Crist Rolls Out Ambitious $69.2 Billion Spending Plan
Gov. Charlie Crist proposed a $69.2 billion state budget Friday that papers over a looming $3 billion deficit with federal stimulus money and a lot of hope that more federal aid and a state gambling deal is on the way.
The Republican governor included a relatively modest $200 million in program cuts. But Crist seemed more intent on preserving the state’s role in refiring a Florida economy that he said is beginning to “percolate.”
“I look forward to working with the Legislature to put together a budget that creates jobs for our people, rebuilds Florida’s economy and together we can strengthen the Sunshine State’s business-friendly environment,” Crist said.
But Crist also is betting on the arrival of a financial windfall – and $4 billion in federal stimulus money, some of it not yet available. It's the second straight year that Crist has proposed balancing the budget by relying in part on stimulus money from Washington.
In his budget, $1.2 billion in stimulus is steered toward skyrocketing Medicaid costs from an anticipated six-month extension of federal funds to the state-federal program.
Federal legislation providing an additional $23.5 billion to states has cleared the U.S. House, but is still awaiting Senate action in a massive jobs bill, though advocates said they expect its passage.
Crist also is spending $434 million from a proposed compact with the Seminole Tribe that would allow expanded gambling at reservation casinos. The measure so far has failed to clear the Legislature, with lawmakers continuing to cast doubts on its future this spring.
Crist said he expected some kind of “hybrid” plan will be approved this year – expanding Seminole gambling but shielding the state’s troubled pari-mutuel industry.
Another $230 million is pulled from the Lawton Chiles Endowment Fund to patch the state spending plan. Lawmakers have pulled $1 billion from the fund over the past two years and now face a threatened lawsuit from the late governor’s son, Bud Chiles, who wants to stop diverting money earmarked for childrens programs and elderly services.
The governor, though, shrugged off questions about whether he’s overly optimistic about money that may never emerge. “It’s a damn good thing I am,” Crist joked. “Should a leader say, ‘we’re all going to hell, follow me?’”
At least one lawmaker, though, said Crist’s spending blueprint is mostly useless.
“It’s not very helpful in providing a starting point,” said Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, the House budget chief.
Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, was more circumspect.
“Floridians are hurting, with over 1 million experiencing the pain of unemployment, they cannot withstand additional burdens,” Atwater said. “We will work diligently to ensure that every taxpayer dollar is being used wisely and efficiently.”
Earlier this week, however, Atwater acknowledged that some of the figures he'd seen in Crist's proposal were “rather optimistic.”
Crist’s patchwork approach to the budget allows him to increase school spending by $535.5 million; cut the corporate income tax $57.4 million; provide a tax-free holiday for shoppers; and recommend no tuition increases for university and college students, although schools can enact their own tuition boosts of as much as 15 percent.
Crist also would revive the Florida Forever environmental land-buying program with $50 million and steer another $50 million to Everglades restoration.
State workers would receive no pay raises in the Crist budget, but layoffs, furloughs or health-insurance increases are not part of the governor’s spending plan.
In an election year, Crist defended his support for the more robust budget he is outlining, -- up almost $3 billion from last year’s state spending – even though he is facing a tough U.S. Senate Republican primary fight with former House Speaker Marco Rubio, who is targeting the party’s conservative base.
Of the federal stimulus money, which many conservative Republicans deride, Crist said, “Glad we have it.”