The howls of protests already are starting, but Gov. Charlie Crist took a reasonable whack at legislative spending Friday as he signed into law a $70 billion state budget for 2010-11 and vetoed more than $371 million in projects. He punished some of his harshest Republican critics in the process, but the governor's independent approach now that he is free of any political party affiliation remains refreshing.
Among the most important vetoes is Crist's rejection of lawmakers' efforts to rob $160 million from transportation. Road projects are one of the most direct forms of economic stimulus, creating jobs and improving a transportation system that needs all the help it can get. It would have been foolish in this era of high unemployment to divert this money. While lawmakers tried to tie the governor's hands by earmarking the road money for education, Crist is working around those restrictions. He may be on shaky legal ground in his approach, and House Speaker Larry Cretul threatened to sue. But legislators never should have been playing such games in the first place.
Crist also smartly vetoed an ill-conceived ban on the use of any money to support embryonic stem cell research. That is a favorite of conservative House appropriations Chairman David Rivera, R-Miami — who happens to be a close ally of one of Crist's opponents in the U.S. Senate race, former state House Speaker Marco Rubio. But the state should not be interfering with such needed research, and lawmakers should not be using the budget to advance their personal ideological agendas.
The most eye-catching vetoes came in college and university construction spending. The Senate maneuvered to borrow more money to allow for millions in additional projects beyond the original plan approved by the state Board of Governors for 2010-11. Crist took aim at projects that had been scheduled for future years, had ballooned in price or were not on a state-approved three-year plan. The result was a particularly heavy hit for the University of South Florida, which lost $35 million for a Polk County campus and another $10 million for a pharmacy school building. Those were both strong-armed maneuvers by Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, and the pharmacy school belongs near USF's medical school in Tampa.
Crist also vetoed Alexander's last-minute attempt to force the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority to turn over $19 million from a lawsuit settlement to cover some of its debt to the state — contrary to long-standing agreements.
Aided by federal stimulus money and additional expected federal Medicaid money, Florida scraped by for another year. There will be at least modest investment in colleges and universities after years of cuts. Public school spending per student holds steady and no widespread teacher layoffs are expected, a reasonable achievement compared to the hardships in other large states. But more could have been done for social services, the environment and other areas if lawmakers had not been so eager to hand out special interest tax breaks under the guise of economic stimulus.
Crist made reasonable adjustments with his budget vetoes, and Florida will muddle through without facing the staggering cuts contemplated in California and elsewhere. Housing sales are up and the unemployment rate is down a bit, suggesting brighter days are not that far off for the Sunshine State. But the next governor and a 2011 Legislature with many new faces still will face a large budget hole as federal stimulus money dries up and the state's needs continue to grow. Florida will jump off its treadmill of mediocrity only when leaders in Tallahassee are forced to overhaul its antiquated tax system and create a reasonable revenue stream that better matches the goals and spending priorities of the fourth-largest state.