TALLAHASSEE — Breaking a pledge against raising taxes, Gov. Charlie Crist signed Florida's $66.5 billion budget into law Wednesday and barely used his veto pen.
Crist vetoed only two items: a small pay cut for some state workers and a measure to take $6 million from a trust fund that's used to process concealed weapons permits.
Those items aside, Crist said, the budget was the best it could be, considering the times.
"The revenue estimates of last fall and this spring were disheartening to say the least and many predicted dark days for this state," Crist said. "Today, I'm happy to say that the budget that I will sign is not nearly as dismal as they expected it to be."
Crist boasted that the budget slightly increases K-12 spending by $26 per student, keeps critical services like Medicaid afloat and includes more money to help recruit high-wage businesses and to promote and advertise the state.
Crist also noted the budget shows the state has "no plans to release inmates from prison, no drastic measure to lay off hardworking state employees."
Still, up to 700 state workers could lose their jobs. Some state law enforcement regional offices are slated for closure.
Also, the budget includes $2.2 billion in new fees and taxes. Much of the new revenue comes from a $1-a-pack cigarette tax and higher fees on driving licenses and motor vehicle tags. Those who use the court system, visit state parks and even those who fish from beaches and bridges will pay more in fees.
The cigarette tax and most of the fees go into effect July 1.
Crist, who had repeatedly promised not to raise taxes, said Wednesday that the budget does not include "broad-based tax increases'' — even though fees for the 15.6 million Florida driver licenses and 18.8 million registered vehicles will rise.
Democrats, particularly in the House, assailed the tax hikes. They said Republicans did too little to close tax loopholes and made too many cuts to programs helping seniors and foster kids. "This budget was balanced on the backs of the middle class, the working men and women of our state," said Rep. Martin Kiar, D-Davie.
Democrats crowed that next year's budget will be propped up with $5.3 billion in federal stimulus money made available by a Democratic Congress and president. Without it, the state's $6 billion budget hole would have been far harder to fill. The current year budget is $69.5 billion, including $4 billion in stimulus money.
Crist and Republican legislators acknowledged that the federal money was a must. But they said they needed to raise other revenues, trim about $1 billion in spending and beef up savings to $1.7 billion to protect the state's bond rating and ensure there's enough cash in the bank if times toughen.
Senate President Jeff Atwater, a North Palm Beach Republican, said lawmakers will have to come back at a special lawmaking session in the coming months to ratify a gambling agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
By not vetoing the new taxes, Crist violated a no-new-taxes pledge he made on the campaign trail in 2006. He also has signed an antitax pledge geared toward governors, written by the conservative Washington group Americans for Tax Reform. Earlier this month, the Republican governor signed a similar no-new-taxes pledge for federal candidates now that he's running for the U.S. Senate.
The tax issue wasn't Crist's only budget reversal. On Wednesday, Crist described his decision to veto a $6 million raid on the weapons-licensing trust fund as a way to protect Second Amendment rights. Yet in February, Crist had asked legislators to take even more money from the trust fund, $8 million.
Asked to explain his change of heart on the trust fund, Crist said he was convinced by Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, whose agency oversees the licensure of concealed weapons. Applications for concealed weapons permits have skyrocketed. Crist described the veto as a "safety issue."
Crist's decision to cancel the 2 percent pay cut on state workers earning more than $45,000 was met with cheers from Democratic Senate leader Al Lawson of Tallahassee. He said Crist would look like "a hero." Crist said the veto would protect the economy by ensuring the 28,000 state workers who faced a pay cut would have more money to spend. To make up for the loss of the $56 million pay cut, Crist directed all state agencies to trim their budgets. Salaries could still be among the cuts.
Times/Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.