TALLAHASSEE — In his farewell State of the State speech, Gov. Charlie Crist made a last-ditch appeal to the Legislature on Tuesday to embrace his style of pragmatic bipartisanship to confront Florida's problems.
Rebranding his populism as "problem-solving" over ideology, the lame-duck governor who's locked in an ideological U.S. Senate race sent the message that results mean more than rhetoric: "Extreme views rarely solve problems and frequently create them," he said.
In a 43-minute swan song delivered to a joint session of lawmakers in the Capitol's House chamber, Crist pushed for less "red tape" for business, tougher anticorruption laws and passage of a Seminole Indian gambling compact that lawmakers have rejected twice.
"This year, more than others, our achievements will be measured not by the passion of our rhetoric but by our ability to be problem-solvers and guide the ship of our state through the economic storm we are facing," Crist said.
Many of Crist's fellow Republicans sat with their hands folded in their laps, rocking in their chairs as he spoke. Skepticism was evident.
The loudest applause came from Democrats, sitting in the back, when Crist voiced no regret for taking Florida's share of federal stimulus money from President Barack Obama's administration. Only two Republicans joined Democrats in a standing ovation, Rep. J.C. Planas, R-Miami, and Sen. Durell Peaden, R-Crestview.
"While not particularly pleasant for any of us, this step was the responsible thing to do for our people," Crist told lawmakers. "I commend you for your maturity and responsibility."
Some Democrats liked what they heard more than Republicans did.
"He didn't sound like a Republican at all," said Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami. "He sounded like a good, sensitive moderate."
Said Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, a candidate for governor: "It seemed to me to be very similar to a campaign speech. There weren't a whole lot of solutions in there."
Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat running for governor, said Crist failed to lay out a "business plan" to get Florida out of its worst recession in modern times.
On corruption, Crist called for new limits on communication between members of the Public Service Commission and utility representatives, and he said he asked a statewide grand jury to offer suggestions for reform before the 2010 session ends.
On gambling, Crist called for a "consensus" to generate more money for schools, while acknowledging that some legislative leaders oppose what they view as an expansion of gambling.
"Florida desperately needs the money," Crist said. "Wouldn't it be appropriate to set aside personal biases and approve a compact that will help pay to educate Florida's schoolchildren?"
The speech had clear overtones of Crist's Republican U.S. Senate primary with Marco Rubio, who casts himself as a principled conservative against Crist, a pragmatic centrist.
The governor seemed to speak directly to the Tea Party protesters who are among Rubio's supporters when he referred to "the hecklers in the cheap seats where conviction abounds, but wisdom is not required and nothing is either risked or gained."
"While there is great virtue in being true to your principles, conviction must be tempered with practicality and pragmatism," Crist said. "Taken to an extreme, conviction becomes inflexible — even destructive."
Said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville: "I think he was talking to the Senate campaign audience."
The speech was Crist's last opportunity to take credit for his accomplishments.
He cited nearly all of them, from a drop in violent crime to a bare-bones health insurance program known as Cover Florida to the use of hand-held mobile devices to track foster children.
Crist, 53, is the first Florida governor to forgo a re-election bid since passage of the 1968 Constitution that allowed a governor to serve two terms. Instead, Crist is running for the U.S. Senate seat vacated last year by Republican Mel Martinez.
Watching from the visitors' gallery overlooking the House chamber were Crist's wife, Carole; his parents, Dr. Charles and Nancy Crist of St. Petersburg; and his three sisters, Margaret, Elizabeth and Katherine.
Also among those listening to the speech was Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, sworn in as the House's newest member only hours earlier. Cruz was elected Feb. 23 to fill the term of former Rep. Michael Scionti, who resigned to take a position in Obama's administration.
One other House seat remains vacant after the resignation of former House Speaker Ray Sansom, R-Destin.
On the budget, Crist faces strong resistance from fellow Republicans who fault him for fortifying his spending plan with money from Indian gambling and federal stimulus programs that are not assured. House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, didn't mention Crist by name, but made clear his disapproval of the governor's budgeting methods.
"I want to be very clear about this. We will not play accounting games," Cretul said in a House speech that preceded Crist's address. "We won't base our budget on a wink and a prayer."
Cretul also made a reference to Crist's proposal to keep only about $150 million in reserves for emergencies. The speaker said the reserves should be at least $1 billion.
"State bond experts have told us that in order to preserve the state's AAA rating, there must be adequate reserves," Cretul said. "It took Florida over 30 years to reach an AAA rating. We must not lose it in four or five months."
In a response on behalf of Senate Democrats, Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, blamed Republican "trickle-down" tax-cutting policies for "hundreds of thousands without jobs, the abandoned properties, the skyrocketing demand for food stamps, unemployment assistance, medical help and job retraining — the rising number of Floridians just one paycheck away from disaster."
Rich said job creation includes reviewing the $23 billion in sales tax exemptions she said favor special interests, as well as finding ways to encourage Florida-based banks to offer credit to small businesses.
Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo, Shannon Colavecchio, John Frank, Robert Samuels and Cristina Silva contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.