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A Busy Week in State Government

The budget it took lawmakers weeks to agree on became law in seconds this week when Gov. Charlie Crist autographed the $66.5 billion spending plan for the coming year.

As Crist was signing on the dotted line, a Leon County jury was across the street penning additional charges against an already-indicted former budget writer - and more recently - speaker of the House.

The governor signed the leaner, meaner budget earmarking the money for education, health care, transportation and other state programs this week with much fanfare, and with little alteration. Crist only made two vetoes as he put his stamp of approval on the spending plan, saying it was not nearly as bad as could have been, considering the economy.

Crist said lawmakers did a remarkable job as they patched up a $6 billion budget shortfall with program cuts, targeted tax increases and more than $3 billion in federal stimulus money earmarked for education, health care and the unemployed.

The governor-hoping-to-be-senator likely found agreement among 28,000 state workers making more than $45,000 a year. He allowed them to keep $17 a week that the Legislature would have taken away, undoing a 2-percent pay cut for those workers that had been included in the budget.

The vetoes' cheering section included Democrats - especially those representing state worker-filled districts around Tallahassee - who once again succeeded in convincing the moderate Republican governor to do something the conservative GOP-controlled wouldn't. Standing at Crist's side as he announced the veto and signed the budget were Senate Democratic Leader Al Lawson and Reps. Alan Williams and Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, all D-Tallahassee.

Besides the pay cut, Crist's only other veto was a $6 million sweep of the Department of Agriculture's Concealed Weapons and Firearms Trust Fund, which is used to process concealed weapons permits. The office has been deluged by permit applications over the past several months, a rush officials say is prompted by the economic downturn and fears among gun advocates that laws will become more restrictive during the Barack Obama presidency.

Prior to pulling the trigger on the veto, Crist said he was swayed by Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Bronson – who oversees the office that has to process the applications. But he also was moved by prominent lobbyist Marion Hammer, who represents the National Rifle Association, an organization the governor likely doesn't want aiming at him in his upcoming U.S. Senate primary.

Just as the months-long debate about the 2009 budget was coming to end this week, the similarly-lengthy investigation in the 2008 budget dealings of former House Speaker Ray Sansom took a new twist. The man who was more often than not silent as speaker was accused of lying when he spoke to a Leon County grand jury. The panel tacked perjury on to the list of charges against Sansom, saying that the Republican lawmaker from Destin lied to the grand jury about plans to build an airport hangar for a Sansom contributor out of state dollars. Sansom, through his lawyer, continues to maintain his innocence.Another member of the cast of characters embroiled in Sansom’s downfall also was in the news. The grand jury this week indicted Jay Odom, a Panhandle developer who wanted an airport hangar. When Sansom was budget chairman, the Legislature put money into the Northwest Florida State College budget for a building that the grand jury said was that hangar – though it seemed to be passed off in the budget as a classroom building for the college.

It’s tough to say whether the grand jury’s concerns about how things get into the budget had much effect on the current budget writers. Senate Budget Chief JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, managed to steer a large earmark to the University of South Florida this year that appeared with little discussion by the Legislature as a whole. But overall, tax collections were so bad this year that hometown projects weren’t even tried in most cases.

The new budget, properly crafted or not, wasn’t all that Crist signed into law this week – though you had to be paying particularly close attention to know it. While Crist held a news conference and signed the budget with a flourish in front of a bank of cameras, he didn’t seem to want much attention for the other legislation he signed.

Sometime on Wednesday, Crist – without a news conference – signed legislation that will start the process of getting property insurance rates to go back up. The governor came into office railing against the insurance companies charging rates that were too high – and led a throng of media to the home of an elderly man in Port Charlotte (remember Stan?) to tell him that he was lowering his insurance rates.

This week the governor led no such throng to anyone’s house to advise them that those rates may now go back up a bit.

Instead, the governor’s office sent out an official notice around 9 p.m. on Wednesday that listed several bills Crist quietly signed that day, including the one intended to return the property insurance market to something closer to normal in terms of rates after a couple years of keeping them artificially low.

For the many Floridians who have their insurance through Citizens Property Insurance, it will mean a 10 percent rate increase because the bill removes a rate freeze. Backers of the bill say if the rate were allowed to go up to what is actuarially sound it would balloon much higher than 10 percent. So they have that going for them.

The bill also starts to back the state out of its commitment to providing extra reinsurance, which was intended to give companies the ability to get more backup coverage at a time when they said one of the main drivers of premium increases was their high cost of private reinsurance. The bill Crist stealthily signed starts to get the residents of the state off the hook for some of that coverage.

And hurricane season starts Monday, so that came just in time.

Meanwhile, the people in Volusia County may feel hurricane season has come early. Torrential rains there have caused severe flooding and this week President Obama made a disaster declaration there.

Also on Wednesday, Crist quietly vetoed a bill that would have started the transfer of some of the power that shifted from the Legislature to the governor’s office during the governorship of Jeb Bush – a darling of the Republican Legislature – back to lawmakers. With Crist (not necessarily a darling of the Legislature) in office now, and an open seat raising the possibility that the next governor could actually be a Democrat, the Legislature may have been thinking it was time to take back some of the power they’d happily ceded to the executive branch when Bush was its leader.

But a bill that would have done some of that – giving lawmakers more oversight in state contracting – was rejected by Crist without comment.

Crist used his budget signing ceremony to give the state another pep talk about the economy, and there was some indication that his optimism may have been appropriate this week – although there were also some reasons for caution as well.

On the good news front, there was a jump in consumer confidence reported this week that was particularly strong in the Southeast, including Florida. And nationally, several economists sent the markets higher with a bullish report that pronounced the recession in its final months, saying it may end by the end of the year.

Florida economists, were a little more sober, saying in a News Service story this week that the state will likely lag a little behind the national recovery, though there was more optimism among economists looking at Florida than there was just a few months ago.

The numbers were mixed too. Home sales continued to go up – but the reason was that prices continue to be at unheard of lows.

There was a non-economic report out this week that was troubling as well – the number of children in foster care who are prescribed psychotropic drugs is pretty high, 13 percent, and a Department of Children and Families report released this week found that many of them were on those drugs without a court order or parental consent.

ELECTION YEAR 2010 (IN 2009)

It’s probably not a surprise that there was plenty of political news this week, as the dominoes continued to get knocked over from the Crist announcement that he won’t seek re-election. Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, got talked up for governor. Senate candidate Dan Gelber is mulling the attorney general’s race instead.

Crist’s decision to try to go to Washington definitely moved up the election calendar. And much of the early campaigning results from Cabinet openings created by Alex Sink and Bill McCollum announcing for governor, others are taking a cue from them and going ahead and starting their campaigns too.

Environmental lobbyist Eric Draper announced he is entering the agriculture commissioner’s race. And former Rep. Gayle Harrell said she wants to come back to the Legislature and will try to unseat freshman Rep. Adam Fetterman, D-Port St. Lucie.

A PASSING OF NOTE: Long regarded as the “largest private land holder in Florida, a venerable Florida institution, St. Joe Co., lost that title recently. Florida Trend reported this week that Plum Creek Timber Co., has increased its holdings in Florida to the point that it now is the state’s largest private land owner.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The worst budget in decades was signed into law this week by Gov. Crist, setting out a spending plan for the coming fiscal year that is much smaller than last year’s.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "It is what it is," Gov. Charlie Crist said before signing the $66.5 FY2010 budget into law.

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