With Florida staggered by a still-deepening economic recession, an unusually somber Gov. Charlie Crist delivered a State of the State address Tuesday night that acknowledged the financial crisis but offered little vision for addressing it. The governor struck an appropriate tone, and his populist plea to legislators to look beyond partisan score-keeping for answers should resonate with all Floridians. Now if he only offered more solutions beyond spending the federal economic stimulus money.
As Crist said repeatedly in an unusually short address of less than 20 minutes, "the future is now'' for Florida in many respects. But he glossed over the damage that deep budget cuts already have inflicted. In fact, he highlighted the state's $7 billion drop in spending in the past two years and noted the state had earned high marks from the conservative CATO Institute. But the governor failed to acknowledge that the spending reductions also meant Florida has invested far less in public schools, state universities and other areas.
The Republican governor placed particular emphasis on his plans for spending federal stimulus money, which have drawn considerable skepticism from members of his own party. He suggested the $12 billion in federal stimulus dollars the state could receive over three years would help "preserve investments in our students and teachers . . . the safety and security of our people . . . the health and well-being among the most vulnerable among us." He called the funds "a bridge to better economic times." But that bridge needs some better state support.
The federal money should be used to reduce the $6 billion budget gap Florida faces next year. It could stave off additional cuts to education and increase health care services for the state's swelling ranks of poor. It should be wisely spent on one-time projects such as new roads. But the money also is intended to stimulate the economy and help those most in need, not enable the state to put off tough budget decisions. Crist's budget is too dependent on one-time money from the federal government and dwindling state reserves to cover 12 percent of the costs of the state's recurring programs.
The governor also clings to the false hope that Florida will be fine without additional state revenue and talked vaguely of lessening the tax burden. Many key legislators have signaled they are open to finding new sources of revenue such as closing sales tax exemptions, raising cigarette taxes, closing corporate tax loopholes or collecting sales taxes on Internet sales. The governor has not embraced any of those. But he has shown a willingness to compromise on other issues in the past, including college tuition increases. Legislators with more realistic views of the budget situation should view Crist's bipartisanship and determination to invest in education as an invitation to create a budget that balances prudent spending cuts with some new revenue.
Crist does have some big ideas. The governor renewed his pitches for a gambling compact with the Seminole Indian Tribe, an enormous land purchase to help restore the Everglades and an expensive light rail project in Central Florida. Each of those bold initiatives has some merit, but they also could be improved considerably and face strong objections in the Legislature. Crist will have to invest considerable time and energy to see them through.
The governor has plenty of political capital. Just Tuesday, a new poll commissioned by the Florida Chamber of Commerce found Crist enjoys a remarkable 70 percent approval rating. Floridians like their populist governor even as the state faces terribly difficult times. Now Crist has to reach beyond a handful of big projects and spend some of that political capital on creating a fairer revenue base to support the Florida he envisions.