By STEVE BOUSQUET and BETH REINHARD
Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau
HOLLYWOOD — By skillfully using the trappings of power, Gov. Charlie Crist can spread a popular message at public expense while running for the U.S. Senate — as he did Tuesday in the state’s two biggest media markets.
It cost taxpayers about $4,800 for Crist to fly on a state plane to Tampa and Hollywood. In both cities, Crist held ceremonial bill signings for legislation to make it easier for low-income families to get health insurance under the Florida KidCare program, and to expand the role of advocates known as guardians ad litem to protect children’s legal rights.
Crist had actually signed both bills into law earlier in the day in the state Capitol. The “fly-around,” as it is known, put the issue he was touting, and his image, on newscasts in the state’s two biggest TV markets.
The KidCare bill streamlines eligibility rules by reducing from six months to two months the period a family must be uninsured to qualify.
While up to 50,000 more children may get KidCare, the bill does not expand eligibility: the children of state workers, undocumented immigrant children and pregnant women remain ineligible.
“If it increases enrollment by one child, it would be worth being here to talk about it,” Crist told about 200 people at Memorial Hospital in Hollywood.
“It’s important to get the word out to make sure the people of Florida understand they can get help... Without the chance to get around the state and let people know about it, there would be no awareness of it.”
Fly-arounds for ceremonial bill-signings are not new. Asked how the ceremony would affect his Senate campaign, Crist said: “I don’t know that it does. It affects children.”
Crist was surrounded by Democrats at the events in Hollywood and Tallahassee, including Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a KidCare board member who’s running for Crist’s current job of governor.
Three Republican legislators joined Crist at a ceremony at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa, and three Democrats were with him in Hollywood: Reps. Franklin Sands and Joe Gibbons and Sen. Nan Rich of Weston, who sponsored the KidCare bill.
“As far as I’m concerned, he could stop in 10 cities,” Rich said. “It’s an important message that we’re delivering.”
Four children, two dressed in green hospital gowns, clustered around the governor as he ceremonially signed the bill for television cameras.
In Tallahassee, child advocate Karen Woodall praised passage of the KidCare measure: ‘‘It was critical that we remove barriers before we expand eligibility.”
Tuesday’s event was the fifth time in the past two weeks that Crist held bill-signing events outside Tallahassee.
The others were in Fort Lauderdale for a foster care bill; in Orlando for an energy rebate program; in Ocala, St. Augustine and Naples for bills promoting the economy; and in Jacksonville on Monday for bills dealing with transportation and veterans.