Crist Delivers Final State of the State Address
Calling the day bittersweet, Gov. Charlie Crist on Tuesday evening delivered his fourth and final State of the State speech, urging lawmakers to be “problem solvers” in searching for steps to combat high unemployment and a budget shortfall topping $3 billion.
In the 36-minute speech, Crist also renewed his call for lawmakers to approve a gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe and defended his support for the almost $1 trillion federal stimulus package derided by many Republicans nationwide, but which in Florida has helped plug gaping budget holes.
“This year more than others, our achievements will be measured not by the passion of our rhetoric – but by our ability to be problem solvers and guide the ship of our state through the economic storm we are facing,” Crist said.
Engulfed in a bitter Republican primary fight for U.S. Senate, the governor condemned the “overheated rhetoric” that has blistered him and others in public office.
“You should know, however, that our practical solutions will serve only to further inflame the extremists,” Crist said. “Take heart, knowing that it is we problem solvers – and not they – who will move our Florida forward. We must accept being in the arena means enduring the hecklers in the cheap seats.”
Crist’s speech was part highlight reel of his four years as chief executive and, at times, a campaign platform for his race against former House Speaker Marco Rubio, who polls show has overtaken the governor’s once formidable primary lead.
He insisted that a property-tax cut he drove through the Legislature in 2008 has indeed led to significant decreases over the past three years. But Crist acknowledged that “tax cuts” and, significantly, “lower values” have caused property taxes to decline by almost $3 billion between 2007 and 2009.
Crist also sounded defiant about the revival of legislation he vetoed last spring that would have effectively deregulated the property insurance industry – in an attempt to lure more insurers to the state.
Crist praised the “diligence” of Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty in rejecting “unjustified insurance premium hikes.
But it was in beating back criticism of his embrace of President Obama and the stimulus package that the centrist governor became most emotional – and seemed intent on sending a shot toward Rubio and his more conservative allies.
“Isn’t it our duty to advocate that Florida receive her fair share?” Crist said. “Isn’t that more helpful to Floridians than engaging in hollow ideological posturing that achieves nothing? This is what I mean by sticking to our core principles and not elevating ideology over real solutions.”
Crist drew a standing ovation from House and Senate Democrats for his defense of the stimulus aid, while most Republicans crowding the House chamber for the legislative joint-session remained seated, mostly holding their applause.
Crist’s speech reflected the austerity of a state grinding through the third year of the recession. His only real attempt at providing a roadmap out of the economic darkness came when he walked lawmakers through reasons why they should endorse giving Seminoles expanded gambling at their Florida casinos.
Crist acknowledged that many legislators “find gambling distasteful.”
“On a personal level, you should know, I’m not a big fan of gambling either,” Crist said.
But Crist, who included more than $400 million in anticipated revenue from the deal in his budget proposal, urged lawmakers to recognize that “personal biases have to give way to a broader and more important reality.”
“Given the fact that Florida desperately needs the money – and given that gambling already occurs in our state – and given that we all love freedom, doesn’t it make sense to let people exercise their freedom in a way that directs money to Florida’s citizens? Wouldn’t it be appropriate to set aside personal biases and approve a compact that will help pay to educate Florida’s schoolchildren?”
But just as with his stimulus stance, Crist’s gambling pitch fell on a divided Legislature – with House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, notably staring stoically ahead while mostly Democrats in the crowd roared.
Crist, though, returned to a more conventional Republican approach in demanding that lawmakers earmark $125 million to attract and grow biotech start-up companies, $10 million for solar energy rebates, and $176 million in federal funding to expand green energy technologies.
He also criticized the Obama administration for abandoning the Space Shuttle program – which is expected to spawn heightened unemployment in once go-go Brevard County. Crist called the decision a “disappointing change of direction.”
In other spending proposals, Crist said the state should pump $100 million into state universities to increase science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees, while providing $67 million to colleges to cover skyrocketing enrollment growth stemming from the recession.
The governor departed from his prepared text only briefly – quoting Abraham Lincoln, and recalling the expectations from “the boss,” the citizens of Florida – in urging that lawmakers enact tougher ethical standards this election year.
“When I imagine Florida’s future, I cannot help but see past the current troubles to the bright future that awaits us,” Crist concluded. “I ask you to focus your sights there as well.”