Crist uses State of State address for offense, defense
TALLAHASSEE (www2.tbo.com)- Facing a chamber full of skeptical Republicans and smug Democrats, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist used his last State of the State message Tuesday to defend his embrace of federal stimulus money and to take veiled shots at his opponent in the U.S. Senate race, Marco Rubio.
Crist, in the measured-yet-mellifluous style that has served him well in a decades-long political career, took aim at those who would “elevate ideology over problem-solving.” While painting himself as a small-government, low-tax conservative, Crist also maintained taking federal stimulus dollars to help balance Florida’s budget was a common-sense and compassionate thing to do.
“While there is great virtue in being true to your principles, conviction must be tempered with practicality and pragmatism,” the governor said. “Taken to an extreme, conviction becomes inflexible — even destructive.”
The obvious target of such statements was Rubio, former speaker of the state House and darling of the nation’s conservative media. But the governor could also have been talking about many of his own party members in the audience. A year ago, state House Republican leaders denounced the stimulus dollars emanating from Democratic President Barak Obama’s administration, but finally used them to fill a yawning deficit.
The reaction to those parts of the speech was telling: House Republicans for the most part were mute; Democrats stood and applauded. Democratic senator and attorney general candidate Dan Gelber called Crist’s speech “mature.”‘
“I think he made a strong defense of the stimulus vote which I think needed to be said because just about everybody in the Legislature, Democrat and Republican, supported the position,” Gelber, of Miami Beach, said.
Brandon Republican Sen. Ronda Storms, though praising the speech as “forceful,” had an opposite reaction on ideology, which she likened to the Founding Fathers’ defense of liberties.
“I think there are a whole host of principles that are worth fighting for and I think our history proves that to be true,” Storms said.
State Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Bill McCollum agreed, although he gave credit to Crist for giving one of his best speeches ever.
“If you’re talking about compromising to get legislation done, you need to do that,” McCollum said. “If you’re talking about violating principles or compromising principles, you should never do that.”
In true campaign mode, Crist devoted large segments of the speech to trumpeting what he said were his administration’s accomplishments, including cutting property taxes, reducing the number of children in foster care and driving down violent crime.
Some Floridians, however, might have had a hard time swallowing Crist’s claims. For instance, Crist took credit for enacting “meaningful property insurance reform.” During his tenure as governor, however, large insurers left the state or canceled policies, pushing tens of thousands of Floridians into the state-run Citizens Insurance program.
“It’s hard to take credit for anything when we’re in the worst economic crisis in the history of our state,” said state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, the Democratic candidate for governor.
Sen. Paula Dockery, who is challenging McCollum in the Republican gubernatorial primary, called Crist’s address a “campaign speech” that mostly reiterated three years of accomplishments.
“A State of the State speech is where we are now, and how we get past that,” said Dockery, of Lakeland. “And while he was very comprehensive â€¦ there weren’t a lot of solutions in there.”
Indeed, Crist acknowledged the hard times Floridians are suffering in a recession-wracked economy, but offered few specifics for climbing out of the morass. Instead, the governor implored state residents to keep their chins up because better times are around the corner.
“This recession, as bad as it has been, will also be a distant memory one day,” he said. “I understand that we still face tough times ahead. But the promise of our Florida remains strong — and with your help, we can make that promise even stronger.”
To further that end, the House and Senate sped through deliberations earlier in the day on a bill providing emergency tax relief to businesses, passing it on unanimous votes and sending it to Crist, who signed it prior to delivering his address.
It was a rare moment in which both political parties and government branches agreed on a direct — and quick — plan to attack a problem. It may well be the last such display this session.
Lawmakers’ sole constitutional obligation during the 60-day session is to balance the state’s floundering budget. Faced with a shortfall as large as $3.2 billion next fiscal year, Republicans and Democrats are already wrestling over proposed spending cuts in all areas of government, from education to health care for the poor.
In an election year of high unemployment and foreclosure rates, GOP leaders have already rejected the notion of increasing fees or taxes, leaving spending cuts as the main option for staving off the deficit.
Senate Minority Leader Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee predicted that after two years of budget-cutting, deliberations will be harsher this spring.
“Everybody’s scuffling to try to find resources to fund education and human services and so forth. I think everybody’s going to be fighting for position.”
Legislative leaders have likewise scoffed at the governor’s proposal to boost spending by $3 billion, including higher revenues for the environment and education. His budget hinges on a series of assumptions, such as as-yet unconfirmed emergency aid coming from Washington, which House and Senate lawmakers have so far rejected as being too risky.
Crist also wants the Legislature to approve a gambling compact with the Seminole Indians, to provide more funding for education. But the measure is highly unpopular with many conservative Republicans and failed last year.