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Crist deftly makes the best of bad financial times

The state budget is never just a list of numbers. It always reveals political priorities and agendas.

That was never more true than this week, when Gov. Charlie Crist whipped out his Sharpie and signed the slimmed-down budget approved Jan. 14 in a special legislative session.

The legislators did the unpopular work — the cutting. Crist's assignment was easy. He vetoed some of the most controversial cuts, a fiscal double negative that allowed Crist to spend money. Simply by restoring selected programs to the amounts before the session began, he ends up looking like the hero who undid the Legislature's damage.

Boy, did that ever frost some people in the Senate. But they did it to themselves. They look like the bad guys who slashed popular programs, only to watch Crist ride to the rescue, veto pen in hand.

Exactly why lawmakers, especially the usually savvy Senate, tossed Crist this fiscal softball, only to watch the populist governor smack it over the fence, is mystifying.

Crist now leaves behind a state budget document that has one number written all over it. The number is 2010, when Crist would be up for re-election as governor as the guy who "saved" teacher bonus pay, body armor for Florida National Guard troops, and the Florida Forever land-preservation program.

By erasing just those three cuts, Crist can clearly be seen as building a political foundation to lay claim to being pro-teacher, pro-military and pro-environment.

"It's easy to go out and demagogue these issues and pander to folks. But the Senate and House are constitutionally required to make this work," said Sen. J.D. Alexander, the Lake Wales Republican and chief budget writer in the Senate.

Alexander considers himself and fellow senators as friends of the environment. They decided a one-year moratorium on Florida Forever purchases was prudent in a recession and felt they had a deal with Crist's staff.

"We don't do deals," Crist said.

Crist also restored a 2 percent reduction to the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine, a cut of $821,000 that was the same percentage as that of all 67 school districts. He put back $3 million for 54 probation officers in the prison system, and $300,000 for 15 jobs at the Florida Parole Commission, the agency that deals with restoration of civil rights for released felons.

He did something else: He restored a $574,000 cut to a crisis counseling program in the Department of Health, a program that includes a Web site and hotline to discourage women from seeking abortions.

"I have exercised my veto power judiciously," Crist wrote in his veto message.

So far, Crist's vetoes look like smart politics with the public, but the real difficult budget-cutting work lies ahead, when the regular session starts March 3. Time will tell if Crist's actions will seem smart to legislators.

"It's a concern," said Republican Sen. Mike Bennett of Bradenton. "Especially in these times, when we're all supposed to be working together."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Crist deftly makes the best of bad financial times 01/30/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 31, 2009 10:59pm]
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