Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Gov. Crist maintains popularity despite unfulfilled pledges

By Linda Kleindienst

Tallahassee Bureau Chief

January 2, 2008


One year ago, Charlie Crist became Florida's 44th governor with a vow to improve the lives of all Floridians and to end the partisan rancor poisoning Capitol politics.

"Politics at its worst separates us," Crist said when he took the oath of office Jan. 2, 2007. "And though it is political process that has brought us here today, only our commitment to each other... will take us where we need to go."

A year later, Crist remains one of Florida's most popular politicians, a media-savvy, charismatic leader whose sunny, can-do attitude has helped buoy his voter approval ratings, 61 percent in a recent poll.

Political acrimony has indeed faded in Tallahassee as Crist, a Republican, reached out to Democrats to govern the state in what many see as a more inclusive way. But in many areas, the payoff so far from the Crist administration for many ordinary Floridians is scant or a work in progress.

Still largely unfulfilled are Crist's campaign and inaugural pledges to ease the often crippling burden that high insurance rates and property tax bills have put on Floridians' finances, despite special sessions of the state Legislature called to address both issues.

Thanks to sweeping changes in insurance laws last January, Crist and legislative leaders predicted an average 28 percent drop in homeowner premiums. But one recent statewide survey found four of five voters complaining that their premiums hadn't gone down.

And, though Crist also promised property taxes would "drop like a rock," the proposed tax changes that go before state voters Jan. 29 would shave only $240 a year or so from the typical resident's tax bill, and do even less for snowbirds and businesses.

"I am amazed at how well he's done in popularity, considering some of the failures — especially the expectation of lower property taxes and lower property insurance," said Jim Kane, a Fort Lauderdale pollster. "The ironic part is that everyone loves Charlie. Whether he is able to maintain that, I doubt it."

Crist has also governed at a time of slowing economic and population growth. In the fall, Crist and legislative leaders had to grit their teeth and cut the state budget by more than $1 billion to offset falling tax revenues. An even more severe money crunch looms in 2008.

"The guy gets elected governor just at the time the state starts going to hell in a handbasket," said Senate Democratic Leader Steve Geller of Cooper City, a Crist friend since their college days at Florida State University. "He's handled everything as well as it could be handled."

Crist has been stressing that his quest to lower Floridians' insurance and tax bills is far from over. In recent weeks, he has threatened a class-action lawsuit against property insurance companies.

And, while the immediate payoff of the Jan. 29 ballot initiative on property taxes may seem slim, Crist maintains it will provide the spark that reignites the state's economic engine, ultimately benefiting everyone.

"What I hope for is that this property tax cut is passed Jan. 29 and refires the Florida economy," he said in a recent interview. "If the [average savings] is $240... it's that much more money that can be spent by the Florida family on going out for a meal, going out to a movie, buying an extra pair of shoes for your kids... to stimulate this thoroughbred we call Florida's economy and keep her going."

Within days of taking office, Crist took steps to make state government more accessible — and more easily understandable — by establishing an Office of Open Government and requiring agencies to use plain language when dealing with the public.

In the early months, Crist successfully pushed for voting machines with paper ballots, made it easier for felons to regain their voting rights and launched an environmental initiative to forestall climate change with tougher emissions standards.

In December, another of his campaign promises was fulfilled when the state unveiled a new prescription drug card that offers somewhat reduced drug prices to lower-income residents and anyone 60 or older.

In May, Crist surprised state legislators and set a record when he vetoed $459 million in their projects from the state budget.

"Because he's nice, people think he can be weak, but the second or third time they get popped in the ear, they realize he's strong," said Brian Ballard, a Tallahassee lobbyist who was chief of staff to former Gov. Bob Martinez.

Under pressure from the federal government, Crist did what two previous governors refused to do — negotiate a gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. In exchange for the state allowing expanded gambling at the tribe's seven casinos, Florida will collect $375 million over the first three years and a minimum of $100 million annually for the rest of the 25-year deal. But the deal was criticized by a wide range of state leaders, some of whom claimed the state wouldn't get enough money.

Others, like House Speaker Marco Rubio, a fellow Republican from West Miami, contended Crist was too lenient in granting the tribe permission to offer Las Vegas-style slot machines, blackjack and baccarat tables. Legislative leaders are now asking the Florida Supreme Court to invalidate the compact, arguing Crist should have sought their approval.In July, Crist authorized Florida's executions to begin again when he signed the death warrant for Mark Dean Schwab, who raped and murdered an 11-year-old boy in 1991. But it was put on hold by the U.S. Supreme Court while it considers a challenge to Kentucky's lethal injection process, which uses the same three drugs as Florida.

Crist said signing the death warrant was one of the hardest decisions he faced in his first year.

"Knowing the probability is somebody is going to die as a result of that signature, my signature... that's not an easy thing to do," he said. "But then I thought about his action. I believe in justice."

Linda Kleindienst can be reached at or 850-224-6214.

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