TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist lowered a spade into the ground to plant a red crape myrtle on the Capitol grounds Friday, and all was good.
The sky was a brilliant blue. The Arbor Day tree was nestled next to a blooming rose garden, and Florida’s sun-tanned governor was characteristically buoyant.
“The session is scheduled to be concluded on May 1 and I remain optimistic that that possibility still exists,” Crist said.
Inside the Capitol, another picture was developing.
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The rotunda between the House and Senate was packed with protesters Friday as workers from Dosal Tobacco in Opa-locka railed against a proposed tobacco tax and state workers protested a pay cut. Negotiations over the only bill lawmakers are required to pass each year — the budget — had ground to a halt and the session appeared headed into inevitable overtime.
And the governor’s leadership, his insouciant style, and even his indefatigable optimism, were under fire.
“I’ve asked the governor to take some leadership in bringing this into a landing,” said Sen. Al Lawson, the Senate Democratic Leader from Tallahassee. “One would hope that instead of making everybody feel good, he would take a little more serious interest in trying to resolve these issues.”
As the Senate adjourned abruptly late Friday, Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, said he hoped the governor would be engaged over the weekend.
“There would be a benefit to everyone if he told us unequivocably where he stands on some of these issues,” Haridopolos said.
Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, said Crist has been offering encouragement, but “has not tried to offer suggestions’’ for resolving their impasse.
Crist was clearly trying to remain engaged on Friday. He said he was making daily phone calls to “encourage’’ lawmakers. And as the day wound to a close and there was still no progress on the budget, he arrived in Rep. Dean Cannon’s office for an unannounced meeting to encourage them to end on time. Cannon, a Winter Haven Republican, has been the House’s lead budget negotiator.
“I would like us to be able to finish timely. That was my encouragement today,” Crist said.
But short of encouragement, Crist has remained largely hands off, and it has had an effect on his agenda.
He released his budget in February knowing that its bottom line was out of date, and too expensive in light of the declining revenues. Lawmakers never took it seriously.
He used his budget and State of the State speech to outline his priorities: approve a gambling agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, a tuition increase he described as “reform,” diversification of the state’s energy policy, and passage of three property tax amendments. After seven weeks into the legislative session, nearly every initiative Crist had advanced for passage has disappeared from the calendar, or is on life support.
The governor’s clean energy plans didn’t come to a vote in either chamber. His proposal to cap automobile emissions was killed by the House in the first week of session.
His proposal to require electric companies to phase in renewable energy will be revived Monday by attaching it a controversial bill to allow the governor and Cabinet to allow oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico three miles out.
Crist’s plan to merge two healthcare agencies never got off the ground. And neither did his populist property tax package, which consisted of: a cap on local government spending and taxes, a 5 percent assessment cap for nonhomestead property, a break for first-time homebuyers, and an end to a little-noticed provision of Save Our Homes that allows tax assessment increases on homes whose market values decline.
“I think he’s missed the major issues,” said Rep. Dan Gelber, a Miami Beach Democrat. “The major issue of this session is revenue and spending. I don’t know that he’s chosen to play in that.”
Gelber criticized Crist’s opposition to the Senate plan to raise cigarette taxes at the same time he opposes cuts to education.
“You can’t say ‘I’m not going to cut public education and I’m going to lower taxes,’ ” he said. “There’s a link to them and you can’t have it both ways.”
Crist has called for new revenues, through higher fees and the gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe. His proposals for raising motor vehicle driving and registration fees and new fees on court cost have been accepted by lawmakers. His plan to impose a severance tax on bottled water has not.
Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, who is managing Crist’s energy legislation, said he needs some direction from the governor before he asks senators to revive it by attaching it to the oil-drilling bill sought by the House.
“I don’t want to go out and use up a lot of political capital and then he vetoes it,” King said. King said many legislators still feel wounded by the January special session, when they took the polically difficult cut to the Florida Forever environmental program and thought they had agreement from the governor. Crist vetoed the cut and restored spending for the popular program, leaving some lawmakers feeling betrayed.
Crist’s uncertain political future also has made it difficult for lawmakers to predict the direction he’ll go on tough policy issues. The governor has said he will make a decision at the end of the session on whether he will run for the U.S. Senate in 2010.
“It gives some legislators the ability to say he doesn’t care because he’ll be gone,” said Ken Plante, a veteran lobbyist. “There’s no doubt this governor has a totally different style — he’ll get involved but only so far.”
Some Crist supporters say the governor’s hands-off approach is born of wisdom and experience as a former state senator.
“The governor has an agenda and that is to let the Legislature battle it out and he’ll step in when we reach consensus,” said Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, no relation to the governor. “That’s a smart place to be because if you step in too early, you become the target.”
Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com