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Gov. Charlie Crist's brief State of the State pitch: use federal stimulus

TALLAHASSEE — In a short and perfunctory State of the State speech, Gov. Charlie Crist urged the Legislature on Tuesday to rally behind his plan to spend billions in federal stimulus money as "a bridge to better economic times" in Florida.

Crist called his address "a dose of reality," muting his usual cheerfulness to state the obvious: An epidemic of foreclosures and business failures and the highest unemployment rate in 17 years has ravaged state revenues. Crist used the deepening economic crisis to justify injecting $12.2 billion of federal money into the budget over three years.

"Some argue the politics of the federal stimulus plan," Crist said. "My friends, while our people worry, we cannot put politics over their needs — the needs of our students and teachers, the sick and the infirm, or those out of work."

In his third year in office, Crist is in the awkward spot of facing resistance within his own party in seeking to use stimulus money to jump-start the economy and get people back to work. Underscoring that point toward the end of his speech, Crist said: "We have to be willing to put solutions above who gets the credit."

Reviews were mixed. Some Republicans remain wary of the need to spend all the federal money and risk dramatically increasing the state's future budgetary obligations without knowing when the economy will improve.

"Taking all of it may leave us in a worse position two or three years from now," said Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park. "The most important thing we have to do right now is do no harm."

Crist's 19-minute speech, delivered in a subdued tone with the aid of a TelePrompTer, was at 6 p.m. to attract live local TV news coverage. It brought polite applause from its target audience: the 160 legislators in the House chamber who will spend the next nine weeks scrutinizing his spending plans.

Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said Crist spoke "in broad strokes" in making a political case — not a financial case — for spending stimulus money. "I don't think he quite addressed that," Galvano said, acknowledging "skepticism" about Crist's plan.

What worries some lawmakers is that Crist's $66.5 billion budget proposal for next year is grounded in revenue information from last fall that will soon be eclipsed by another downturn in revenues when state economists produce the next forecast March 13.

"This budget was rolled out on the high-water mark, knowing that the tide was going down quickly," said Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "It is not tethered to reality."

Asked if Crist's speech was realistic, Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Winter Haven, said: "We'll know next week," referring to the revenue forecast. But the Senate budget chief said Crist did offer "hope, direction and leadership that speaks to many Floridians."

The governor also pressed lawmakers to approve a gambling agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida and a tuition increase he described as a "reform." He cited plans to purchase 180,000 acres of Everglades land from U.S. Sugar Corp. and to diversify Florida's energy supply "that balances solar, wind and nuclear" — leaving out offshore oil drilling that he endorsed during last summer's presidential campaign.

Crist's third State of the State address was the shortest in modern times. (His two previous ones were 29 and 30 minutes.) Former Gov. Jeb Bush's final speech in 2006 ran 35 minutes, and former Gov. Lawton Chiles' finale lasted 30 minutes.

The speech lacked the passion of Crist's previous two talks and used stilted language, such as "high potential business sectors" and "implementing these dollars quickly." Crist's rosy job-creation statistics were straight from President Obama's administration, and he used an outdated figure of $25 billion to estimate the worth of property tax cut plans he has championed.

Such brevity meant Crist all but ignored his new batch of property tax-cut proposals while also skipping priorities of some fellow Republicans, such as a broad review of sales-tax exemptions.

"I love optimism," House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, told reporters before Crist's speech. "But I also have been around long enough that sometimes, even optimism is not necessarily the solution to the problem."

Democrats strongly support Crist's eagerness to spend stimulus money.

"He set the right tone," said Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, the only Democrat who serves with Crist on the Cabinet.

"Using these economic recovery funds will be a win for everyone — especially our children, the uninsured and Floridians worried about their jobs," said Rep. Geraldine Thompson, an Orlando Democrat who delivered her party's response to Crist's speech.

Crist also announced that Don Winstead, a deputy secretary of the Department of Children and Families, will advise him on spending Florida's share of stimulus money. Winstead will take a leave from his current post for up to a year to help Crist's staff.

Crist opened the speech by introducing the woman he married three months ago, his wife, Carole, who was seated in the front row of the visitors' gallery along with the governor's parents.

"I love you, honey," Crist said, looking up at his wife and ad-libbing a reference to his long bachelorhood: "I should have done that a long time ago."

Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo, Breanne Gilpatrick, Mary Ellen Klas and Alex Leary and St. Petersburg Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report, which used information from the News Service of Florida. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com.

"We must commit to one another and to each and every Floridian that we will work toward more than just the perception of bipartisanship, but strive to seek honest-to-goodness cooperation. … We have to be willing to put solutions above who gets the credit, and results above individual gain. People are counting on us, and for those of you who wish to keep score, I ask you to mark your wins and losses not for our parties, but for the people we serve."

Gov. Charlie Christ in his State of the State address

Gov. Charlie Crist's brief State of the State pitch: use federal stimulus 03/03/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 5, 2009 8:55am]

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