A Week of Dollars and Trains
In a week when Florida won more than $1 billion for high speed rail, Gov. Charlie Crist revealed a proposed budget that many lawmakers thought had rolled off the tracks.
Crist slowly unveiled a $69.2 billion state budget this week, again using the federal economic stimulus that he supported before he didn’t – and then did again - and a gambling deal that looks anything like a sure bet to cover a $3 billion deficit.
Crist called for spending $434 million from a proposed compact with the Seminole Tribe that would allow expanded gambling at reservation casinos that lawmakers have continued to call a house of cards.
He also eyed $230 million from the Lawton Chiles Endowment Fund, which may have the former Walkin’ governor’s son ready to follow his father’s footsteps into a courtroom.
What Crist’s bigger-than-last-year budget didn’t include, much to the chagrin of some lawmakers, was much in the way of budget cuts. The plan, about $3 billion more than the $66.5 billion plan lawmakers approved in 2009, only included about $200 million in reductions. Instead, the eternally optimistic governor increased school spending by $535.5 million, cut the corporate income tax $57.4 million, called for a tax-free holiday for shoppers; and recommended no tuition increases for university and college students.
The budget also doesn't include layoffs or furloughs for state workers, though it also doesn't include a pay increase, which state workers haven't seen since late 2006 when they got a 3 percent raise.
It left some lawmakers fearing they were being set up to take the fall for another recession-ravaged spending plan. Crist touted the increased money coming into the state, saying “for the first time since I've been governor, we actually got more revenue coming into the state than the previous year."
But he didn’t say much about the side of the ledger where the sun wasn’t shining.
"It kind of makes you wonder if the governor is setting us up to be the bad guy in all this,” Senate Health and Human Services budget chairman Durell Peaden, R-Crestview, said on the eve of Crist’s budget presentation. “We're going to be the ones that have to write the real budget."
The House budget chief Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, also called the governor’s bluff, saying “It's not very helpful in providing a starting point."
Some also questioned whether Crist’s sunny-side-up budget would improve the forecast for his tough U.S. Senate Republican primary contest against former House Speaker Marco Rubio.
"The governor is trying to look like a good guy in a bad budget year," said Darryl Paulson, a government professor at the University of South Florida. "But the Republican base really wants to cut back on government spending. Crist with this budget may leave the impression he's looking for ways to preserve spending instead of reining-it in."
But Crist said being optimistic was his job as governor, shrugging off questions about whether he's counting on money that may never emerge.
"It's a damn good thing I am," Crist said. "Should a leader say, 'we're all going to hell, follow me?'"
However, with the way many lawmakers reacted to Crist’s budget proposal this week, it’s not clear if anyone would.
The eyes of the nation were on Florida this week as President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden chose Tampa to unveil $8 billion in stimulus awards for high-speed rail to 31 states – and Florida was one of the biggest winners in the federal government's high-speed rail sweepstakes.
In a nationally televised event, Obama and Biden announced an award of $1.25 billion in federal help to get a long-proposed bullet train between Tampa and Orlando up and running. Obama and Biden said the proposed Tampa-to-Orlando bullet train, which calls for trains running between the cities at 168 miles an hour with the system later to be expanded to link Orlando with Miami, was one of a handful of projects that will get the bulk of federal dollars for high speed rail.
Only California, which got $2.25 billion for a 220 mile-per-hour Los Angeles to San Francisco train, topped Florida's rail haul. A planned 110 mile-per-hour train connecting Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City, which was given $1.13 billion, was the only other proposal besides California's and Florida's to receive more than $1 billion.
But despite the big announcement, state transportation officials were left by week’s end trying to figure out if the remainder of the $2.6 billion they requested for the project might be on the next train. And with federal officials having handed out all of the $8 billion included in last year's federal economic stimulus bill, Florida assumed separate applications for $270 million for Atlantic Coast Amtrak passenger service and $268 million for buying existing freight tracks for SunRail from CSX Corp. had been rejected.
Still, Obama and Biden called it a transformative project and state leaders from Gov. Crist to Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink agreed. Obama even promised to come back and ride it..
