Captain Crist Abandons Ship

Crist is running a Ponzi scheme, but unlike Bernie Madoff’s operation there isn’t a diabolical genius behind it.

If Charlie Crist had been captain of the Titanic, he would have calmly reassured passengers that the collision with the iceberg was nothing to worry about, struck up the band and ordered champagne for everyone—just before he climbed into a lifeboat.

That’s what our governor is doing right now with his proposed 2010-11 state budget. Crist is trying to keep the state upright until he gets out of office and, he hopes, into a new one in Washington, D.C. His budget is an attempt to help him win the U.S. Senate race before voters realize the reason they can’t stand up isn’t because they drank too much free Dom Perignon, which they’re going to be billed for by the next governor, but because Florida is rolling onto its side.

In his budget statement, Crist says government must live within its means, but his spending plan makes no attempt to do so. Crist wants to spend $69.2 billion—$2.7 billion more than the current budget—despite a projected $1.1 billion to $3.2 billion shortfall in state revenues this year.

Obviously he’s not a numbers guy.

We can forgive Crist for being an optimist in dire times, but there’s no excuse for proposing a budget that even lawmakers in his own Republican Party decried as pure fantasy. His contention that Florida’s economy is on the rebound and tax revenues will go up by $2 billion this year isn’t the sign of an eternal optimist. It’s the sign of a win-at-all-costs strategy to beat Marco Rubio in the GOP primary on Aug. 24.

Crist’s proposed budget completely cops out on his responsibility as the manager of Florida’s fiscal health. He’s playing voters for suckers, tempting them with $535 million in increased spending on public education but saying it will cost them nothing extra. Meanwhile, he panders to business owners with a $100 million-plus proposed cut in corporate income taxes. It’s easy to understand why Crist is rolling out this ploy: Florida voters have never figured out that there is an inverse relationship between quality education and low taxes. Remember Amendment 1?

 As in his current budget, the governor has propped up his new spending plan with federal stimulus cash and state reserve funds. Crist is relying on $4 billion ($1 billion of which Congress has yet to approve) from the federal government and nearly $600 million from state trust fund accounts to plug gaps so he can avoid making tough choices on spending cuts. His plan would leave the state’s vault one hurricane away from being wiped out.

 Crist is running a Ponzi scheme, but unlike Bernie Madoff’s operation there isn’t a diabolical genius behind it, just a government worker whose profligacy could lead to draconian tax increases. (By the way, using “genius” and “Crist” in the same sentence isn’t easy.)

 If you thought, as I did, that this Great Recession would force governments big and small to overhaul the way they operate, then you surely are as disappointed as I am. Florida may have more in common with GM than you think, with legacy costs that are unsustainable unless revenues are increased or spending is cut.

 But Crist has passed on the opportunity to try to deflate the next big bubble on Florida’s horizon—the cost of nearly 130,000 state employees’ health coverage and defined-benefit plans (pensions with set amounts paid for life. Most private sector workers have defined contribution plans like 401(k)s, whose returns are not guaranteed).

He could have scored some points with voters by proposing state lawmakers chip in on their health insurance premiums, but Crist maintained the status quo to avoid political battles.

Captain Crist has shown that he has no stomach for leading in times of crisis. With Florida sinking in perilous waters, Crist’s sole concern is saving himself.  

Categories: Column