Of all the times Gov. Charlie Crist has flip-flopped, few decisions stand out like his budget veto of nearly $10 million for Shands Hospital in Gainesville.
Crist recommended the money in his proposed budget in January. He recommended similar funding in the previous three years and approved them in the budget.
Crist's veto of the money — used to treat 18,000 uninsured Floridians — also conflicts with his veto message that said he preserved budget items that "served the most vulnerable."
On Thursday, the governor defended his veto: "The concern was more with the process of it, to be honest with you. And the lateness of it. I didn't want things that came late and didn't have the complete committee vetting opportunity."
Critics say the only thing that changed between the budget recommendation and his veto is that Crist dropped out of the Republican Party and had a war of words with House Speaker Larry Cretul, whose district includes Shands.
"I don't know if it's personal," Cretul said. "Nobody knows that, other than the governor. If it is personal or retribution over disagreements we're having, the persons being hurt aren't Larry. It's the people at Shands and the people they serve."
Crist said the veto was not political or personal. "It's motivated by being an appropriate process (and) the economic reality that we're living in."
Shands chief executive Tim Goldfarb said the money Crist vetoed has been in Florida's budget for more than 20 years. Last year, the hospital treated 18,600 uninsured Floridians, half from outside the Gainesville area.
Because of a shoestring budget, he said, the hospital will now make the "tough" decision to refuse uninsured patients from outside Central Florida.
"I have no idea what led to the governor's veto," Goldfarb said.
Crist has had several high-profile changes of heart, including last year's veto of the Legislature's $6 million raid on a trust fund paid into by concealed weapon permit holders. Crist originally recommended taking $8 million from the fund for other purposes.
But after National Rifle Association pressure, Crist vetoed his own proposal, citing Second Amendment principles.
In March, Crist said he had a "generally favorable" view of a controversial teacher pay bill — only weeks before vetoing it. He also said in a GOP primary debate that he wouldn't leave the Republican Party, but announced an independent run for the Senate in late April.
When he signed this year's 70.2 billion budget, Crist canceled $46 million for a new Lakeland campus for the University of South Florida advocated by Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander. House budget writer David Rivera lost $64.5 million for his home county of Miami-Dade. Of that, more than $40 million was for Florida International University, Rivera's alma mater and an employer of Rivera's friend Marco Rubio — Crist's Senate rival.
Crist's opponents for the Senate have used this year's budget vetoes as a political tool against him. They say the Shands veto fits with the vetoes of projects pushed by Alexander and Rivera.
"Just about everything the governor does is a calculated political decision," said Kendrick Meek, the Democratic front-runner in the Senate race. "He will stop at nothing to win the next election."
Alex Burgos, a spokesman for Rubio, added: "Florida's responsibilities to our people should not take a back seat to politics as usual. … Floridians deserve leaders who check their politics at the door when making important public policy decisions."
Legislators who help write the health care budget say they were baffled by the Shands veto.
"The governor made a mistake," said Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston. "This is a governor who prides himself on representing the people. It's poor people without insurance we're talking about."
Marc Caputo can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 222-3095.