TALLAHASSEE — Saying 26,000 teachers' jobs have been saved, Gov. Charlie Crist touted the federal stimulus package Wednesday but said he won't support another multibillion-dollar spending plan from Congress.
Crist bucked fellow Republican leaders in Congress this year by embracing both President Barack Obama and the stimulus package. Crist then held numerous meetings with state agency chiefs to pressure the Legislature to budget the money.
The state already has committed to spending more than half of the cash. But more money is available than originally anticipated, said Crist's stimulus czar, Don Winstead.
Using new calculations that include federal stimulus money sent directly to local governments rather than to the state, he said Florida could receive a total of about $15.3 billion over three budget years. That's about $2 billion more than previously estimated.
"I don't anticipate the need for more. The numbers we've heard today are pretty significant," Crist said, "and I hope Florida continues to do well. We all want unemployment to come down, and only time will tell about that."
Since taking office in 2007, Crist has consistently predicted that Florida's economy was poised for a "sonic boom." Instead, it headed toward bust.
Record job losses and budget deficits plagued the state as Crist's plans to fix the economy by overhauling property taxes, homeowners insurance and health insurance failed to offer the needed boost. In signing the state budget in May, Crist said that no state workers would be laid off, yet up to 300 state workers are forecast to face unemployment under the new budget.
The stimulus package, too, hasn't worked as well as anticipated in Florida and the nation as the unemployment rate climbs higher than the administration had forecast.
Now a Senate candidate, Crist faces a Republican primary challenger in former House Speaker Marco Rubio, who has criticized the governor's advocacy of the Democratic spending plan.
"The stimulus package is working — it's stimulating our national debt," Rubio said. "The state should have done what every family in Florida is doing right now. It should have spent only the money it had."
But Crist said the money was a lifesaver. He said the job picture would be far worse in Florida were it not for the bailout money from the feds.
The state's education commissioner, Eric Smith, said the $2 billion pumped into the education system saved 26,000 teachers' jobs. Crist's labor department chief, Cynthia Lorenzo, said the state is using the extra federal money to boost unemployment benefits and to build a call center to handle the flood of calls from the jobless.
"It's pretty incredible that 26,000 teachers will continue to work for Florida's children because of these additional monies," Crist said. "And that's really the point. This is to help people."
Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.