Crist signs $66.5 billion budget

Saying the economy is on the upswing, Florida's ever-optimistic Gov. Charlie Crist signed the state's $66.5 billion budget into law Wednesday, making two changes to the bill passed by lawmakers.

The governor restored pay to state workers -- reversing the 2 percent pay cuts imposed by the legislature -- and he vetoed the raids on the concealed weapons trust fund.

"I believe that now is not the best time to reduce state employees pay and so we have made that modifcation,'' Crist said. Agency heads will "respect the legislature's reduction without reducing salaries."

He said that the 28,000 state workers "and their families are consumers too. I want them to have the ability to make purchases and stimulate Florida's economy.''

At a bill signing ceremony attended by the legislature's top Republican budget chiefs, Crist said the state budget is "not nearly as dismal as many expected it to be. There are no broad base tax increases, no plans to release inmates from prison.'' And he noted that Florida isn't making cuts as deep as other states.

The governor did not mention that the education budget is $1 billion less than he and the Department of Education requested, but said the per student funding is increasing by $21 per student. He noted that the budget does include education money from the federal stimulus dollars.

The budget relies on a $1 per pack increase in the cigarette tax and a $900 million infusion of new cash from expanding gambling at the Seminole casinos and parimutuels across the state.

He said that he doesn't consider the cigarette tax a broad-based tax. "I view it more of a health issue than a tax issue,'' he said. ''Ronald Reagan used to say if you want to kill smoking. Tax it. Maybe it wouldn't be bad if we killed smoking and saved a lot of lives."