That could be bad news for Crist, who has received criticism from fellow Republicans over an appearance he made with the President last year where he plugged the federal stimulus package and hugged the Obama on stage. The rail event this week provided a backdrop for another interaction between Obama and Crist, who greeted the president on the tarmac at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
The last time Obama was in Florida, Crist said he didn’t know he was coming, despite national media reports about the trip and subsequently revealed White House E-mails giving the governor’s staff a heads up. This time, Crist just steered clear of another “man-hug,” as critics have derisively taken to calling his presidential embrace.
And while over the last year he wavered on exactly what his level of support for the stimulus was, Crist stood by his decision to again greet Obama.
"I was with him today, the only Republican to be with him and I was proud to be there because it was the right thing to do," Crist told reporters later in the day.
One Washington, D.C. newspaper timed the duo’s handshake at 27 seconds and a cable news network aired a three minute segment comparing the 2010 shake to the 2009 hug.
ALL TIED UP
Perhaps with the help of Crist’s man hug with Obama, former House Speaker Marco Rubio inched ahead of the governor in their race for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination for the first time this week in a poll that had shown the governor leading by 15 points as recently as October.
In the latest poll from Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University, conducted Jan. 20-24, Rubio was ahead of Crist 47-44 percent. The spread was within the poll's 3.8 percent margin of error, representing a statistical tie. But it was also a stunning reversal from the university's last poll in October, which showed Crist leading Rubio 50-35 percent among registered Republicans.
Crist's campaign quickly moved to step on any momentum Rubio might gather from the poll, announcing Tuesday that the governor had raised another $2 million in the fourth quarter of 2009 and had a whopping $7.5 million on hand for the campaign.
But just as quickly, Rubio announced he had his best fundraising quarter to date, taking in $1.75 million in the same period, as the campaigns engaged in a spin battle following the poll showing them neck and neck.
Later in the week, the battle moved from press releases to the Capitol as Crist and Rubio took a series of thinly-veiled shots at each other during separate speeches to newspaper reporters and editors from across the state.
Crist jabbed Rubio on his hectic campaign schedule, which some political observers credit with helping close earlier wide polling and fundraising gaps, saying he has not been able to fully engage in the race because of his day job.
"I don't have the luxury of going around this state and politicking all day, nor do I have the desire to do it right now," Crist said during a speech to the Associated Press annual Legislative Planning Day at the Capitol. "I'm going to do my job. I am the governor of Florida, and I am going to fight for the people every day."
Rubio countered by continuing hammering Crist for supporting the stimulus package, saying Crist’s support of the plan before it was approved by Congress hurt congressional GOP efforts to rebut Obama's push for it.
Rubio said there were Republican alternative ideas, mostly involving tax cuts, that would have been better stimulants.
"The choice was not between the stimulus package and nothing," he said. "My criticism is when Charlie Crist lined up in favor of the stimulus package, he cut the legs out from those Republicans who were working to advocate for an alternative that I believe would have been better for America."
Elsewhere, an attorney for former House Speaker Ray Sansom asked a Leon County circuit judge to dismiss the charges against the Destin Republican - and while he’s at it, to also dismiss state attorney Willie Meggs. In a motion filed in Leon County Circuit Court, attorneys for Sansom as well as Okaloosa developer Jay Odom and former Northwest Florida State College President James "Bob" Richburg asked that the court drop the charges, accusing Meggs of misconduct, which they say has tainted the judicial process.
Additionally, Crist named five new appointees to the Board of Governors and reappointed vice chair Ava Parker, but did not reappoint Chairwoman Sheila McDevitt, who joined the board shortly after its inception in 2002.
McDevitt, who was visibly choked up during the meeting, congratulated the new appointees and said she will continue to serve the university system in any way that she can.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Charlie Crist proposed a budget lawmakers said was too sunny for the tough economic times and the feds awarded Florida a chunk of money for a bullet train between Tampa and Orlando that was the second largest in the country, but not as big as state officials had been asked for. Elsewhere, former House Speaker Marco Rubio closed a lead in poll that had showed him trailing Gov. Crist by 30 points last summer in the race for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination to a statistical tie, and nearly tied him in forth quarter fundraising.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "I think people aren't going to blame the Legislature for having to make some tough choices. They know it's raining outside. The governor can tell them that things are sunny in this economy. But they know they're not," state Sen. Nan Rich, D-Westin, reacting to the governor’s proposed budget that is $3 billion higher than the plan lawmakers approved last year, despite a projected shortfall that is just as high.