State Politics

Crist undecided about calling special session

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist is disappointed Florida’s lawmakers failed to pass anti-corruption measures, which were among his top priorities, but said Monday that he hasn’t yet decided whether to call them into special session on that and possibly other issues.

Crist had threatened a special session on anti-corruption legislation even before the Republican-controlled Legislature ended its regular 60-day session Friday night.

“Anything’s possible,” Crist said in response to a question about it Monday. Asked if a special session is probable, he said “Not sure yet.”

If Crist does call lawmakers back to Tallahassee he also may ask them to revisit the state budget, particularly public school funding.

“We can always do more for education,” said Crist, who left the GOP a day before the session ended to run for the U.S. Senate without party affiliation.

“It’s near and dear to my heart.”

The budget (HB 5001) would raise annual per student funding by $1.22, but school officials say their expenses, including insurance, retirement and utilities, are expected to outstrip that tiny increase.

“There may very well be some layoffs in some of our districts,” said Bill Montford, executive director of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. “There will be some other painful cuts as well.”

Montford, though, noted education did better in the budget than most other segments of state government.

Road builders, meanwhile, have been pressuring Crist to use his veto power to restore $160 million lawmakers shifted from the state’s transportation trust fund to other state spending.

Crist hasn’t yet formally received the budget, but he said his staff would go through it line by line once he does get it. The governor has line-item veto power, but at least one lawmaker, Rep. Ron Saunders of Key West, who is in line to become House Democratic leader in November, has predicted Crist would veto the entire bill.

Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, has said he plans to discuss the possibility of a special session with House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala. The two leaders also have the power to jointly call one.

“We are going to consider it, frankly,” Atwater said just moments after the regular session ended.

The Senate passed a strong anti-corruption bill (SB 1076) but it died in the House. The bill would have made it a crime if a public official fails to disclose a financial interest or a future benefit from an official action.

Another bill (SB 734) would have increased penalties for using a public office to commit a crime. It didn’t get a floor vote in either chamber.

Lawmakers did send Crist a bill (SB 1980) that would let counties increase penalties — up to a fine of $1,000 or a year in jail — for officials who violate standards of conduct and disclosure.

Crist made corruption a major issue after a spate of arrests on bribery and other charges, particularly in South Florida. At the governor’s request, the Florida Supreme Court late last year authorized a statewide grand jury to investigate public corruption and make recommendations on changes to state law.

The governor also pushed for legislation to tighten ethics standards for the Public Service Commission amid allegations the panel and its staff had become too cozy with the utilities that it regulates. It, too, failed to pass.

In his State of the State address on the regular session’s opening day, the governor noted he had suspended 35 public officials since taking office in 2007, a figure that included several notaries public as well as elected officeholders.

“That beat goes on,” Crist said Monday. “It’s getting close to 40 now.”