Crist Picks a Doozy of a First Year to Govern; There Was No Honeymoon, and Money Remains Tight

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Byline: J. TAYLOR RUSHING

TALLAHASSEE - It is difficult to think of a worse year Charlie Crist could have picked to become Florida's 44th governor.

Instead of enjoying a honeymoon after taking office last Jan. 2, Crist faced pressing decisions on property insurance legislation after tornadoes devastated parts of Central Florida. That was followed by a budget crisis, a divisive property tax debate, another budget crisis and another debate over property taxes.

Still another fiscal crisis looms, as estimates of still-slumping tax revenues will force legislators next spring to make multi-billion-dollar cuts to the state budget.

Where Gov. Jeb Bush had the good fortune to govern over several robust years, Crist has had to play the Grinch.

"The guy never had a chance to come in and deal with his own priorities," says Senate Democratic Leader Steve Geller, D-Cooper City, a Crist friend. "I feel bad for him. This is the first time in state history we'll have a lower state budget two years in a row."

But it hasn't been all gloom and doom for Crist. His sunny personality has contributed to a new, positive political tone in Tallahassee while enabling him to dodge public blame for leading a government that inevitably will deliver fewer services to Floridians. Even without fulfilling two key campaign promises - lower property taxes and insurance rates - his approval ratings are running about 70 percent in most polls.

Crist says his proudest accomplishment is the Legislature's "teamwork" with his agenda. When asked to identify a mistake or regret over the past year, he couldn't think of one. And he bristles at the suggestion that he hasn't delivered on the promises of lower taxes and insurance rates, noting the tax cuts passed this summer and the Jan. 29 constitutional amendment vote on a variety of property tax benefits.

"I agree the work isn't done," Crist said of taxes. "But it's a pretty good start."

Crist continues to push hard for insurance reform. Most recently, his administration subpoenaed industry executives to a hearing this month to determine why companies haven't lowered rates despite two summers without hurricanes and legislation in January that lowered the industry's costs of buying reinsurance from the state. He also is considering a class-action lawsuit for force a rate reduction.

Florida Insurance Council spokesman Gary Landry said the governor's continuing criticism is counter-productive, arguing that since 1992 insurers have paid $6.2 billion more in claims than received in premiums.

"And yet they want to remain committed to Florida," Landry said. …