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Tim Nickens

Master of quick fixes

Gov. Charlie Crist summed up his approach: “I’m supposed to respond to the people and try to make them happy.”

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Gov. Charlie Crist summed up his approach: “I’m supposed to respond to the people and try to make them happy.”

On the front page of the New York Times last week, Gov. Charlie Crist succinctly summed up his approach to governing: "I'm supposed to respond to the people and try to make them happy.''

And the governor tries really hard.

Gasoline prices too high? Crist proposes suspending the state gas tax for two weeks in July, which caught the attention of the New York Times.

Property insurance too expensive? Crist promotes the expansion of the underfunded state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. and a freeze on premiums.

Property taxes too much? Crist persuades voters to approve a constitutional amendment to expand the homestead exemption and make Save Our Homes benefits transferable to new homes.

At this rate, we should expect the governor to provide all-you-can-eat ice cream to combat the summer heat. But that would be just as likely to give you a headache as the other quick fixes.

Politicians don't stay in public office long if they don't address public concerns in ways that satisfy more than half of the voters. But there is more to leadership than answering every complaint with a short-term solution that fails to recognize the broader consequences. Providing instant gratification in return for high job approval ratings is not a good long-term strategy for Florida.

Suspending the gas tax would not provide much relief or reduce demand. National opinion polls show voters aren't falling for this gimmick, and embracing it didn't help Hillary Clinton in North Carolina last week against Barack Obama, who opposes it.

Similarly, Crist's efforts on property insurance are not long-term solutions. They produced smaller cuts than predicted in premiums charged by private insurers, and they put Florida at great financial risk. The freeze on Citizens' rates, which the Legislature foolishly extended through next year, only delays the financial pain until after a hurricane (and a general election). Then your house will be blown away, you will have to wait God knows how long for Citizens to raise the money to pay your claim and you will face huge assessments or tax increases just as you are trying to put your life back together.

With Amendment 1, homeowners will see slightly lower property tax bills and be able to take their Save Our Homes benefits with them when they move. But there still will be wild variations in tax bills on similar houses, and the tax structure is even more unfair than it was before the amendment.

To be sure, Crist isn't the only politician who wants to be loved and has trouble looking beyond next week. Presidential candidates aren't talking honestly about shoring up Medicare or reducing the federal deficit. State legislators just demonstrated they would rather starve higher education and leave kids more vulnerable to abuse by slashing spending than broaden the tax structure.

Crist also is capable of taking the long view and risking criticism. He led the fight to make it easier for felons to have their civil rights restored. He advocates for open government even when the bureaucracy balks. He pushes an ambitious effort to tackle global warming, although the Legislature is forcing him to move much more slowly.

But after two regular legislative sessions as governor, it's hard to see where Crist has spent his political capital on long-term solutions to the state's most pressing problems. Now his job approval ratings have dropped from the unsustainable stratosphere to the merely high. One wonders whether he will become even more reluctant to tell voters anything they don't want to hear after his term hits the half-way point and he starts thinking about re-election in 2010.

Where is the long-term strategy for a higher education system that already was overcrowded and underfunded before the latest budget cuts? Where is the ambitious plan for transportation, when high gas prices have forced Floridians to be more willing to consider mass transit? Where are the bold initiatives for managing growth, providing universal health care and ensuring there is affordable housing for working-class Floridians?

Too much of this state's long-term future is tied to hope. We hope we don't get hit by a hurricane. We hope the budget cuts will enable us to limp along until the economy recovers. We hope there will be room for our sons and daughters in a state university and that there will be jobs for them when they graduate.

It's way too early to talk about a Crist legacy. But there ought to be more to it than gas tax suspensions, insurance premium freezes and tax cuts.

Tim Nickens' e-mail address is
nickens@sptimes.com.

Master of quick fixes 05/10/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 12, 2008 10:27am]

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