The notice to state agencies last week that the state would be withholding 15 percent of their money for the next three months did not come from Gov. Charlie Crist, who claimed to know nothing about it hours before the announcement. It came from Jerry McDaniel, Crist's budget director. Crist's office contends that is because the move is only a precautionary step. Yet it is only the latest example of the ways the governor continues to distance himself from an economic crisis. This is a situation that demands strong leadership, and the governor has yet to step up.
Crist has avoided playing an aggressive, visible role in addressing sharp budget shortfalls that now reach more than $6 billion. When lawmakers convened a special session in January to cut the 2008-09 budget after a drop in state revenues, the governor provided a laundry list of options but not a specific proposal. And while lower revenue projections this month confirmed Crist's 2009-10 recommended budget was overly optimistic, he has yet to adjust his proposal. He has just encouraged the Legislature to spend federal stimulus money and renewed his call for lawmakers to ratify the gambling compact with the Seminole Indian Tribe.
That still would leave the state at least $2.5-billion short. There is an additional $1 billion gap for public schools, because the tanking real estate market has resulted in lower property tax collections. To balance the budget the state must surgically cut services and raise revenue. Crist has not offered a plan for either and continues to pander by insisting he does not want to raise taxes. Does that mean he supports devastating spending cuts that could force prisons to close and schools to lay off teachers?
Asked Thursday by a reporter about whether he was planning to hold back 15 percent of state agencies' money in the fourth quarter, Crist told reporters he had not been briefed on such an option. Yet two hours later, McDaniel's memo was released. Crist's staff said the governor did not understand the question. That seems unlikely.
Florida's last governor, Jeb Bush, routinely amended his budget proposals when the state's revenue picture changed. So did the late Gov. Lawton Chiles. But since taking office in 2007, Crist has treated the budget he must recommend by law as a perfunctory obligation rather than an opportunity to influence the legislative process. The hands-off approach that legislators once viewed as a respite after Bush's aggressiveness now leaves them grumbling about a lack of direction and accountability. Only in the Senate have Republican leaders had the guts to say what Crist and House leaders won't say or won't accept: A responsible state budget will require cuts and new taxes.
The governor has an obligation to explain to all Floridians how he would make up a difference of at least $2.5 billion between his budget recommendations and the current situation. If he favors cutting his way out of this crisis, he should propose a detailed list of spending reductions. If he is willing to consider tax increases, he should be clear about which ones he would accept. There is a leadership void in Tallahassee when it comes to the budget crisis, and it is up to Crist to fill it.