TALLAHASSEE -- Florida’s race for governor hit full throttle Wednesday as Gov. Rick Scott seeded his budget announcement with attacks on his opponent and predecessor Charlie Crist, while the former governor used the event to bash Scott’s policies and ethics.
Speaking to reporters and editors at the annual legislative planning meeting sponsored by the Associated Press, Crist lashed into Scott’s past at a fraud-riddled hospital chain, blasted his previous budgets for cutting education spending and accused him of reversing course because an election is approaching.
“He’s trying to make up for it in an election year transformation, but the people of Florida are smart,” Crist said. “I don’t believe Florida is going to get fooled a second time.”
It was an unusual ending to what is a traditionally tame budget rollout as the two men compete in what is expected to be one of the most bitterly fought races for governor in decades.
Scott was the first to start swinging. The Republican governor announced his $74.2 billion budget plan early Wednesday, then declared that his fiscal record “represents a sharp contrast to the four budgets before we took office.”
“We cut taxes dozens of times, but the previous four budgets raised taxes $2 billion,” Scott said, a reference to the recession-wracked budgets Crist, then a Republican and now a Democrat, and the GOP-led Legislature passed from 2007 to 2010.
Scott’s budget includes $500 million in proposed tax cuts, including a rollback of auto tag fees increased by Crist and lawmakers, two sales tax holidays for school and hurricane supplies, and several business tax cuts.
“Florida was in a hole, and for four years there was just more digging,” Scott said. “Today, all that has changed.”
Crist, who for months has been raising money for his run for governor but has made few major speeches, defended the tax increases.
“It was the right thing to do,” he told reporters in the afternoon. “We have a Constitution that requires us to balance the budget. It was the most difficult time in America’s history since the Great Depression. Sometimes you have to make a tough decision.”
He said the $400 million increase in auto tag fees imposed in 2009 was intended to be temporary but only now are the governor and Legislature ready to repeal it. “They had to wait almost three years to do it,” Crist said. “What were they thinking? It took them forever.”
Also in attendance was Nan Rich, the former state senator and Democrat who has struggled to elbow her way into the governor’s race. She will face Crist in the primary.
She lashed out at the former governor, reminding the audience that Crist had told the group that he was conservative for many years before he turned independent and then Democrat.
“Almost everywhere that he goes and every interview that he gives, he seems to be apologizing or making excuses for all the past conservative, right-wing positions that he’s held throughout his long political career,” she said.
Rich noted that recent polls show Crist is losing ground to Scott while she is gaining strength. “Make no mistake, I’m ready to face Rick Scott in November,” Rich said. “Even the latest poll has me, still, within six points of him, and it’s 10 months till the election.”
But in a sign of which candidate the Republicans fear most, Republican Party of Florida Chairman Lenny Curry arrived at the event just to hear Crist’s speech.
He stood in the back of the room with his mouth agape as he wondered how the party-switching Crist could accuse Scott of an “election year transformation” for political expediency.
“To steal a line from Eminem, ‘Will the real Charlie Crist stand up?’ ” Curry said later. “It’s truly laughable.”
The looming election year will also influence the priorities of Florida’s legislative leaders, Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford.
They unveiled their joint legislative priorities Wednesday, focusing on a handful of modest proposals that are likely to win populist appeal. Among them: tax cuts, modest increases in education funding, a crackdown on sexual predators, and a pitch to help military families with breaks on tuition and reduced fees.
With a Republican majority in both chambers of the Legislature firmly secure, their top election-year goal is to see that Scott is reelected and their majorities are retained. To that end, both Gaetz and Weatherford said they endorsed Scott’s plan to cut $500 million in taxes, although they differ on the specifics, and avoided answering whether they think his education plan is rich enough.
“The state of Florida has had a tremendous transformational turnaround in the last three years,” Weatherford said, noting the state’s 6.2 percent unemployment rate and a rise in tourism. He attributed it to “disciplined, focused, conservative leadership.”
Crist said he hadn’t looked at the governor’s budget, but noted that Scott proposed more than $3 billion in education cuts in his first year, and supported a $300 million cut to universities in his second year.
He criticized Scott for taking $1 million in campaign money from Mike Fernandez, a Coral Gables healthcare executive who serves as Scott’s campaign finance chairman. Fernandez has investment interests in a handful of healthcare companies that have received large state Medicaid contracts. The state said the firms were chosen through a competitive selection process.
“This place is a lot different than it was four years ago,” Crist said. “It’s all about corporate America and giving people a contract so they’ll give you a contribution. This pay-to-play stuff is remarkable.”
“Nonsense,” Curry responded. He said Scott had to “clean up the mess” Crist left behind when he chose to run for the U.S. Senate in 2010, and that under Scott, Florida has shown steady improvement.
Reporters asked Crist whether he could be counted on to remain in the governor’s job if he is elected.
“I’ve got to win it first,” Crist said. “My heart is broken for Florida, and I’m disappointed in the Rick Scott administration.”
Crist had his own circle of deep-pocketed donors, from homebuilder Greg Eagle to disgraced Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein of Fort Lauderdale, and Republicans will remind voters of his past ties to the now-imprisoned former state GOP boss Jim Greer.
“If that’s how he wants to play this campaign, it’s going to be a long rest of the year for him,” Curry said.
Crist insisted Wednesday that contributors received “nothing” in return for their money except a thank you.
Crist said he interrupted his 2008 honeymoon to persuade his appointees to the South Florida Water Management District to stop discharges of pollutants from Lake Okeechobee. He accused the Scott administration of reversing that decision, and blamed Scott for a return of pollution to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers on Florida’s Treasure Coast and Gulf Coast.
“And he probably has a contribution as a result,” Crist said.
Crist staunchly defended his decision to support President Barack Obama’s $838 billion economic stimulus plan in 2009, when the former governor embraced the president at a staged event in Fort Myers. He also paraphrased former Gov. Jeb Bush’s recent criticism of the Republican Party’s problems with women voters, immigrants and gays.
And Crist promised that he would use his administration to support alternative energy, support gay marriage and appoint non-ideologues to the court bench.
“I don’t work at the world in red and blue,” he said.
Herald/Times reporter Tia Mitchell contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas