It’s official. This year’s gubernatorial matchup is between current Gov. Rick Scott, who wants to keep the office, and former Gov. Charlie Crist, who wants to reoccupy it. There is also a Libertarian candidate, Adrian Wyllie, who is making some gains in the polls.
I’ve been vocal about where I believe Scott has fallen short, but I haven’t really put Crist on the same hot seat. Having served in the Florida Legislature under both, I want to point out three issues where I disagreed with Charlie.
During Crist’s four years as governor from 2006 to 2010, the national recession hit its peak. Budgets during his term were lean by necessity and the Legislature met in special sessions to make additional budget cuts when projected revenues didn’t materialize. Federal stimulus funds helped fill the holes temporarily but tough decisions needed to be made.
• The environment took a big hit with funding slashed for land acquisition and management and in special legislative sessions further cuts were suggested. The water sustainability funds were established in a massive 2005 growth management bill of $100 million annually. Legislative leaders in the Senate proposed cutting most of the water funding on a recurring basis, not just for that current year.
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I urged Gov. Crist to threaten to veto the cuts that the GOP-controlled Legislature was pushing. Many editorial boards throughout the state derided legislators for first considering and then passing the cuts. They joined me in urging the governor’s veto. He neither threatened to veto nor vetoed them.
I’m not sure a veto threat would have been effective since the Senate Budget Committee chairman seemed determined to reduce water funding. And a veto after passage by the Legislature would have left budget spending above projected revenue. With the governor unable to restore a cut by reducing funding elsewhere to balance the budget, a veto would have meant calling the Legislature back into session.
So while the Legislature was responsible for the misguided cut, I would have liked to have seen Gov. Crist try to fight it — and I was extremely vocal about my position. As an update, the reduction in water funding still has not been restored under Gov. Scott.
• nother criticism involved a project that Crist proactively supported. He pushed hard for purchase of lands in the Everglades that U.S. Sugar owned, claiming it served an environmental purpose. He cited environmentalists who publicly backed the deal.
While I’m generally very supportive of land acquisition and Everglades restoration, this deal seemed marginally environmental and more of a coup for U.S. Sugar, which would still be allowed to farm the land for years. Local governments worried it would hurt their communities, other sugar companies opposed the deal by saying the state was buying the wrong lands and former Gov. Jeb Bush feared it would delay Everglades restoration projects.
All this at a time when we were short of funds and starving more meaningful environmental programs like Florida Forever and Water Sustainability. But legislative leaders, anxious to help the powerful U.S. Sugar, which generously sweetened their campaign coffers, pushed it through. The acreage involved was scaled down twice and the purchase price dropped from $1.75 billion to $536 million, finally settling on $197 million.
• Lastly, Gov. Crist was a big supporter of the SunRail project. The state had a plan to purchase the tracks at an inflated price from CSX. But CSX wanted much more. CSX insisted on state-paid track upgrades and a transfer of its liability to the state even though it would still be using the tracks it was selling.
I tried to impress upon Crist, and the Legislature, that a commuter rail line might be a good project but the devil was in the details. This was a sweetheart deal for CSX. The taxpayers were on the hook for $2.4 billion and for untold future liability. But the die was cast as this project had been silently in the works for years under a different administration.
Senators voted in two successive legislative sessions against the bill to transfer the liability, which according to CSX would kill the deal. But Gov. Crist and then Senate President Jeff Atwater called a special session in December 2009 for a third attempt at passing this liability transfer. With intense pressure, it passed. There was zero chance that Crist, a supporter of SunRail, would veto it.
So there you have it. When I believe it is warranted, I will call them out. It’s not personal; it’s policy.
Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.