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Crist's checklist is bigger than ever

Expect the usual crush of lobbyists and legislators in the Rotunda between the House and Senate. Debate will be fierce as politicians meet in the toughest of times in memory.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Expect the usual crush of lobbyists and legislators in the Rotunda between the House and Senate. Debate will be fierce as politicians meet in the toughest of times in memory.

Gov. Charlie Crist has an ambitious to-do list for the Florida Legislature.

Cut property taxes. Cap local government spending. Spend $3.2 billion in federal economic stimulus money in the current year and $4.7 billion more next year.

Time is short in the nine-week session that begins Tuesday, and money is scarce — even with stimulus dollars.

Little wonder that Crist's checklist of top-tier issues includes ways to raise money at a time when state government faces a deficit of more than $5 billion, even after three successive rounds of spending cuts.

Billions of dollars in federal stimulus money will help to extricate Crist and lawmakers from the state's deepest budgetary hole in decades, but not without a debate over whether it is fiscally wise in a prolonged recession to prop up state government with a limited flow of federal cash.

Crist wants to give state universities authority to raise tuition 15 percent a year. He wants legislators to approve a gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe that was struck down by the Florida Supreme Court, stressing that the state's share of gambling proceeds would pump nearly $137 million a year into public education.

He wants to increase car registration fees, fines on overweight trucks and, for the first time in Florida's history, impose a fee of 6 cents a gallon on bottled water producers.

Crist hasn't said yes to a cigarette tax increase, but he hasn't completely shut the door on it, either. He's also engaged in helping to lead the charge for legislative approval of state purchase of 61 miles of CSX Corp.'s rail line for a Central Florida commuter train.

Crist was largely an observer when the project faltered last year in the face of fierce opposition from trial lawyers and labor unions.

Speaking of last year, Crist stood before the Legislature to deliver his 2008 State of the State address a year ago and said with no trace of irony that by "fueling an economy that ranks ahead of most nations of the world, we set a model at which others can marvel."

One year later, Florida is a national model of "despair and foreclosures," as it was portrayed recently on the front page of the New York Times. The state is suffering historic job losses and is saddled with some of the highest rates of unemployment and foreclosures in the country.

None of that has dashed Crist's perpetual optimism, but what has happened to Florida's economy is proof that even a leader as popular as Charlie Crist can't control his own fate, much less predict the future.

Crist has added suspense to his own future by refusing to rule out a bid for the state's open U.S. Senate seat next year rather than seek re-election as governor.

He has said he will make up his mind after the legislative session. That's Crist's way of putting politics aside, but it also guarantees that his own ambitions will be a parlor game in the state Capitol for the next two months.

"The governor has to be governor," said U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, a Miami Democrat who's running for the Senate. "I'm just saying that I'm running. I'm in this race. I'm not thinking about it. I'm not putting my finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing."

Crist's checklist is bigger than ever 02/26/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 27, 2009 1:06pm]
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