any substance."
Also Friday Crist vetoed a legislative mandate that the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority pay $19 million of a long-term debt owed to the state Department of Transportation or be taken over by the agency.
And Crist cut $1 million for upgrades for East Hillsborough's Turkey Creek Road. Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, sought money in hope of making it easier to recruit new companies to a Plant City industrial park that has lost major employers.
The county that bore the brunt of Crist's vetoes: Miami-Dade, which lost $64.5 million in projects. It is the home county of House budget chief David Rivera, a top ally of Crist's GOP U.S. Senate opponent, Marco Rubio of West Miami. Crist vetoed $40.5 million from Florida International University, Rivera's alma mater and a Rubio employer.
Crist had threatened for weeks to veto projects that surfaced in the final days of the legislative session, but his stand against what he views as pork barrel spending is also designed to strengthen his image as a fiscal conservative in a crowded and unpredictable U.S. Senate race.
Crist's veto of the legislative transfer of $160 million in highway construction money to public schools may end up in court, but it is likely to be looked upon with favor by the construction industry, which had strongly opposed the raid on road building funds.
Crist said he was vetoing projects that did not receive adequate open review," or benefited "only select groups." But he protected projects in the districts of key allies, even though they made the annual "turkey list" compiled by Florida TaxWatch.
For example, Crist let stand a $750,000 grant to operate a health clinic at the Mike Fasano Hurricane Shelter in Pasco County, named after the state senator who championed it. The governor also saved $8.5 million for a new pharmacy program in rural Crestview to be run by Florida A&M University, a project sponsored by Sen. Durell Peaden.
Fasano and Peaden are Crist loyalists who have pledged to support his independent candidacy for the U.S. Senate.
Though the governor claimed his vetoes totaled $371 million, the bottom line is less than half that because Crist restored $216 million in Medicaid reimbursement rate cuts to nursing home providers and those who care for the disabled. In his first year in office, Crist vetoed $459 million in spending — a record. He vetoed $1 million in projects in 2008 and none last year.
USF president Judy Genshaft said in a letter to university employees and alumni that the school, while losing the huge appropriation for construction in Lakeland, will still receive about $10 million for USF Polytechnic, $1.9 million for the Byrd Alzheimer's Center and $6 million for the pharmacy program.
"USF has worked hard to bring education, jobs and economic development to our entire region, and to the state, and the governor's veto is very disappointing," she said in the letter.
Times/Herald staff writers Lee Logan and Richard Danielson contributed to this report.