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Tim Nickens

Crist loses his bearings

Gov. Charlie Crist's political radar went haywire last week when he decided to become the governor who killed growth management in Florida.

Usually, what Crist lacks in public policy smarts is offset by good manners and astute political calculations. He sensed the winds were shifting in Florida and declined to appear with President George W. Bush the day before his 2006 election victory. He hasn't solved the property insurance crisis, but he gets points for bashing big insurers because Floridians are fed up with high premiums. He appeared with President Barack Obama in February and embraced the federal stimulus package even as other Republican governors fumed, because he knew parents would revolt if their kids' teachers were laid off.

But the governor's political instincts failed him last week when he signed into law a bill that guts growth management and sets this state back decades. Judging from letters to the editor and political blogs, it's not just environmental groups and local governments that are appalled. More than a few Republican voters aren't happy with Crist, either.

How did Gov. Gridlock, as our editorial aptly labeled him, reach such an appallingly bad decision that is at odds with so much of his record? It seems inconceivable that the governor who is determined to help save the Everglades by buying land from U.S. Sugar would want to pave over much of the rest of the state.

I've got a few hunches about this sudden case of tone-deafness.

First, the intricacies of growth management are complicated. Urban service areas, transportation concurrency and Development of Regional Impact are catch phrases for county planners and land-use lawyers. The governor may have figured that the details are for wonks and he could smooth it over with talk of stimulating the economy.

Floridians are smarter than that. They know when they are stuck in traffic because the road is lined with strip malls. Want to bet what an opinion poll would say about whether voters believe developers should pay for road projects to accommodate the traffic their projects create?

Crist just let most of those developers off the hook.

Voters also may not closely follow the DRI process for large-scale developments. But they recognize when those massive projects create more demand for local government services, more traffic and more environmental concerns. The governor just wiped away the mandatory DRI process and left local governments to largely fend for themselves.

The economic development argument does not wash, either. With more than 300,000 housing units vacant and empty storefronts in every city, most people understand that the economic recession was not triggered by growth management laws. It was too much development, not too little, that exacerbated the recession.

Second, Crist is too cozy with the Realtors, the developers and the Florida Chamber of Commerce. They exert too much control in Tallahassee, masquerading as the voices of regular folks back home. In fact, they are special interests looking out for themselves. They were among the most ardent supporters of Amendment 1, which further fouled up the property tax system. They helped Crist sell voters on the constitutional amendment by claiming it would turn around the real estate market. They were dead wrong, and now we're stuck with a system that is even more unfair.

Now those same interests helped push this growth management travesty through the Legislature and convince Crist it is the answer. Once again, they claim to be jump-starting the economy. And once again, they will be wrong and Floridians will be worse off. By the time that becomes apparent, though, Crist will have cashed the checks for his U.S. Senate campaign.

Third, there is something that does not smell right about the Crist administration's approach to this growth management bill. The secretary of Community Affairs, growth management expert Tom Pelham, worked on this issue forever. He came to the Times editorial board months ago, acknowledged the problems with transportation concurrency and the DRI process, and was working on solutions. During the legislative session, he drew the ire of legislators by publicly airing some of his concerns about the direction they were headed.

With two weeks left in the legislative session, it looked as though the bill would die, or if it passed Crist could be counted on to veto it. Instead, it passed on the last day of the session and he signed it. The fact that it appears the governor sold out his hand-picked growth management expert has not been lost on the secretaries of some of the governor's other departments.

There are a couple of theories. One is that the governor's executive staff, which is not the strongest or the most seasoned, went around Pelham and cut a deal with legislators. That would not be the first time that happened in Tallahassee.

Another theory is that Pelham was more interested in self-preservation than in preserving Florida. He did not publicly call for Crist to veto the bill, and he has not said what advice he privately gave the governor. There is no love for Pelham or his agency in the Legislature, and you can bet if the bill had been vetoed there would have been another effort to abolish the agency next year. So now the agency may have been saved but the law it helps enforce is gutted.

I don't buy the second theory. Pelham has too much of his career invested in growth management to be that self-serving. Publicly calling for a veto would have been suicide. And Crist already was telling reporters the bill looked good before Pelham even met with him to discuss the details.

That's inside baseball. The bottom line is the damage is done. The developers win, Floridians lose and Crist is a terrible disappointment even to many of his supporters.

Crist loses his bearings 06/06/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 6, 2009 11:49pm]
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