Will time be on Crist's side after early legislative losses?
Bruising session raises questions about leadership

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Mark Hollis and Linda Kleindienst
Published May 6, 2007


TALLAHASSEE -- You can't always get what you want.

Charlie Crist used those Rolling Stones' lyrics a few weeks ago to distance himself from a controversial tax-cut plan in the Legislature. But the words could just as easily describe the mixed outcome of his first regular legislative session as governor.

Crist had started the two-month session cresting high in the polls and espousing a populist brand of pragmatism for addressing Florida's problems. But the 50-year-old Republican chief executive ended the session Friday with much of his agenda undone, and renewed questions about whether his easygoing style is effective.

The stem cell research funding he sought got blocked. His calls for teacher bonuses and state employee pay raises went unheeded. He failed to persuade the Florida Senate to expand the KidCare children's health-insurance program. And his effort to extend no-fault automobile insurance hit a red light.

Most noticeably, his promise to slay "out of control" property taxes went unfulfilled, at least for now. Crist and lawmakers will try again to cut a deal next month.

"I'm not the king, I'm just the governor," Crist told reporters Saturday. "I know people kind of focus on the negative, but it's not my style. Some very good things happened."

A handwritten list Crist prepared of his five "big issues" and 13 "important" priorities were checked off by him as having, for the most part, made it through the legislative labyrinth.

"I asked for a lot of things for the people of Florida, and they did some of them," Crist said.

The governor's successes included replacing touch-screen voting machines with paper ballots and new property insurance legislation aimed at freezing rates for thousands of customers of state-run Citizens' Property Insurance Corp.

He had no trouble getting lawmakers to agree early on to his pet bill to keep some probation violators behind bars longer. And by the end of the 60-day session, legislators had agreed to many of his spending requests for economic development, promoting the film industry and fostering solar and wind energy.

But even many of his sought-after spending items had to be tamed in the tight budget year. For instance, he got only half his $300 million request for teacher bonuses. Two months ago today, at his first State of the State address, Crist promised "bold and decisive leadership," and also to "make home ownership more affordable." But Crist showed reluctance -- his supporters called it prudence -- in using his bully pulpit to influence the property tax debate that overwhelmed the Legislature. He waited until the eighth week of the nine-week session to present a plan aimed at bridging a yawning gap between the House and Senate on property taxes.

Likewise, when it came to the Legislature's only constitutional responsibility, writing a new state budget, Crist, a former state senator and longtime politician, deferred repeatedly to lawmakers' wishes.

"This is the golden era of the Florida Legislature," Crist said again Friday to explain his reluctance to crack the whip over the conservative Republican-controlled House or the more centrist Senate.

Crist's laissez-faire attitude was in sharp contrast to the monarch-like control that his predecessor, fellow Republican Jeb Bush, exerted over the Legislature in 1999 during his first year as governor. Bush pushed through the biggest tax cut in state history, as well as tougher penalties on crime, controversial education reforms (including the nation's first statewide voucher program), and legal changes making it much harder to sue businesses.

And Bush wasn't the only Florida governor to enjoy more one-sided success in his first protracted dealings with the Legislature than Crist. Democrat Lawton Chiles was handed almost every initiative he sought in his first term in 1991, including campaign reforms and a new Department of Elder Affairs. Republican Bob Martinez, in 1987, won several budget victories, especially his quest for massive new prison construction to end an inmate-crowding crisis.

By not being heavy handed at the onset, lawmakers and political experts said, Crist earned the respect of many legislators that may help him be more effective at promoting his agenda over his entire term than some of his predecessors were.

"The governor is going to be here for four years, and he's got at least four sessions to get his agenda through," said Rep. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, the House Democratic leader.

Republican state Sen. Jim King of Jacksonville said Crist has won over skeptics who thought he would be an intellectual lightweight when compared with Bush.

"We've got [legislators] who would really walk across water for him," King, a former Senate president, said. "Jeb would come and tell you what he wanted to do, where he wanted to go and how he wanted you to go to do it. Charlie brings you the blueprint and gives it to you and says, `Now go build the house.' It's a world of difference."

Perhaps because of Crist's amicable relations with lawmakers, even many Democrats didn't attribute much of the blame to him for the session's major failure: the inability to find a compromise for cutting property taxes.

"He was a new governor and was running in a 100 different directions on this [tax-cut] issue, but it's not all his fault because it's a very complicated issue," said Sen. Steve Geller, D-Cooper City.

But more eager now to make his weight felt, Crist said he may undo some of the 160 lawmakers' collective decisions by vetoing budget items. He's poised, he said, to kill a proposed tuition hike. And on the property tax issue that has pitted House Republicans against senators from both parties, Crist said he intends to wage a publicity campaign in advance of the 10-day June special session in hopes of fostering a legislative compromise.

"The power base shifts now," says King. "The president of the Senate and the speaker of the House are still important people but they are but minions on the chessboard of a special session. The governor now arises as a 9,000-pound gorilla."