TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist has already alienated the Republican-controlled Legislature on three fronts, and a fourth emerged Thursday when he said he's likely to veto dozens of special projects in lawmakers' districts as part of the $70.4 billion budget.
The growing resentment between Crist and lawmakers began when he vetoed a bill re-creating so-called leadership funds — major fundraising machines under the control of a few legislators. Then, driven by strong public opposition, Crist vetoed a teacher tenure and merit pay bill. In recent days, his call for a special session to consider a constitutional ban on offshore oil drilling has brought ridicule from House Speaker Larry Cretul.
Cretul's House on Thursday handed the budget to the newly nonpartisan governor and U.S. Senate hopeful, starting a 15-day clock. Crist has the power to eliminate line items from the budget — and he made it clear in a meeting with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board that he will.
"I probably will veto all of those," Crist said in reference to member-supported projects that surfaced late in the session. "Because, you know, it just strikes me as potentially very imprudent not to do so."
The Legislature's decision to find money for last-minute projects could play into Crist's hand as he seeks to morph from a "Ronald Reagan Republican" to an independent Senate candidate.
Here's how: Crist's axing of lawmakers' projects could be another way to assert his independence from politics as usual in Tallahassee while trying to show voters he's a fiscal conservative who opposes pork-barrel spending that's so casually accepted in Washington.
A sizable number of projects are in Miami-Dade, the home of Rep. David Rivera, the House budget chairman. They include $1 million for the FIU Democracy Conference; $500,000 for Exponica International, a trade show; $500,000 for the Latin Chamber of Commerce; and $200,000 for Urban Advantage of Miami-Dade. FIU also would receive $32.5 million for a state Department of Health building on the school's main campus.
The budget includes $1.7 million for a senior center in Miami-Dade complete with a domino game room, gymnasium, classrooms and sewing room.
Crist did not cite any specific projects that are on his chopping block. But he added, in reference to a stockpile of money for a new University of South Florida pharmacy program in Lakeland: "I don't want to be too broad sweeping with the veto pen, and allow those exceptions that are legitimate and can be shown to me and proven to me."
The USF venture was a personal priority of Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales.
Crist said a close ally, Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, strongly urged him to veto about $300 million in university and community college construction projects that would be funded in part by an existing tax on cellular phones.
"Sen. Fasano was encouraging a lot of vetoes of his colleagues' items. He's a very independent guy," Crist said. "He's a unique man. He's a great man."
Fasano confirmed he did urge Crist to find a way to reverse a $160 million sweep of a road-building fund, and that he did criticize as excessive the funding of higher education construction projects. "All of a sudden, Alexander and Rivera find not a few, but hundreds of millions of dollars. That's wrong," Fasano said.
The lawmakers have defended the projects as valid and worthy to support higher education, and that they will create thousands of badly needed construction jobs during a period of record unemployment in Florida.
Times/Herald staff writer Lee Logan contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.