Tallahassee Democrat
Originally published January 28, 2007
Crist keeps a tight agenda

By Paige St. John
As he begins to fill in the outlines of governor, Charlie Crist doesn’t stray from Charlie Crist the Candidate.

Insurance and property-tax relief.

Class size funded, not fought.

Stem-cell research, including embryonic.

Restoration of rights for felons.

Physical education for every child, every day.

But as Crist pulls together those ambitions for this first year, flush from a special session on property insurance, other campaign issues have dropped off the table, edited out as the ”Charlie Crist Vision” is rewritten into the ”Vision Document for Governing.”

Not on the immediate agenda:

The limiting of abortion to cases of rape, incest or to save the mother’s life.

A crackdown on illegal immigration.

And every pledge to ”emulate Governor Bush.”

As the new governor prepares to present his first state budget this week, interviews from within and outside the new administration and documents that map Crist’s transition from campaign to Capitol show a narrowed vision.

Crist is following recent advice from a different predecessor: Gov. Bob Graham.

”He gave me good counsel on a range of issues, and one of them was to be sure not to try to do too much,” Crist said last week. ”To prioritize the things that you would like to accomplish, especially in the first year – first session if you will. And so we have tried to do that.”

It is not all that different from a campaign, he said.

”You do that in a campaign because you only get so much time to communicate what’s on your mind and what’s in your heart, and try to let voters understand what your thinking is and what your vision is for the future of Florida,” Crist said. ”So we’ve done that here as well. You transform that into governing, hopefully in a responsible way.”

Therefore, what Crist presents in the next two weeks tracks very closely to promises made as a candidate.

He seeks an additional $613 million for class-size funding, less than the $725 million anticipated in the campaign, but according to the state’s teacher lobby, adequate to meet the controversial mandate.

He proposes $137.8 million to add 400 reading coaches.

He seeks $147.5 million additional for teacher pay.

And though he supported Florida’s touch-screen voting technology through the campaigns, Crist now writes $25 million into his budget for ballot paper trails.

Crist also will talk about virtual tutors for students struggling with FCAT, using administrative powers to control out-of-state insurance companies, and a Governor’s Commission on Physical Fitness.

The latter is coupled with creation of a state surgeon general and daily physical-education requirements in every grade.

It’s not just about reducing the state’s oppressive Medicaid budget by encouraging healthier lifestyles, though that is what sells Senate health budget chief Durell Peaden, a Crestview Republican.

”Everyone should have a good quality of life, and a good quality of life includes being mobile and getting out,” said Crist, who swims or runs daily.

”I think people will be happier, and it’s actually in the Constitution that the pursuit of happiness is pretty darned important,” he said, punctuating his speech as if he were still on the trail. ”To the individual. Personal happiness.”

The Florida Education Association, rival of the last Republican governor, is listening.

”Kids need downtime, they need exercise,” said FEA lobbyist Marshall Ogletree. ”I think we all support the concept. Figuring out how to do it is the difficult part – figuring out how a school board is going to do that with all the other requirements.”

Thanks to the successes of the seven-day session on insurance, Crist has extended his honeymoon with the Legislature.

”We are trying to be deferential to him, on his promises on the campaign trail,” House Speaker Marco Rubio said. ”We feel the people voted for his ideas as well as him.”

”Whatever is important to the governor is important to me, and is going to be important to the Florida Senate,” Senate President Ken Pruitt said.

His initial victory was important not just for struggling homeowners but for Crist to distinguish himself from a predecessor who saw concurrence as a test of Republican identity.

Crist was hardly any gentler.

The governor seized on voter outrage to squeeze everything he could out of the special session, threatening lawmakers with veto and public shaming if they did not concur with his continually increasing demands.

If they forgot, Crist had only to make another public appearance with that day’s busload of pleading senior citizens, the press in tow.

”(It was) extremely important to win it for the people, extremely important because it sets a tone, as you know,” he said. ”If you can start out doing well by the people, that sets that good tone for the get-go.”
Property taxes
It is in that tone of political goodwill – Crist suffered only two votes against his insurance bill and those nay-sayers are now stripped of leadership – that the new governor takes on an equally populist case, property taxes.

He seeks two bills – one to give counties a single shot in 2008 to let their voters double the $25,000 homestead exemption, and one to allow Floridians to apply their currently frozen home values to new residences if they want to move by making Save Our Homes protections portable.

He also is considering indexing homestead exemptions to the cost of living so that they will increase automatically every year.

On the other side of the aisle are not slick industry lobbyists but local governments, who also answer to populist demand to build schools, pave roads, and provide police protection.

Crist already frames the fight in pocketbook terms.

”The financial crush that exists with insurance is equally tangible with property taxes,” he said.

He knows why it is effective.

”There’s no doubt about it, fear comes from the boss, the people, and if you let the people down, there is a significant consequence,” Crist said. ”They will send somebody else to be their voice. People who get elected are smart enough to understand that. Most of them can make that calculus pretty easily.”
Stem-cell research
How does populism fare when the people don’t care, or worse, don’t agree?

”There’s controversy to everything,” Crist shrugged.

The governor seeks $5 million in state grants for stem-cell research, including embryonic cells. The issue last year never got a hearing in the House, and some individual lawmakers strongly oppose it.

”He might (anger) some right-wing fanatics,” conceded Senate Democratic Leader Steve Geller, one of Crist’s bipartisan allies in the insurance fight, who last week introduced a stem-cell research bill similar to what the governor wants.

Nevertheless, Geller said, ”I don’t think it’s going to be a partisan issue.”
Civil-rights restoration
The same problem lies with Crist’s proposal to undo Florida’s 1820 law stripping felons of their civil rights. Rather than attempt to make his case to a Legislature that adds new felon restrictions every year, Crist intends to launch his attack from his chair at the Florida Cabinet.

The governor needs to sway two Cabinet members in order to amend Florida’s rules of executive clemency. Attorney General Bill McCollum expresses opposition to the concept. That leaves Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson and CFO Alex Sink.

The Governor’s (Jeb Bush) Ex-Offender Task Force independently is pushing rights restoration, backed by a thick report and detailed policy analysis.

”The report clearly demonstrates restoration of rights has become the standard; it makes economic sense,” Chairman Vicki Lukis said.

Crist, not accidentally, paints in simpler colors, black and white.

”I’m not a terribly partisan guy, as you know, but I am a Republican and I am proud of that,” he said. ”I am particularly proud that I am from the party of Lincoln. You know talk about civil-rights leaders, the guy got it. And understood it in an extraordinary fashion.”