State Needs to Commit to Higher Ed
Published in Tampa Tribune, March 4, 2008
By CATHERINE DOLINSKI and MIKE SALINERO
Faced with a deepening economic recession, Gov. Charlie Crist on Tuesday challenged state lawmakers to embrace a federal bailout for Florida and its residents rather than "put politics over their needs."
Even Crist, a constant optimist whose sunny outlook has endeared him to voters, acknowledged during his annual State of the State address that Florida is suffering from a 16-year unemployment high, rising foreclosure rates and a crippling credit crunch.
But he continued to sound notes of hope and confidence in the state's ability to bounce back.
"The state of our state may be challenged today, but, my friends, the determination of our people is stronger than ever," he said during his speech, delivered at the end of the first day of the spring legislative session during a joint session of the House and Senate.
Lawmakers returned to the Capitol on Tuesday to begin a 60-day session that promises to focus overwhelmingly on the state's beleaguered budget. Despite scaling back spending this year during a special session in January, House and Senate budget writers expect now to have to stave off a deficit of as much as $700 million this year and $5 billion next year, because of declines in state tax collections.
"With every crisis comes opportunity," Crist told lawmakers during his speech. He wasted no time in singling out the primary "opportunity" of which he wants lawmakers to avail themselves while crafting the state budget: federal stimulus dollars.
While state budget analysts pore over the details of Florida's portion of the federal stimulus package approved by Congress and President Barack Obama, Crist is predicting a windfall of more than $12 billion for Florida. Of that, the governor is proposing to use $5 billion to shore up state spending next year.
Conservatives Are Concerned
Conservative state lawmakers remain cautious, offering a mixture of ideological and practical concerns about using such a large - and temporary - federal handout to patch up the state's budget.
"Balancing our budget on non-recurring dollars, without reductions in spending or new resources of revenue, will leave us with a bigger budget gap three years from now than the one we face today," Senate President Jeff Atwater said Tuesday during his opening address of the chamber.
Crist took aim at the skeptics in his own party, who have lambasted him in recent weeks for cozying up to the new Democratic president and abandoning their brand of fiscal conservatism.
"Some argue the politics of the federal stimulus plan - I understand that," he said. "But my friends, while our people worry, we cannot put politics over their needs ... We should not ask what it means to be Republican, nor should we ask what it means to be Democrat, but rather we should ask what it means to be a good, decent human being."
Asked afterward about Crist's remark, House Majority Leader Adam Hasner said that Floridians are looking for more realism from their leaders.
"I don't know if it was a 'low blow,' but I think the fact is the people of Florida want their leaders to talk to them and to level with them in real terms," said Hasner, R-Delray Beach. "I think the people need to understand that, regarding the federal stimulus dollars, there are still more questions than answers ... we don't know what the budget holes will be in the future if we use that money today."
Among other things, Crist's budget plan for the coming fiscal year calls for increasing funding for K-12 education and fully funding the state's Florida Forever land conservation program. But, per tradition, the governor based his budget proposal on the state's last official revenue estimates - which are expected to tumble when the analysts update their projections on March 13.
"That potentially could render the governor's budget as being one that we cannot base our decisions on as a Legislature when we go to do the work over the course of the next 60 days," Hasner said.
Many Tampa Bay area lawmakers lauded Crist for his upbeat approach.
Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Sarasota, applauded Crist's tone even as he repeated his doubts about the affordability of Florida's plan to purchase land to restore the Everglades for $1.35 billion. "I'm all in favor of saving the Everglades; I just can't figure out how we can afford it under that particular proposal."
Hillsborough County Delegation Chairman Will Weatherford likewise disagreed with Crist's call for continued funding of Florida Forever.
"I don't think we should spend money on Florida Forever this year," said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. "I think that's $300 million that could go to pay for our basic needs."
Focus On Higher Education
Crist also said the state needs to renew its commitment to colleges and universities - a call that students from Florida State University and Florida A&M University made Tuesday during a rally on the back steps of the Capitol.
Rebecca Brower, an FSU doctoral student at the rally, said per-student higher education spending in Florida is near the bottom in the nation. "That's shameful," she said, "and it's ruining our economy. There's a reason we have the third-worst economy in the nation."
Senate Minority Leader Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, reiterated Crist's commitment to higher education in his response to the governor's speech.
"Not only do we need to hold the line on any further spending cuts to education, but we need a rededication to higher education, especially community colleges," Lawson said. "Because it is these institutions which have become a beacon to all those laid off construction workers, service-related employees, retail sales clerks, and every displaced job seeker seeking retraining in promising new fields."
Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, said the governor is starting the session on an appropriately high note with ambitious goals.
He compared Charlie Crist to President Ronald Reagan - whom both the state House and Senate honored earlier in the day by declaring Feb. 6, 2010, as "Ronald Reagan Day" in Florida.
"His wit and personality and love for this country pulled people together," Victor Crist said of Reagan. "Our governor is pulling people together, too."