On a gloomy Tuesday in Tallahassee, Gov. Charlie Crist remained the sunny optimist. His State of the State speech on the opening day of the Legislature's annual session was remarkably upbeat in the face of the state's worst financial crisis in more than 15 years. To the governor, every challenge is an opportunity — and Florida certainly has plenty of those.
Where others see failure, Crist sees progress. He credited last year's property insurance changes for lowering premiums an average of nearly 16 percent, even though that is well below projections and coverage remains unavailable and unaffordable for many. He praised tax cuts passed by the Legislature and the voters, even though they made an unfair system more unfair and provided little help to taxpayers who needed the most relief. To the Republican governor, even moving up the presidential primary and disenfranchising millions of Democrats whose votes aren't being counted was a good thing.
Where others see disaster looming because of declining tax revenues, Crist apparently sees nothing at all. He did not mention that lawmakers are cutting more than $500-million now from the current year's budget and will chop more than $2-billion from the 2008-09 spending plan. Such a historic challenge deserved more than a vague mention about spending reserves in a speech moved to the early evening to attract a larger television audience.
To be sure, Crist highlighted some legitimate successes and laudable goals. More than 28,000 Floridians have enrolled in his new prescription drug discount program. He wants to spend more money to enroll 46,000 more uninsured kids in KidCare, and he wants to compensate Alan Crotzer and others who have been wrongfully imprisoned. He also mentioned his commendable proposal to create local partnerships in Hillsborough and 13 other counties to provide more preventive and primary health care to the uninsured. But some of his broader goals, from expanding health insurance options to improving higher education, lack clarity and creativity.
On the plus side, Crist's vision for the legislative session differs sharply from the views of the legislative leaders. Senate President Ken Pruitt wants to blow up the higher education system (again), apparently because the Board of Governors has the audacity to use the powers voters gave them and university presidents are speaking out about the consequences of severe budget cuts. House Speaker Marco Rubio called for more draconian tax cuts by the Legislature, which Crist and Pruitt fortunately have not embraced. In a shot at Democrats and other more rational observers who suggest balancing budget cuts with some reasonable revenue increases, Rubio offered this suggestion: "Vermont, Canada and Venezuela all offer you the opportunity to live in the socialist, big government state you long for." So much for bipartisanship.
The opening day speeches suggest the governor and the legislative leaders are still in denial about the economic challenges facing Florida and what it would take to responsibly address them. But a reality check is coming. If it doesn't arrive during this two-month budget-slashing session, the voters will deliver one to state lawmakers in November.