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Crist defends stimulus stance

Disagreement with GOP is hot topic at governors meeting

By LESLEY CLARK

Herald Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Gov. Charlie Crist dismissed Republican discontent with his embrace of President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus plan Saturday, saying he was acting on “what’s good for the people.’’

Gathering in the capital for the winter meeting of the National Governors’ Association, governors who back the plan — most of them Democrats — pointed to Crist and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s enthusiastic support for the plan as evidence that it has bipartisan support in some of the bigger states hardest hit by the economic downturn.

“Just to note for the record . . . Florida and California have Republican governors who strongly support the stimulus package,’’ Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell, a Democrat who chairs the National Governors’ Association, told reporters.

Crist has proposed spending a big part of the stimulus money in the state’s next budget and brushed off suggestions that his support for the stimulus package has sparked the ire of fellow Republicans.

“I don’t sense that so much,’’ he said. “People disagree, that’s healthy, that’s democracy. But I have to do in my heart what’s good for the people and I think this bill is great for the people. People have different points of view, I respect that.’’

Every Republican member of Congress, but for three senators, voted against the measure, though some Republicans have recently advocated for seeing that the state gets its fair share of stimulus dollars

Crist, who even helped Obama pitch the package at an event in Fort Myers earlier this month, said he’s agreed to talk with fellow Republicans to rally support. “I’m happy to help,’’ Crist said. “We’re all in this together.’’

Crist in an interview and Rendell in a press conference expressed optimism that the money will help states avoid deeper budget cuts and stem the rising rate of unemployment.

“The money is a real shot in the arm,’’ Crist said of the state’s expected $12.2 billion share of the stimulus bill. “It could not come at a better time for states that need the help.”

He said he’s talked with fellow GOP governors who have qualms about the cost of the bill. Several governors, including Mississippi’s Haley Barbour, have suggested they’ll reject some of the funding in the bill, saying it comes with too many strings.

“They need to do what’s best for their states, just as I’m doing what I think is right for our state,’’ Crist said.

Obama warned the nation’s mayors Friday that he’d “call out’’ anyone who wastes the stimulus dollars on political projects and Rendell pledged Saturday that the governors would be “good stewards’’ of how the money is spent.

“We understand our obligation and all of us, whether we supported the bill wholeheartedly or whether we had questions about the bill, all of us intend to be good stewards of the money that we spend with this bill,’’ Rendell said. “All of us intend to do it in an effective and efficient way.’’

Rendell dismissed criticism that the bill is a “bailout’’ for the states, arguing that the states’ budget deficits dwarf the amount of state aid in the bill.

“There’s not a state in this union that is going to be able to use the stimulus money to wipe away all the problems, all the challenges we face,’’ he said, noting that though Pennsylvania stands to gain $5 billion, the state recently cut its budget by $1 billion.

“States are not off the hook,’’ he said. “We’re doing difficult and challenging things ourselves. . . . This helps us. This stops us from having massive layoffs.’’

Rendell and other governors suggested that most governors will accept some of the funding.

“I really believe, in the end, most governors across the political spectrum are going to look at individual components of the (bill) and decide what makes sense for their individual states and do everything they can to put their residents back to work,’’ said Vermont’s Republican Gov. James Douglas, who like Crist and Schwarzenegger has supported the stimulus package.

Crist was to meet Saturday afternoon with Obama’s energy and environmental team. He and the other governors are to attend a black tie dinner at the White House today with the president and First Lady Michelle Obama. Entertainment for the governors’ dinner: Earth, Wind and Fire.

The governors also will meet with Obama and vice president Joe Biden at the White House on Monday.

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