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CRIST PAINTS SILVER OUTLINE OF FUTURE

Optimism dominates his State of the State address, as tough decisions accumulate.
Published Mar. 5, 2008|Updated Mar. 24, 2008

Gov. Charlie Crist largely brushed past the challenges facing Florida in his State of the State address Tuesday, instead highlighting successes and his optimism for the future.

Lawmakers are scheduled as early as this week to begin chopping $3-billion from the state's budget, cutting services and education funding and possibly laying off court employees. But Crist told a joint meeting of the Legislature, "The state of the great state of Florida is strong.

"Pessimists see problems, while optimists see opportunities. You know I am an optimist, but no matter the perspective, we can dare to be great."

He challenged lawmakers to approve his "market-based" program to expand health care to some of the 3.8-million uninsured and said "we must" compensate the wrongfully imprisoned, such as Alan Crotzer. The former St. Petersburg resident was cleared by DNA evidence in 2006 after serving 24 years in prison for a rape conviction.

The broad message contrasted sharply with the bleak financial outlook and difficult choices facing lawmakers over the next two months. And it overlapped little with speeches delivered earlier in the day by Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, and House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami.

"We have all the reason to be optimistic, but we've got to do the things to justify that optimism," Rubio said afterward. "The reality is we have a very significant economic downturn. It's not that we're pessimistic about it; this has to be addressed. The facts are the facts."

Democrats were less polite. "Unless Charlie is growing money on trees behind the Governor's Mansion, I don't know where we're getting it," said Rep. Susan Bucher, D-West Palm Beach. "These pie-in-the-sky ideas are good sound bites, but they don't fly here."

Lawmakers are expected to cut $543-milllion from the current budget this week and trim $2.5-billion or more from next year's budget.

Crist's second session-opening speech was moved from midday to 6 p.m. in hopes that local TV stations would beam portions of it to a wider audience.

He did not refer directly to deep philosophical differences with the Legislature over how to balance the budget, nor did he suggest the best way to proceed. He did not mention the potential impact of budget cuts on courts or schools, and he made a passing reference to Florida's record levels of mortgage foreclosures.

Speaking to reporters afterward, Crist said he did not downplay Floridians' problems. "It's tough. I hear from them every day. I understand they're facing a lot of challenges."

The speech was at times self-congratulatory in tone, as he cited successes from his first year in office: the earlier presidential primary, paper ballots in elections, a new discount prescription drug card and a law he said cut insurance bills an average of 16 percent.

Crist's talk featured videotaped testimonials from people who said they have benefited from his policies, including a Palm Beach County woman, Lisa Burford, who had waited years to win back her right to voteafter completing her sentence for an embezzlement conviction. Fort Myers homeowner Mike Randolph said passage of Amendment 1 will allow him to move to a bigger home because he can take his Save Our Homes tax cap with him.

One video, highlighting the governor's environmental initiatives, promoted Publix Super Markets' energy conservation efforts and utilized the grocery's familiar green logo.

The Florida Democratic Party likened the "Hollywood-quality" videos to the commercials Crist ran during his 2006 campaign. They said he had not offered enough solutions to the problems facing the state.

The 29-minute speech was a collaborative effort. Among those who offered suggestions or additions were chief of staff Eric Eikenberg, former chief of staff George LeMieux, communications director Erin Isaac and Crist's father, Dr. Charles Crist of St. Petersburg, who was in the public gallery with his wife, Nancy.

In separate opening day speeches, legislative leaders stressed different priorities.

Rubio outlined a three-part plan to shrink the size of government, spur competition in the property insurance market and improve education standards.

Referring to Crist's proposals to spend cash reserves and expand gambling to balance the budget, Rubio said, "We should not spend money we do not have, and we should not rely on gimmicks."

Rubio also pledged to address the high incarceration rate of young black men, lamenting they're more likely to end up in prison than with high school diplomas. "We can never be the nation God intended us to be, as long as this tragedy persists," Rubio said.

Pruitt emphasized investing in roads and other public works projects to stimulate Florida's economy.He said the Senate will "keep the pressure on" to reduce insurance rates and will ask voters to re-establish the office of elected education commissioner, which voters abolished effective in 2002.

With deep budget cuts looming, Pruitt said lawmakers will have "to say no a whole lot more ... It's a whole lot easier to lead when there's a lot of money."

Democrats hold slightly more than a third of the 120 House seats and 14 of the Senate's 40 seats. Leaders said they would fight to keep Florida's education system from backsliding in the budget crunch and oppose Republican efforts to shrink government to fulfill a political philosophy.

"Florida has gone from a mid-wage, low-cost state to a low-wage, high-cost state," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, the House minority leader. "What you're seeing across the state is the resulting anxiety from everyday people who feel immense pressure on them."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Excerpts from the speeches

Gov. Charlie Crist

On the economy: "Florida's families and businesses are faced with extraordinary economic times - like skyrocketing gas prices, the threat of foreclosure and a softening housing market. And, like Florida's families, these challenging times will require us to meet the demands of declining revenue. And how will we do this? By keeping taxes low, by creating jobs and fueling an economy that ranks ahead of most nations of the world, we set a model at which others can marvel. Pessimists see problems, optimists see opportunities. You know I'm an optimist, but no matter what your perspective, we must dare to be great."

Senate President Ken Pruitt

On budget cuts: "Senators, we will have less money to spend this year than we had last year. Less money means having to say no a whole lot more. It means fewer bills and no special projects.

It's times like these when our mettle is tested. It's a whole lot easier to lead when there is a lot of money. The pressure will be on as we reduce costs, find efficiencies, and say no to new initiatives. Now, more than ever, the traditional role of the Senate is going to be vital."

On investigating rate increases by property insurers: "We are going to keep the pressure on, we will continue to get answers, and we will change the law if needed to ensure that consumers in Florida get the rate reductions that we intended for them."

On energy policy: "We will move forward on energy independence for our state. We are all aware of the scientific and political debates on global warming. Let's not get caught up in that debate. Rather, we must realize that increasing Florida's energy independence can only benefit our state. Let us forge ahead on alternative energy policy so that we can leave a healthy and vibrant Florida for our children and their children."

House Speaker Marco Rubio

On the need for more property tax relief: "I know some people are hoping that all this focus on the budget will get us to change the subject. However, Amendment 1 passed as a result of a very specific promise that we are going to do more. Now it is time to keep that promise. Just remember this: If we do nothing, later this year property tax owners are going to get their tax bill and it is going to look a lot like the one they got last year. They are going to be angry. Maybe some have "property tax fatigue." But if we do nothing, come November, voters are going to have "incumbent fatigue."

On following with through with recommendations with panels studying issues facing African-Americans: "There is one more thing I hope we will do. It applies not just to our economy, but to the very essence of who we are as a nation.

In America today, we have a crisis of historic proportions. It is the tragic tale of what is happening to young African-American males. Today more young black men are headed to incarceration than to graduation.

The impacts of this tragedy are profound. These are gifted young men, and our nation is not benefiting from their talents."

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