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Florida governor praises budget, while Democrats grimace

Gov. Crist got much of what he wanted while avoiding a tax increase.

Gov. Crist got much of what he wanted while avoiding a tax increase.

TALLAHASSEE — As Gov. Charlie Crist praised the Legislature for its "great work" Friday night, his own human services secretary, Bob Butterworth, stood a few feet away and gave a very different critique of the 2008 session.

From budget cuts for child abuse investigators to the defeat of a bill to move the mentally ill from jails into treatment, Butterworth said legislators did little to help Florida's sick and neglected.

"I'm very upset," said Butterworth, who will lose 250 jobs in the Department of Children and Families under the 2008-09 budget. And it took last-minute maneuvering to maintain a program where the state subsidizes adoptions of foster children.

Butterworth said it's wrongheaded for legislators to cut by 5 percent the money paid to seven sheriffs to handle child abuse complaints, including three sheriffs in the Tampa Bay area, at a time when complaints statewide are rising.

"As caseloads go up, the stress on the investigators is great," said the former Broward County sheriff and longtime Florida attorney general. "We will have some serious issues this year."

Once again, it appears, Crist's rhetoric doesn't match reality.

Does he have a blind spot where lawmakers are concerned, and could it backfire in an election year as the effects of budget cuts sink in?

No, Crist insists. Lawmakers wisely resisted the temptation to raise taxes, he says. And they heeded his advice to spend $300-million from a health care trust fund to preserve medical programs for transplant recipients and elderly disabled people for one year.

"I'm very pleased," Crist said. "I'm grateful to the Legislature for really sort of changing direction. You know how it was. For about six weeks, the notion of using reserve funds was not something that was being entertained."

He also got what he wanted: a program to offer low-cost policies to the uninsured, mandatory insurance coverage for autistic children, one-time bonuses for excellent teachers, and more money to buy green space and restore the Everglades.

For political reasons, Crist's rosier assessment of the session is to be expected.

As the best-known Republican politician in a state where the GOP dominates the Legislature, it's his job to make Republicans look good — especially in bad economic times that make incumbents vulnerable.

Democrats see things much differently.

In a year when the deficit-ridden federal government can mail checks to people to stimulate a stagnant economy, Democrats say Republican legislators took steps that will result in layoffs, making things in Florida worse.

"We did nothing to address any of the issues in Florida's economy. In fact, it's very likely that our budget will exacerbate it," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, the House minority leader. "If I was governor, I would veto this budget."

Part of the Democrats' criticism of the budget choices is philosophical, and part of it is political.

Most Democratic lawmakers believe state programs are underfunded. They also know that a budget backlash from voters could help them capture seats from Republicans next fall, when all 120 House members and half of the 40 senators are up for re-election.

Republicans have a 76-43 advantage in the House and 26-14 in the Senate. And the budget will likely be a major issue in some legislative races, with Democrats accusing Republicans of hurting schools and health care.

Conversely, Republicans will run on a record of limiting state spending and not raising taxes during a recession when families are hurting.

"We're building a record number of prison beds while we reduce our budget by $6-billion. That's incredible," Rep. Ray Sansom, R-Destin, said in a floor speech defending the budget. "We didn't fall into the easy trap of raising taxes."

But not all Republicans defend the budget. Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, wants Crist to veto $66.5-million in local water projects in lawmakers' districts and find a way to give more money to public schools, which took a reduction of $332-million, or 2-percent.

"I'm very disappointed that public schools got as big a hit as they did," Dockery said. "I don't want this to continue happening."

The Florida Education Association, a teachers union that had high hopes for Crist, calls it "irresponsible" for him and lawmakers to cut education so deeply after promising to hold education harmless from the effects of the Amendment 1 property tax cut voters approved in January.

"Empty political promises," the FEA said.

Crist, who speaks often of being a "proud product of Florida's public school system," disagrees that the Legislature short-changed education. He has said he has "no inclination" to veto budget line items.

"We all want to do more," Crist said. "You just do the best you can."

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

More coverage

SCHOOL RULES: Downgrading the importance of the FCAT paces public education changes. 9A

WINNERS AND LOSERS: What passed? What failed? A bill-by-bill rundown of the session. 9A

Florida governor praises budget, while Democrats grimace 05/03/08 [Last modified: Saturday, May 10, 2008 2:59pm]
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