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TAKE A LOOK AT THE ECONOMY, GOVERNOR

While Gov. Charlie Crist campaigned in Miami with John McCain on Friday, more bad economic news tumbled out of his administration.

Florida's unemployment rate remained at 6.6 percent in September for the second month in a row. That's half a percentage point above the national average and 2.4 points higher than a year ago.

That's not all: The budget Crist signed in May is dripping red ink, at least $900-million worth, and will have to be cut again or propped up with cash reserves.

Though this economic mess wasn't Crist's fault, it is his responsibility. His response so far is underwhelming.

By now, Crist should have drawn up plans to convene the next Legislature into an emergency session.

Instead, he called a press conference Wednesday to highlight something called "Accelerate Florida," which is cutting red tape to get 179 road projects started a little faster than they would have otherwise.

The program was announced in August, but the media largely ignored it.

"We want to pump more dollars into our economy," Crist said as onlookers wore lapel stickers featuring the program's logo.

A typical project is $9-million to repave a stretch of Fifth Avenue N in St. Petersburg and repair sidewalks. It's now projected to start in January. (Feel better now?)

Doug Callaway of Floridians for Better Transportation applauded Crist - and suggested he call a special legislative session on the economy.

Other governors are doing similar things. In New Jersey, where the jobless rate is 5.8 percent, Gov. Jon Corzine unveiled a $5.1-billion program to speed up road and school construction projects.

In Florida, Crist uses a "multiplier effect" to claim that the projects, worth $1.4-billion, would create 39,000 jobs and pump $8-billion more into the economy.

The media again largely ignored Accelerate Florida (the Times ran the full list of bay area projects on Page 3B of Thursday's paper).

If Crist can't convince the media that he's doing something to pull Florida out of its worst economic nosedive in decades, it's going to be awfully hard to convince his constituents.

The tanking of the economy sent McCain's presidential hopes into a downward spiral, and some see Crist suffering a similar fate if things don't turn around.

"It's going to be difficult for him to deal with the current economic crisis and get re-elected,"Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, told the Times' editorial board Thursday.

Ford said Crist is headed for a crossroads: He'll have to choose between investing in Florida (read: raising taxes) and angering his party's base, or appeasing Republicans to win re-election in 2010 and let the quality of education and other essential services continue to deteriorate.

Declaring Florida's tax system broken and its schools on the brink of disaster, the union is proposing a three-year, 1-cent sales tax increase with the revenue (about $10-billion) earmarked for schools at all levels.

Naturally, any suggestion of raising taxes is dead on arrival in Tallahassee. But at least the union is thinking boldly - and it didn't even require printing lapel stickers.

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

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