GOP senator says his bill may be victim of Crist retaliation

Article Courtesy of the St. Petersburg Times

By Mary Ellen Klas

Published June 14, 2009


TALLAHASSEE State Sen. Steve Oelrich believes he may have the first casualty in the crossfire from Florida's Republican primary for U.S. Senate, after Gov. Charlie Crist's veto of a noncontroversial bill Oelrich sponsored.

The Gainesville Republican and former Alachua County sheriff said he believes that his "innocuous'' little bill to allow for an optional transportation fee at community colleges was vetoed by the governor in retaliation for his failure to support Crist's Senate candidacy.

Last week, Crist's political director Pablo Diaz asked Oelrich if he would endorse the governor. Oelrich said no.

"I told him I'm supporting Marco Rubio," he recalled. Former House speaker Rubio, now the underdog in the U.S. Senate primary, had worked for Oelrich's state senate campaign and Oelrich is a fan.

This week, Oelrich was hit with a surprise. Crist vetoed his bill to allow community colleges the option of imposing a transportation fee on all students to pay for busing between campuses. The bill, which he was asked to sponsor by students at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, had passed the Senate, 37-1, and the House, 108-4

"There was no warning," Oelrich said of Crist's veto. "It looks to me like politics. I don't know what else to think. I thought the bill was rather innocuous. Nobody from the governor's office ever came to me and spoke about it."

Crist on Friday denied the veto was intended as retaliation. "Nothing could be further from the truth," Crist said.

Oelrich also suspects he may be being punished for rebuffing the governor another time, when Crist asked him to vote on a bill to allow for Orlando's Sunrail commuter train. The bill failed in the Senate.

He cited Crist's veto letter, which said the governor was concerned that the fee would be charged to all students instead of solely those who would benefit from it.

"In challenging economic times, I cannot support charging students up to an additional $200 per year for services that they may or may not utilize," Crist wrote.

Crist added on Friday that, "It just didn't seem appropriate to me to have a transportation fee increase at potentially all 28 community colleges when this may have only really been driven by one."

He said his office "reached out to presidents at other community colleges and they didn't have any interest in it. Those are the facts."

Oelrich says the fee was optional at other community colleges.

Oelrich believes students wanted the fee because it will save many of them money. 

Student parking on campus is becoming harder to get; gasoline costs are rising, and public transportation between the University of Florida and the Gainesville college is scarce, he said.

"It just doesn't make sense to me," Oelrich said.

Rubio on Friday tried to stay out of the fray. "I'm grateful for his support and I'm sorry his bill got vetoed," he said.