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Mixed Reaction to Governor’s Final State of the State

Much of the most enthusiastic applause for Gov. Charlie Crist’s State of the State speech on Tuesday came from Democrats, while Republicans gave their party leader a more tepid response, particularly his vigorous defense of the federal stimulus.

For a governor who has for years made his political mark firmly as a moderate, and one who has championed civility in the political arena, it wasn’t surprising that Democrats were generally friendly to Crist – but more than in previous years Republicans seemed to do little to hide their lack of enthusiasm for their own governor.

“It was very quiet up in the front of the room,” remarked Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat who was seated in the front of the House chamber that was full mostly of Republicans.

Crist’s most high profile disagreement with other members of his party has been over the state’s acceptance of the stimulus money – and unlike last year when he seemed to distance himself from it, Crist on Tuesday defended it.

Noting that the national economy was “in the dire depths of recession” Crist reminded lawmakers that they joined him in accepting the money – as did many other states where Republican governors complained, but ultimately used it as Florida did.

When Crist said that “a few governors may have rather loudly condemned the stimulus money, but that did not stop them from quietly accepting it,” it drew one of the most sustained bursts of applause – even cheers - from Democrats.

“This is the first time in the three years that the governor has been here that there was excitement from the Democrats,” said Senate Democratic Leader Al Lawson of Tallahassee. “Democrats have been preaching all last year about the stimulus dollars and what it meant to the state of Florida and the Republican administration up to this point has not acknowledged it.

“He hit a home run among the Democrats by acknowledging how what they were able to do in Washington helped the state of Florida,” Lawson added.

While some Republicans praised the Crist speech afterward, several acknowledged that their response to their own governor was lukewarm – and most said it had to do with a broader philosophical difference with the governor over relying on short-term fixes to the budget, money from Washington that relies on borrowing – rather than sticking with a tried and true Republican mantra of living within the state’s means.

House Majority Leader Adam Hasner noted that the governor has the luxury of not being responsible for budgets out past this year.

“It’s easy to say that about the stimulus when you’re not going to be here in a year when there’s a stimulus flame-out,” said Hasner, R-Boca Raton.

While Republicans were quick to criticize Crist and the federal government for borrowing – they also on Tuesday unanimously passed legislation that commits the state to do just that, borrow more from Washington for the next two years to be able to pay unemployment benefits. The measures passed both chambers on Tuesday – and Crist signed the bill ten minutes before giving his speech.

If that was a contradiction, Republicans ignored it.

Sen. Mike Haridopolos summed up the response of several Republicans, who said the governor doesn’t approach budgeting with the same conservative pencil as his legislative counterparts.

“He listed out a lot of good ideas, but every one of them has to be paid for without raising taxes or fees,” said Haridopolos, R-Melbourne.

There is also a general malaise about the budget considering Republican lawmakers say they want to balance the budget honestly with the money coming in, and many think the governor’s budget simply doesn’t do that. They don’t have the luxury of his optimism a few of them said – and that, along with the difficulty of the task at head made it hard to be enthusiastic.

“I think we’re looking for answers on how you do the reductions,” said Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando. That’s something many Republicans and Democrats say the governor hasn’t offered. “I think (the poor economy and difficulty of balancing the budget) sets the mood.”

While Democrats were generally receptive on the floor to Crist’s speech, in their prepared responses they were more predictable.

“As a state senator from South Florida, and on behalf of the Senate Democratic Caucus, I’d like to thank Governor Crist for his ongoing optimism concerning Florida’s ability to emerge from this economic darkness,” Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston said in prepared remarks. “Floridians have always had a can-do spirit.”

“But I am very alarmed that the economic vision he outlines is dependent on a Republican Party that has governed this state about as effectively as it has governed its own finances,” Rich said, referring to the recent financial scandals that have rocked the party.

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