TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist restored about $365 million in budget cuts Tuesday, sparing politically popular programs while straining relations with Republican legislators whose decisions he vetoed.
Crist said he "resurrected'' teacher merit pay, tourism promotion and the Florida Forever environmental land-buying program because the cuts the Legislature made "would have negatively impacted the people of our state."
"The budget I'm signing today," he continued, "does tighten our belts significantly."
While Crist praised the Legislature for its hard work, he received little in return from fellow Republicans who control the Legislature.
The leaders of the House and Senate issued carefully worded statements noting that Crist had the right to veto the cuts. Earlier this month, they held a special session to fill a $2.4 billion budget hole by reducing spending and raiding savings accounts.
The Legislature rejected Crist's proposal in December to avoid steep budget cuts by borrowing more money and approving a taxable gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe. A number of Republicans groused that Crist left them with the tough work of cutting popular programs — only to swoop in with his veto pen and bask in the plaudits.
"It's a concern," said Republican Sen. Mike Bennett of Bradenton. "Especially in these times, when we're all supposed to be working together — Republicans and Democrats, the executive and the legislative."
Echoing other lawmakers, Bennett said legislators could have a tougher time trimming next year's budget, which likely will have a deficit of about $3 billion. Crist will issue his budget proposal by Feb. 20.
The ink had barely dried on Crist's veto message Tuesday when the applause rolled in from advocates for the environment, teachers and the poor and disabled. A Florida Parole Commission press release cheered that it won't have to lay off seven employees.
House Democratic leader Franklin Sands of Weston drew attention to the possible Republican rift, saying in a written statement that Crist "offers a glimmer of hope that he's willing to override some of the harsh tactics of Republican budget writers."
Crist tried to avoid using the term "veto'' and instead described his actions as "investments." Crist's $365 million veto decreased the bottom-line cut to the budget to about $874 million. The budget is now worth about $65.4 billion.
Crist said he could only do so much with his "scalpel." As a result, he let stand a $190 million reduction to an affordable housing program. But he did point out that he restored:
• $28.9 million to help teachers, autism education and the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind.
• $22.8 million for the Agency for Persons with Disabilities. Crist said it would help 31,000 people.
• $16.2 million to fund more substance abuse programs and guardian ad litem services, and to avoid layoffs of 118 probation officers.
• $22 million to fund tourism, Visit Florida marketing and other economic development grants.
• $600,000 for Florida National Guard and continued tuition assistance, body armor and other assistance.
Crist said his proposal leaves about $200 million in savings if tax collections continue to decline due to the tough economy. Under the Legislature's plan, the state had a cushion of about $300 million to $400 million, depending on methods of accounting for the budget deficit.
One of the House's budget leaders, Miami Rep. David Rivera, said he would prefer to sock more savings away, but he needed to study the governor's proposal before commenting on it fully. Asked about lawmakers' concerns that Crist's vetoes cast them in bad light, Rivera said "I'll pass."
The day before Crist's vetoes, Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander was more blunt about the pressure legislators felt.
"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," Alexander said.
Alexander was particularly concerned about Crist's Florida Forever veto. He said the Legislature wouldn't have proceeded with a $250 million halt to the land-buying program without "a pretty clear understanding'' that Crist approved.
But Crist, who called Florida Forever "near and dear to my heart," said no such deal was made.
"We don't do deals," Crist said. "Everyone has their own style. That's not my style."
Times/Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.