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Crist: Review Shows Florida Stimulus Being Used Wisely

After being dinged over the summer from political opponents on the right for supporting the federal economic stimulus and whacked from the left for not spending the money for highway projects fast enough, Gov. Charlie Crist said Friday that a federal review of 16 states proved Florida’s stimulus course was just right.

Crist wrote letters to House Speaker Larry Cretul, Senate President Jeff Atwater and the Florida Congressional delegation trumpeting the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s finding that Florida had obligated 74 percent of its highway money, above the national average 67 percent and the 68 percent average of the states’ surveyed.

“I believe it is important to take stock of our advancement as we continue our daily efforts to speed the recovery of our state’s economy,” Crist wrote to Cretul and Atwater. “While much of the public conversation has focused on critically important economic stimulus activities like highway construction, the report also provides insight about our strategy to stabilize our budget while maintaining critical services like education and public safety.”

Altogether, $987 million of Florida’s $1.3 billion in highway stimulus money has already been authorized.

The GAO report, a third in series of reviews required under legislation that implemented the stimulus, found that Florida had obligated more highway funding for new roads, bridges and road widening projects than the average of other states. But it has spent less on repavement projects, though those are thought to have less of an effect on infrastructure because they are often routine maintenance. Crist told the legislative leaders that the GAO found Florida had planned 40 percent its widening money, 21 percent of its construction dollars for new roads and bridges and 17 percent per for resurfacing.

By contrast, he wrote, other states had spent only eight percent on construction, 16 percent on widening, and 48 percent on resurfacing.

“Much has been written and spoken about the speed of spending on highway projects,” Crist wrote. “The GAO study confirms two key points we have consistently emphasized. First, Florida has moved aggressively to obligate our allocated highway funds. Secondly, GAO found that Florida was obligating substantially more highway funding for new roads and bridges and substantially more for pavement widening…than the national norm, but substantially less on pavement improvement.”

Crist added that other states are following Florida’s approach, writing “as GAO points out, pavement improvement projects can be implemented quickly but other states are now beginning to increasingly consider projects that are more complex.”

Crist said the GAO also found that Florida had used $1.3 billion of its $2.2 billion education component of the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund as of the end of August.

“These funds are responsible for preserving the jobs of about 20,000 educators,” he wrote. “The number of students affected by these teachers could fill all of Florida’s major football stadiums combined. This is great news for Florida.”

But in the stabilization fund area, Crist said the patting on the back should be held to a minimum.

“The speed of expenditures from the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund for educational services is not an indicator of success, but instead the depth of a state’s financial problems,” he said. “Some states faced such urgent crises that they have used the majority of these funds to fill funding gaps.”

Some applause for Florida was warranted though, the governor told the legislative leaders.

“Showing great prudence and foresight, we took a different approach,” he wrote. “Your appropriations committees spread these funds over the next two years, providing a much more stable fiscal environment for Florida’s schools and our schoolchildren. Florida’s strategy means the effects will be further in the future and less deep and dramatic than some states will face.”

But the political tightrope the governor’s support of the stimulus package represents – he was perhaps the most prominent Republican to campaign for the package despised by most of his party – was on display this week when his Republican opponent for the U.S. Senate nomination used it in a missive about Crist’s fundraising for the race.

"Money can't wipe away Charlie Crist's record of support for wasteful stimulus spending, historic tax increases and cap-and-trade," said Rubio campaign spokesman Alex Burgos. "We're going to make sure he spends every last cent trying."

However, despite the political risk in a closed Republican primary of appearing too close to the stimulus package, U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, Crist’s former campaign manager and his appointment to replace former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez when he retired, said Friday that he hoped the state won stimulus money for high-speed rail.

“Florida’s size, population growth, and number of major metropolitan areas demand better transportation solutions,” LeMieux, a member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, said in a statement. “I look forward to the day when people can travel to and from the major city and university centers in Florida in an hour or two. (Transportation) Secretary LaHood understands our needs and stressed Florida must continue developing SunRail and other commuter rail options in order to demonstrate our commitment to providing multimodal transportation options.”

LeMieux said he met with LaHood to talk up the Department of Transportation’s application for $2.5 billion in stimulus money for the first leg of an oft-proposed Tampa-Orlando-Miami bullet train and $70 million to run Amtrak trains down the Atlantic Coast. The DOT submitted pre-applications in July for the Tampa-Orlando leg of the proposed bullet train, as well as $432 million for the controversial SunRail Orlando commuter train plan and $70 million for passenger service between Jacksonville and Miami that would be operated by Amtrak.

The state is competing for $8 billion that was included in the stimulus package for high speed rail and a decision is expected by the end of the year.

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