ELLEN KLAS AND MARC CAPUTO
TALLAHASSEE -- The rock's inscription said "Patience.''
Gov. Charlie Crist, who has pledged to cut property taxes so they ''drop like a rock,'' was handed the fist-sized paperweight by the head of the state Senate Friday after the Legislature failed to deliver on its promise to cut taxes.
But the governor will need more than props, talk and patience to deliver the tax cuts in a June special session.
''I will do whatever I can,'' Crist vowed Saturday. He said he plans to be ''aggressive'' and use ''everything in my arsenal'' to reconcile the ideological differences between the House and Senate on property taxes.
The biggest weapon in that arsenal: the veto pen, which he can use on the 312 bills he has yet to take up, including the state's $72 billion budget -- loaded with hometown spending projects legislators dread losing.
The governor's campaign actually began Monday night, when he invited Jim Krog, a Tallahassee lobbyist and chief of staff to former Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, to talk strategy at the Governor's Mansion over light beer and a glass of wine.
Krog's advice: Remember the power of the veto pen. And don't be afraid to make people angry.
''At times it will be an unpleasant experience,'' Krog said he warned Crist. ``But it's part of your job. You line up the game for your priorities and you control the budget because you control the magic pen.''
By week's end, the veto threat took on a new dimension.
The governor is considering whether to delay signing the budget until the 10-day special session ends June 22. That way he'll have leverage over legislators who will be eager to agree on property taxes and please the governor -- or else.
The governor can request the specific date he wants to receive the budget passed by lawmakers. Once it arrives, he has 15 days to sign it and make his line-item vetoes.
But Crist has more than vetoes at his disposal. A master of the media, he commands attention -- and soaring poll numbers -- wherever he goes.
''The governor has the biggest megaphone and his involvement in settling and championing ideas is going to go a long way to being an icebreaker of this impasse,'' said House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber of Miami Beach. ``And we are at an impasse.''
HOUSE VS. SENATE
At the heart of the dispute is the conflict between the House and Senate over whether to restructure the state's tax base to reduce property taxes in the wake of Florida's real estate boom.
House Speaker Marco Rubio first suggested eliminating all property taxes on primary homes and replacing some of the lost revenue with a higher sales tax. That change would remove the inequities of the Save Our Homes tax cap, which results in neighbors with similar houses paying vastly different tax rates depending on how long they have lived in their homes.
By contrast, Crist and the Senate have plans that offer lower, more targeted tax relief. While they want to make good on their pledge to cut taxes, Crist and the Senate want to ensure that local governments aren't crippled by the radical tax restructuring that Rubio wanted -- and refused to budge from -- in the session that just ended.
Both Crist and Senate President Ken Pruitt of Port St. Lucie, who handed the governor the ''Patience'' rock, will need to bide their time with their fellow Republican, Rubio, who has proven to be a tough negotiator. Crist and Pruitt also praise Rubio as a friend and rising star.
CRIST'S PLAN B
Crist acknowledged Saturday that he's considering a ''backup'' plan that would leave the tough decisions about restructuring taxes to the Tax and Budget Reform Commission, a little-known group that meets once a decade to propose constitutional changes to taxes that are then put before voters.
''I'm also comforted by the fact that we have a backup here in the commission,'' Crist said. ``It's a wonderful opportunity for us to continue to chop away at this property tax problem that's hurting our people.''
Another reason for caution: Rubio's bold style attracted unexpected force and caught veteran senators by surprise.
''Marco is an amazing guy to watch,'' said Sen. Jim King, a Jacksonville Republican who was Senate president from 2002-04. ``I think he can walk through a crowded cow pasture and come out without anything on his feet. He's gifted and he's one of the most politically astute people I know.''
But Crist, given his strength in the bully pulpit and track record of successful statewide campaigns, is a juggernaut all his own. Like Rubio, Crist has raised expectations over lowering taxes.
Crist's property-tax campaign continued Saturday, as the governor paid a visit to the Florida Press Center for an impromptu press conference with the news media preparing their end-of-session stories.
''Even though we have a little bit of a game delay,'' he said as representatives of major news organization in Florida clustered around. ``It's important we take a breath and do this right.''