TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist will soon confront a set of wrenching decisions that challenge his priorities as governor and something just as important: his desire to be Florida's next U.S. senator.
Crist, who has the last word on most legislative actions, faces a clear choice with four weeks left in his last session as governor: He can ratify Republican proposals on education, property insurance, political fundraising and the budget, or use his veto pen to beat down party orthodoxy and revive the "people above politics" populism that got him elected in 2006.
"When the governor decided not to run for re-election, he made his governing life very difficult," said Rep. Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach, the House majority leader. "I think it is a very tight wire for him to walk the rest of session and beyond the session."
Crist can stand with fellow Republicans or set himself apart in search of a political advantage.
The first big test comes this week when Crist decides whether to sign a bill that allows a handful of legislators to create soft-money fundraising machines, known as leadership funds, outside the structure of the political parties. Both Republican-led chambers rushed the bill to Crist during the session, giving him seven days to act.
Trailing his U.S. Senate rival Marco Rubio by double digits, Crist realizes he's in the political fight of his life. And that the power of his bully pulpit is expiring.
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When lawmakers send bills fast, they are forcing Crist's hand but also giving him time to reject them and suggest changes to win approval a second time during the 60-day session.
There's a third option on any bill: He can let it become law without his signature. But that leaves him vulnerable to criticism for abdicating leadership.
As a former state senator, Crist understands well the give-and-take between legislative and executive branches. He dislikes confrontation, preferring to negotiate behind the scenes and sign compromise legislation, rather than veto and risk making enemies.
On leadership funds, Crist remembers when they were banned by Democrats two decades ago and has voiced qualms about the bill he must act on by Tuesday.
It would allow four lawmakers to control millions in campaign contributions from special interests and not require the funds to maintain public Web sites and report transactions every 10 days.
The current system of lawmaker-controlled funds requires such transparency, even as it gives legislative leaders access to large pots of political party money through donations earmarked to "Victory" committees.
Crist could veto the bill, HB 1207, on grounds it fails to provide enough transparency, but it does require fuller disclosure on one front: independent groups that finance hard-hitting attack ads. A court ruling had invalidated the previous disclosure law.
What makes a veto more possible, though, is the low risk involved in rejecting an issue more important to political insiders than the public.
"Leadership funds historically have not been something that's been viewed in a very favorable light. I think we all know that. So I have concerns about it from that aspect," Crist said in an interview.
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On property insurance, Crist recently reaffirmed his opposition to a bill by Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, that would largely deregulate the industry.
SB 876 would allow all companies — not just large ones like State Farm — to set a tier of unregulated rates with annual caps on increases with the theory that the marketplace will balance itself.
Bennett and insurers say the bill expands consumer choices for insurance, while Crist says it would lead to higher rates and allow insurers to decide whether to offer consumers a policy or not.
Crist made a brief appearance before the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee last month and urged the bill be voted down. Despite Crist's plea, the committee passed the bill, 6-4, but not on party lines. It's likely to get to the Senate floor.
The outspoken Bennett criticized Crist's office for not offering constructive alternatives to his bill.
" 'No,' to me, is never an acceptable answer on an issue," Bennett said. "If you would do this, this and this, then we could go along."
The senator said former Gov. Jeb Bush "was much more direct" than Crist in negotiating on legislation. "You always knew where he (Bush) was coming from," Bennett said.
Said Crist: "It's bad for consumers."
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Thousands of people have signed petitions urging Crist to veto a bill, SB 6, making it easier to fire schoolteachers and base part of their pay on students' test scores. A top priority of the Republican-controlled Legislature, the bill is drawing growing opposition from school boards, PTA groups and parents. It passed the Senate and is pending in the House.
Crist, known to react on big issues to grass roots political opposition or strong resistance from newspaper editorials, said he's likely to sign this bill, a priority of his predecessor Bush.
Surely a veto would antagonize Bush, who's expected to eventually endorse Rubio for Senate. Also it would give Rubio a chance to portray Crist as a pawn of the left-leaning teachers union, the Florida Education Association.
Calling his view of the tenure bill "generally favorable," Crist said: "I think it's important that we have quality teachers that are determined by quantitative analysis." He said opponents may have exaggerated the effects of the bill, much of which would not take effect until 2014.
Union lobbyist Ron Meyer personally urged Crist to veto the bill.
"Gov. Crist has shown a real desire to be inclusive in terms of education policy," Meyer said. "And the governor knows Jeb Bush and his disciples (in the Legislature) are helping Rubio, not Gov. Crist."
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Soon enough, Crist's lame-duck status will weaken his authority, and his U.S. Senate campaign will be front and center.
Crist's presession priorities were "the four E's" — the economy, education, ethics and the environment. With four weeks to go, he said plenty of time remains for his agenda to fall into place.
"There's still time," said Crist, ever the optimist. "So much gets done in the closing weeks."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.