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Will Crist's antitax pledge upend the Florida budget?

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist signed a no-new-taxes pledge Thursday, indicating that while he's running for the U.S. Senate he might veto some of the fees and taxes legislators raised to balance Florida's budget.

In the Americans for Tax Reform pledge for federal candidates, Crist promises to oppose income-tax increases. Crist's Republican rival for the Senate seat, Marco Rubio, also signed the federal pledge on Thursday. Both Crist and Rubio had already signed a similar "Taxpayer Protection Pledge'' for state officeholders.

But Crist is about to break that promise if he doesn't veto most of the $2.2 billion in new taxes and fees that legislators approved May 8 to end their annual session.

Any major vetoes by Crist are likely to cause hard feelings among lawmakers and likely would guarantee a special session because the budget would be out of balance.

Controlled by Republicans, the Legislature had to put in a week of overtime work to settle disputes over taxes and savings.

Crist has three options: Sign the $66.5 billion budget as written, veto specific line items or allow it to become law without his signature. Asked if he would exercise the latter option, Crist said Wednesday: "I haven't decided yet."

To make sure Crist can't wield his veto pen with ease, legislative leaders explicitly tied most fee and tax increases to specific parts of the budget.

If Crist vetoes the largest tax hike, a "surcharge'' of $1 more for every package of cigarettes, it would remove the lion's share of state money for Medicaid. And that would cost the state $2 billion in federal matching money for the program serving 2.6 million poor, sick, elderly and young Floridians.

Many fee increases, such as for driver licenses and car and truck registration tags, are tied to $900 million for K-12 schools.

"If he vetoes the revenues, the budget would come apart," said Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander of Lake Wales. "The governor told me personally he wouldn't veto the tobacco surcharge, for what it's worth."

That means Crist would either have to break his word to Alexander or to Americans for Tax Reform. Even if Crist doesn't sign the budget and it becomes law, he'll be violating the portion of the pledge that applies to governors in which they promise to veto tax increases. The new pledge Crist signed concerns income taxes, which don't exist in Florida.

Earlier this month, the Washington-based antitax group struck up an ad- and letter-writing campaign in the final days of the session against the tobacco tax hike. Big tobacco has long supported Americans for Tax Reform.

For months, Crist has ducked questions about the cigarette tax, saying he's "not warm and fuzzy about tax increases." Ever since he announced his Senate bid Tuesday, Crist has refused to even opine on what should happen with the Guantanamo Bay prison camp for suspected terrorists.

Crist was asked Wednesday how he would juggle a campaign with his current duties.

"Very carefully," he said.

Miami Herald staff writer Beth Reinhard contributed to this report. Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com

Will Crist's antitax pledge upend the Florida budget? 05/14/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 20, 2009 5:00pm]
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