Tallahassee, FL – Republican Governor Charlie Crist and the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature appear to be gearing up for a fight. Crist is hinting he has concerns about a budget that lawmakers will vote on Friday. He also announced on Thursday he will continue his run for the U.S. Senate with no party affiliation. James Call reports Crist has more on the fallout leading up to his announcement in St. Petersburg.
When the governor said St. Petersburg was the appropriate location for his announcement because it was home, reporters wanted to know if Wednesday would be his last day as a member of the Republican Party. Crist repeatedly replied, "I didn't say that."
In the final three days of a legislative session in which the Republican-controlled Legislature turned right while the Republican governor stayed a middle course, lawmakers debate emotionally-charged bills to send to Crist's desk. It's an election year and criticism from his opponents is starting to get personal. Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio dismissed Crist's career deliberations as insincere, a remark that Crist took in stride as he headed to his office.
"I'm just listening to the people, and it is very sincere."
There are a lot of people who would like to talk to the governor about his candidacy and the state budget. A late night deal struck Monday created a $70-billion spending plan. It cuts reimbursements to hospitals and nursing homes by seven-percent, raises college and university tuition by at least eight-percent and pulls $160-million from a road building trust fund to cover other expenses. Key West Representative Ron Saunders does not expect the governor to sign it if the current plan makes it to his desk.
"Most Democrats in the House will vote no. We're very concerned about the raid on the transportation trust fund that will create a job loss and also we're worried about the federal stimulus dollars for health care are being spent on other things. So I think because of those concerns we are going to vote no, and I think the governor will veto the budget."
AFL-CIO President Mike Williams would like the governor's ear. He says the raid on the transportation trust fund will put thousands of people out of work. Williams would be surprised if the governor would veto the entire spending plan, forcing lawmakers back to Tallahassee when they would rather be campaigning. But he does expect the governor will use his line item veto and mentions that the 500-thousand member union will endorse a Senate candidate in May.
"His name is in the mix. It certainly already is stirring interest among working families throughout the state of Florida. Governor Crist has shown that he is not the hard right conservative Republican that some of the folks want him to be."
If the budget deliberations and a senatorial campaign appear to be dividing Florida's ruling party, Democratic State Senator Dan Gelber says that is not necessarily so. Gelber has served in the Florida Legislature for a decade and says the Crist drama is the latest fight in a long-running Republican feud.
"The moderate wing of that party has been up and down in the Republican Party. You've got the social evangelicals in the Republican Party, you have some fiscal conservatives and you have folks who feel a little bit uncomfortable with the other side. So there has been a war within that party for some time. I think you are just seeing it blow up a little bit more publicly than it's been."
Florida State University professor Lance Dehaven Smith says that blow up may be key to a Charlie Crist victory in a U.S. Senate Race. The Governor's Office can be a big bully pulpit for public policy debates and any budget that is placed on the governor's desk must survive a veto pen. Dehaven Smith has studied Florida politics for 29 years and connects the dots.
"He's well liked, though he alienated the most extreme parts of the Republican Party early on. Remember when he did the open government thing? His inaugural speech indirectly slammed Jeb Bush. So Crist vetoing things, although it would make it more difficult for him to win a Republican primary against Rubio, it makes him much more competitive in the general election."
The Legislature is scheduled to vote on the budget Friday. It is for the fiscal year that begins July first. Friday is the deadline for the governor to declare his Senate intentions. When asked whether Thursday's announcement would be that he would run for the Senate as an independent while remaining a Republican governor, Crist declined to give an answer.
"I hear your question. It is a good one."