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Crist's GOP allies fire at stimulus funds

TALLAHASSEE — School lunch equipment. Solar-energy rebates. New radios for prison guards.

These programs are among the dozens that Gov. Charlie Crist wants to fund with up to $7.9 billion in federal stimulus money over the next two budget years.

Not all of Crist's spending appears to be a surefire way to create jobs or boost the economy. And the Republican governor's euphoria over the federal money is sure to refocus attention on one of his perceived shortcomings in the Florida Capitol — as a leader more focused on the here and now than on the long term.

"We're grateful for it," Crist said Monday in Washington after joining other governors at a White House meeting with President Obama. "We want to spend those dollars wisely."

But back home, some Republicans doubt the stimulus package will work. State Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, said the state might feel a temporary boost, but it is risky to prop up the budget with one-time money that will soon run dry.

"These Obama bucks might be worse than Monopoly money because Monopoly money is real, and the Obama bucks cost you in the end," Bennett said. "It's the Obama lottery we're playing, and that's a bad bet."

State Rep. Dean Cannon, a Winter Park Republican who heads a new Florida House committee focusing on the economy, described the pitfalls of the stimulus package this way: "It's like using your credit card to pay the mortgage. It might work in the short term, but it will eventually leave you worse off."

Cannon said Florida's economy is so bad that, even with the federal stimulus money, the state might still face a $2 billion deficit next year.

For Crist, the $12.2 billion in stimulus money over three years is a massive shot in the arm that he can use to avoid raising taxes or making deep budget cuts.

The risk, as some fiscal conservatives see it, is that stimulus money will expand the reach of government and will require support from Florida taxpayers when the "Obama bucks'' go away.

Florida schools, health care and transportation will get the biggest chunks of the money. The first federal checks to the state, for Medicaid, could arrive as early as Wednesday.

Crist wants to spend stimulus money in many other places as well, including:

• $47 million to help low-income people develop job skills.

• $12 million to repair leaking underground storage tanks.

• $5 million for replacement security radios in Florida prisons.

Asked Monday how buying radios for prison guards helps Florida's economy, Crist said:

"Safety and security is a paramount issue for government. What I think is stimulative is what I've talked about: education, infrastructure, health care, which are the primary areas of what we're looking at. I want to keep my eye on the ball and not get bogged down by what may be less than 5 percent of the total stimulus package."

Though Crist is eagerly embracing a big-spending government program usually associated with Democrats, he has earned high marks in some conservative quarters for cutting a record amount of taxes and spending, though the economic collapse forced his hand.

The Cato Institute recently praised Crist as one of the most fiscally conservative governors in the country, but his ranking could suffer depending on how much federal stimulus money the state spends, according to Cato's Chris Edwards, the analyst who ranked the governors last year. Edwards said Crist's wish list of stimulus spending reflects the failures of the legislation itself.

"It's not a stimulus," Edwards said. "It could stimulate permanent government spending and government employment, but it's the private economy that ultimately needs to grow, not government."

Crist doesn't see it that way. Rather, he views stimulus money as an investment in the state's future and a "bridge'' to better days.

When he unveiled his proposed spending plan Friday, Crist actually released two budgets in one. The first called for spending about $3.2 billion in stimulus money in the current budget year and $4.7 billion in the budget year that will begin July 1. Like magic, a projected deficit of about $5.5 billion next year disappeared.

Under Crist's proposal, the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind would get a stimulus check for $434,000. An additional $3 million would be used to expand alternatives to juvenile detention centers and to lower the maximum tuition increase of 15 percent at state universities that Crist is seeking.

The formal term for the stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, appears dozens of times in the 354-page budget recommendation Crist sent to legislators — ensuring that the annual session that will begin a week from today will be the year of the stimulus.

"Fantastic," Crist called the federal windfall. "We cannot let this opportunity slip away."

Miami Herald staff writer Lesley Clark contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com. Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.

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The governor's stimulus spending list
When Gov. Charlie Crist proposed his spending plan, it was two budgets in one. One budget would spend some of the federal stimulus money during the current fiscal year, and the other proposes using additional stimulus money in the 2009-10 fiscal year, which will begin July 1.
Fiscal year 2008-09 Fiscal year 2009-10
Medicaid $1.3 billion $1.8 billion
Schools $1.5 billion
Transportation $1.4 billion $750 million
Inmate substance abuse $1.5 million $4.8 million
Welfare services $70 million $342 million
Energy and Climate Commission $4.4 million
Energy efficiency programs $138 million
Work force aid and
unemployment compensation
$97 million
Cultural grants $350,000
Wastewater
treatment facility construction
$134 million
Worker job training $2.3 million
National School Lunch Program equipment assistance $2.2 million
Solar Energy System
Incentives Program
$5 million

Crist's GOP allies fire at stimulus funds 02/23/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 25, 2009 4:47pm]
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