Crist budget includes huge stimulus hit


Herald Tallahassee Bureau

TALLAHASSEE — Promising more spending and no worker layoffs, Gov. Charlie Crist on Friday proposed a $66.5 billion budget bolstered by huge sums of federal stimulus money and rosy financial assumptions.

Crist boasted that his proposal calls for no new taxes. But he wants to raise college tuition rates by up to 15 percent, slap a 6-cent-a-gallon fee on bottled water producers and increase car registration fees by 10 percent to raise a total of $529 million.

The federal stimulus money is the key to his budget. Crist wants to spend $4.7 billion of it, mostly on education, transportation projects and health care for the poor.

While his fellow Republicans have bashed the stimulus package, it’s a political lifesaver for Crist, who has ambitions for higher office.

“I think it’s fantastic. Are you kidding me? We don’t have to raise taxes,” Crist said. “We might be able to cut property taxes some more. We have more money for education so we can increase per-student spending. We can spend more money on our roads and infrastructure. We can provide health care for our people. I mean, it’s remarkable.”

The budget also drains special accounts known as trust funds, borrows money for new prisons, and asks lawmakers to approve a gambling agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida that could raise about $288 million next budget year.

One major potential flaw with the proposed budget: The Constitution forbids the state from paying for more than 3 percent of its recurring expenses with one-time money, such as the funds from the federal stimulus plan. But Crist wants to exceed that limitation four-fold, pushing it to 12 percent. He would need three-fifths votes in both houses of the Legislature to approve his budget, giving Democrats a bigger say in budget decisions.

Republicans, who control the Legislature, issued statements praising Crist but not his budget plan or the stimulus package. Both are lengthy documents with tricky language, and legislators say they still don’t know what “strings are attached’’ to spending the stimulus money.

“There is still uncertainty about the federal stimulus package and about Florida’s future revenues,” said Acting House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala. “Adding federal stimulus money to the Florida economy may help Floridians during these harsh economic times. However, the stimulus money cannot be seen as the only solution to balancing the state’s budget.”

Cretul noted that state economists will meet in March to update the estimate of the state’s revenues, which have tanked over the past two years. Crist based his budget on the November 2008 estimate that economists say is already about $214 million lower than actual collections.

Some legislative leaders are bracing for a projected budget deficit of up to $5 billion, $2 billion more than the current estimate. They also fear that the state-set property-tax for schools could have a $1 billion hole. But Crist’s budget experts say it will be less than half that.

Rather than increase the school property tax rate, Crist said the federal stimulus money should plug the hole. At the same time, Crist said he wants to ask voters to approve a series of tax-cutting constitutional amendments in 2010. If approved, they could take away $245 million from schools.

Crist has said that he doesn’t see a contradiction in cutting school money from counties while asking more from the federal government because the state is just getting its “fair share,” noting Florida’s long-standing status as a donor state that sends more money to Washington than it gets in return.

Crist kept his budget so secret that some of his agency heads had no idea what was in it.

Asked how the plan affected his agency, prison chief Walt McNeil said “I have no idea.”

Education Commissioner Eric Smith repeatedly said “I don’t know,” when asked whether Crist’s plan included teacher bonus pay or whether Crist ran any county-by-county numbers showing how he proposes to increase per-student spending to $7,044.

Other highlights of Crist’s spending plan include a salary freeze for state workers for the third year in a row; revival of the popular Florida Forever land-acquisition program for conservation; construction of 3,500 prison beds and state acquisition of 55 miles of rail line in central Florida. He also wants to merge two state health agencies.