Crist thrives amid down times in state

TALLAHASSEE — Midway through his term, Gov. Charlie Crist finds his sunny optimism tested almost daily as his state slips deeper into the worst recession in modern times. But the Republican governor keeps smiling.

Crist has reason to smile. The public consistently gives him high approval ratings despite the state's grim economic condition. He orchestrated passage of a constitutional amendment mandating the largest property tax cut in state history. He spent last summer basking in the flattery of rumor as a possible running mate for John McCain, and ended nearly three decades of bachelorhood last month by marrying New York socialite Carole Rome.

But Crist's policy record after two years on the job is a decidedly mixed bag.

In the past year, Crist promised to send "a sonic boom'' through the economy with the property tax cut, bring in new revenue with an Indian gambling agreement, cut property insurance rates, and create jobs through accelerated spending on public works programs. In his 2007 inaugural address, he pledged to "secure work with good pay'' and "world-class schools."

His promises have gone largely unfulfilled. The national recession converged with Florida's collapsing housing market to produce the highest unemployment rate in 15 years, the highest job losses of any state, and deep cuts to public education to balance a faltering budget.

The property tax bonanza has been a dud. The math hasn't worked as promised on property insurance. The gambling agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida was ruled unconstitutional. The governor's pitch to create jobs by accelerating road construction amounted to more show than substance.

"We can always do more. We can always do better," Crist said in summarizing his performance. "But I think they know that we're trying."

Where Crist has been successful, it has been the result of his pragmatic, inclusive approach to governing. He revamped the state Supreme Court, replacing three retiring justices with two conservatives and a moderate. He junked touch screen voting machines in favor of paper ballots and extended the hours of early voting even when it was viewed as favorable to Democrats, then presided over a high turnout on Election Day that came off nearly flawlessly.

He barreled ahead with ideas that he acknowledges may have short-term cost but that he believes will produce long-term gains. They include the historic $1.3-billion purchase of sugarcane fields to improve Everglades water quality, and enacting mandates on power companies to use more renewable energy and on automakers to produce cleaner emission-producing cars. And he unapologetically reversed course to support a university tuition increase of up to 15 percent because, he said, it is needed to improve schools.

Crist deserves much of the credit for passage of the Amendment 1 property tax cut a year ago. But what Crist calls a $23-billion tax cut over five years looks very different to Florida homeowners watching the values of their homes drop at a much faster rate than their tax bills.

Donna Kuhn of North Port is one of hundreds of frustrated taxpayers who have written letters to Crist. She complained that her Sarasota County home has lost 20 percent of its value while her property taxes dropped by 3 percent. That's a savings of $115.

"Where is the big savings you promised when you told us property taxes were going to drop like a rock?" Kuhn asked Crist, recalling his oft-stated promise. "This is more like a few grains of sand!''

Consumers aren't doing much better with insurance. Although insurance rates have dropped an average of 14 percent this year (because the state had a second straight year without a major hurricane) homeowners have faced government assessments to keep Citizens Property Insurance and the state's backup insurance fund solvent.

Crist's biggest policy blows came from the Florida Supreme Court. A unanimous court invalidated his pact with the Seminole Tribe to allow slot machines and table games at their seven casinos because he failed to get legislative approval to expand gambling. Crist hopes to get the approval in March, but the state missed out on more than $100-million it could have received if the compact were in force.

The high court also knocked down a constitutional amendment intended for the November ballot that would have asked voters to replace $8-billion in property taxes that pay for schools with a penny sales tax and other tax increases. Crist had hoped the tax swap would bail out Florida's ailing real estate market and give homeowners more relief.

But despite these setbacks, opinion polls show Crist's approval ratings pegged in the high 60s among people of all political stripes, even when a majority say the state is headed in the wrong direction.

A common explanation: "The guy is a masterful politician," said Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg.

Crist defines leadership not in ideological terms but in practical ones. "Our focus should be on serving our fellow Americans — in Washington, in every state, and in every neighborhood," he said. "Leaders emerge during challenging times because people must have hope for the future and a sense of stability in the midst of uncertainty."

While some conservative Republicans bristle at Crist's moderate stands, others say he's effective.

"Charlie right now is well positioned to serve eight years as governor and move on to the U.S. Senate, because it's unlikely anybody will run against him in a Republican primary — and he still has Democratic support," said Steve Geller, the former Senate Democratic leader.

Crist's approach to leadership has everything to do with style and tone. He sees himself as an empathizer in chief who projects a Clintonesque sense that he feels his constituents' pain.

"I'm accused of being a populist because I am," he said. "I care deeply about the people and the struggles they go through."

To prove the point, Crist visits unemployment offices and small businesses and holds "listening tours'' to underscore his concern. His mantra is that no matter how bleak things look now, better days are coming: "Our best days are ahead of us," Crist is fond of saying.

Crist is viewed in some circles as a superficial chief executive whose moth-to-the-flame attraction to television cameras for fluffy "media avails'' too often substitutes for substantive policy.

"Where is he? That's what people keep asking me," said state Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, a Sarasota Democrat. "We've got huge problems, and people don't see strong leadership coming forth. All we hear is, 'The sun always shines in Florida.' "

Crist makes no apologies for his rosy view of things. "Somebody has to say we're going to get out of this, that there is a future and it's going to be okay," he said. "At a time like this, it's very challenging but it also can be very uplifting."

Times/Herald researcher Lynette Norris contributed to this report.

Milestones and missteps

Here are the high and low points in the first half of Gov. Charlie Crist's term:

EVERGLADES: With a last-minute lobbying effort from his honeymoon suite, the governor secured water managers' approval for his $1.3-billion plan to buy land from U.S. Sugar. Environmentalists hail it as a pivotal step to accelerating restoration of the Everglades, even though financial and legal hurdles remain.

VOTING: He insisted on a switch to paper ballots in early 2007, which boosted public confidence in vote counting and led to a smooth election in '08.

CLEMENCY: He streamlined a clemency process that allows some ex-felons to restore their civil rights more quickly. It took another year, however, to eliminate other hurdles that kept many felons from being able to register to vote.

CLIMATE CHANGE: An aggressive plan to require new cars sold in Florida to comply with strict new emissions standards was approved by environmental regulators after intense lobbying by the governor's staff, but implementation could be delayed because the Legislature must vote. Lawmakers also put the brakes on the governor's ambitious timetable requiring power companies to use renewable energy.

PROPERTY INSURANCE: Neither his promise to reduce the cost of windstorm insurance nor his threat to sue property insurance companies got much traction. The second year without a major hurricane helped ease rates, and 40 private insurers have taken thousands of policies out of Citizens, the state-run insurer. But the market is still unstable, and the state doesn't have the money to cover Citizens' costs if a major hurricane hits.

GAMBLING: A compact to allow slot machines and table games at seven casinos of the Seminole Tribe of Florida led the Legislature to file suit for cutting the deal without them. The state Supreme Court sided with lawmakers, delivering Crist's most conspicuous defeat to date. He'll now seek legislative approval in March, but the state missed out on collecting $100-million from the tribe last year.

TAXES: Property taxes didn't "drop like a rock" as he promised, but property values did; the voter-approved increase in the homestead exemption helped, but nobody got the forecast savings.

TRAVEL: A lavish trade mission to Europe in July produced a torrent of criticism at home, few immediate trade wins, and partisan cries of "Empty Chair Charlie."

Crist thrives amid down times in state 01/11/09 [Last modified: Monday, January 12, 2009 8:47am]

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