Gov. Charlie Crist used his final State of the State address Tuesday to try to claim his legacy, but also to encourage the Legislature to get past ideological purity to ensure the state moves forward in the face of great economic challenges. The message, one of the most substantive of his political career, was a reminder of why the eternal optimist enjoyed, until recently, so much bipartisan support. But it failed to deliver a clear path to solving the state's long-term fiscal crisis.
Florida is facing a $3.2 billion deficit for 2010-11, even after the infusion of billions in federal stimulus funds. Crist used the speech to defend accepting the federal money, a refreshing posture after earlier denials while campaigning for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate that he had "not endorsed" the stimulus. He reminded the Legislature, overwhelmingly Republican, that it had joined him in accepting the money last year in an example of "not elevating ideology over real solutions."
Crist urged lawmakers to take a similar path and approve a $433 million gambling compact with the Seminole Indian Tribe. The state does need to strike a deal with the Seminoles. But left unsaid in his speech: Crist's premature deal with the Seminoles, since invalidated by the courts, has hindered the state's position in negotiations. As a result, lawmakers have largely disregarded Crist's proposed budget for next year because it relies on unsure funds, such as the Seminole compact, and another draconian raid on state reserves.
Crist's 43-minute speech sought to establish the one-term governor's accomplishments: higher adoption rates, accelerated Everglades restoration, lower property taxes and property insurance premiums, higher graduation rates, high-speed rail plans and a growing biotechnology sector. He pushed lawmakers to spend more to diversify the economy, including $100 million more on universities. And he urged ethics reform to answer a recent wave of government corruption scandals.
Crist said the Legislature's vote Tuesday to delay an increase in unemployment compensation taxes sent the message that "job retention and creation" were the top goal of the session. But he offered little, beyond broad platitudes and promises of less regulation, on how to immediately impact Florida's near-record 11.8 percent jobless rate. Even business groups are split on whether his proposed tax breaks — a combined $100 million in corporate income and sales tax holidays — would stimulate jobs.
The governor largely glossed over the darker side of his tenure. The state's economic downturn — coupled with his and fellow Republicans' unwillingness to reform the state's tax structure so it is more stable and equitable — has meant less money for public schools and universities. The Legislature, with Crist's blessing, has drained the state's reserves, including the Lawton Chiles Endowment Fund, and forced a moratorium on Florida Forever, the conservation land-buying program that is now in danger of disappearing altogether.
Crist, Senate President Jeff Atwater and House Speaker Larry Cretul all tried to cast the state's dismal finances as a reflection of the public's desire that government shrink. But the reality is that the economy, the soured real estate market and lawmakers' refusal to pass tax reform are forcing the tough choices — not voter demands that less be spent on education or other investments the state needs.
Crist's speech was clearly aimed at writing his resume for his next political ambition, a not-uncommon preoccupation in the capital city. But voters should give no Tallahassee politicians a promotion in November unless they prove themselves this legislative session by considering Florida's long-term future in each short-term decision.