Crist avoids ceremony for Florida's $66.2-billion budget

TALLAHASSEE — One year after vetoing a record $459-million in state spending, Gov. Charlie Crist on Wednesday signed next year's pared-down budget cutting just $1-million.

And he did it behind closed doors.

Crist signed the $66.2-billion spending plan assembled by the Republican Legislature without the usual public ceremony.

The plan has been criticized by Crist's own child welfare secretary, Bob Butterworth. It cuts public schools and health care, eliminates hundreds of state jobs, freezes most state workers' pay for a second year and raises state university and community college tuition 6 percent.

It's the first time in memory that a governor held no public event to highlight the budget, even though Crist has held ceremonies for numerous other bills around the state and recently flew to Wall Street for a bill-signing ceremony.

The decision appeared to be based on a political calculation that there's little worth celebrating. The budget is nearly $6-billion less than the one Crist signed last year. The reason was a steep decline in tax receipts from Florida's boom-to-bust real estate market.

Crist axed two projects, $300,000 for a lake restoration program in Central Florida and $840,000 for a Miami festival promoting ties with Miami's sizable Nicaraguan community. Crist also formally vetoed a $250-million transfer from the state-run insurer, Citizens Property Insurance Corp., to provide startup loans to new insurers. He previously vetoed the bill creating the loan program.

Crist gave no reason for vetoing the two projects, but he vetoed the Miami appropriation last year. Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, said he was perplexed that Crist would single out his Nicaraguan constituents, calling it petty.

A Crist spokesman, Sterling Ivey, cited the festival's 18-year track record with no state funding, and that the state does not provide money for local cultural events. However, Crist did not veto money for a Latin Chamber of Commerce Miami film festival, a Haitian heritage museum, a Miami zoological invasive species exhibit and a Brevard County zoo.

House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber of Miami Beach said Crist was right to stay out of sight because there was no celebration in a budget that "delivers a disproportionate amount of pain to developmentally disabled children and seniors in nursing homes."

Crist let stand hundreds of projects totalling more than $109-million that Florida TaxWatch had flagged as "turkeys," claiming the projects narrowly benefit one part of the state or were approved with no public discussion.

Crist told reporters Tuesday that he supports projects that put people to work during an economic slump.

One of the costliest projects Crist endorsed is $12-million for a connector road and other improvements for a new Panama City airport that benefits developments by the St. Joe Co., Florida's largest private landowner.

Local projects that remained in the budget include $2-million for the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, $1.3-million for the Gateway redevelopment project in Dunedin, $2.5-million for the C.W. Bill Young Institute at St. Petersburg College and $200,000 for a ROTC military leadership center at the University of South Florida.

Pasco County saw more than $18-million set aside for roads, luring companies and a hurricane shelter's construction. Plus it will be part of a $10-million project to improve housing. Much of it was added by an appropriations chairman, Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.

"The governor was clear in his message … that any dollar that goes to help jobs, any dollars that go to help our economy, would not be vetoed," Fasano said.

Times staff writer David DeCamp contributed to this report.

Crist avoids ceremony for Florida's $66.2-billion budget 06/11/08 [Last modified: Friday, June 13, 2008 3:51pm]

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