Crist wields mighty veto pen
By Josh Hafenbrack, Sun Sentinel
4:59 p.m. EDT, May 8, 2010
He may be a lame duck governor with no political party, but Charlie Crist has one big weapon in his arsenal: the veto pen. Expect him to use it.
The governor appears to be poised to issue some high-profile vetoes this spring.
Crist could reject bills allowing insurers to increase homeowner premiums and requiring women to get ultrasounds before they undergo abortions. He could use what one legislator called the “nuclear option:” vetoing the state budget.
Florida’s veto season, which follows the end of the Legislature’s annual lawmaking session, comes against a never-before-seen political backdrop. Last week, Crist dropped his lifelong affiliation with the Republican Party, which runs the state Legislature. He’s running for the U.S. Senate as a no-party candidate.
The veto pen gives the newly independent Crist the potential for statewide publicity bursts and an establishment villain to pit himself against — the Republican-controlled state Legislature.
Crist’s potential to reject a boatload of bills even has its own Facebook page — Charlie Crist’s Veto Pen.
“I am Charlie Crist’s Veto Pen,” the site says, “and the pen is mightier than the sword.” The governor already made a big splash with one veto last month: the teacher-tenure bill, SB6.
“I think it’ll be an unpredictable and heavy veto season,” said state Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Davie. “He’s running as an independent now. They’ve got to throw out their Republican rulebook as to what they veto and what they can’t.”
The governor has 15 days to act on bills once they hit his desk. Of the 301 bills legislators passed during the 60-day lawmaking session, the governor has signed 47 into law. He vetoed two, the teacher-tenure measure and a bill that would have allowed top legislators to raise unlimited contributions in “leadership funds.”
Republican legislative leaders, now at war with Crist since he bolted from the party, are bracing for more.
“Charlie Crist always talked about having optimism. Right now, the only power Charlie Crist has is negative, and it’s in the form of veto threats,” said House Republican Leader Adam Hasner, R-Boca Raton. “My belief is, any vetoes he makes are going to be based more on politics and how it will affect his election than it will be based on policy.”
The governor always leaves himself wiggle room, but he appears almost certain to veto the ultrasound bill. That requires women seeking first-trimester abortions to pay for ultrasounds, hear descriptions of the fetus and view live images unless they sign a form.
“I’ve got some pretty serious concerns about that,” Crist told reporters at the Governor’s Mansion this week. “While I have my views as it relates to that issue [of abortion], I don’t necessarily feel comfortable imposing that, my will, on others. Maybe being raised with three women has had an impact on me. I’m sure it has.”
The Legislature teed up another potential veto with a bill catering to Crist’s favorite piñata: the insurance industry. The bill allows insurance companies to raise homeowner rates 10 percent a year without approval from state regulators.
“Not a huge fan of insurance companies, so you can sort of apply that to it,” Crist said. “But I haven’t concluded yet, because [the rate increases] are less than they may have been otherwise.”
Aside from the abortion and insurance bills, Crist enjoys a line-item veto he can use to cut spending projects in the state budget.
Most notably, construction officials have called on the governor to eliminate a $160 million raid on a road-building trust fund. But the Legislature, anticipating a veto, tied the $160 million taken from the fund to public school classrooms.
Crist won’t cut education spending, so he might have to veto the entire budget to restore the road building money. A few Capitol watchers predict that’s just what he’ll do.
“My choice would be, veto the whole budget over not doing anything,” said Bob Burleson, who represents construction officials worried about the cut to road projects.
Senate budget chief JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said the budget veto talk smacks of “overreaching prognostication.” By law, the state has to have a budget by June 30, leaving a tight timetable to call legislators into special session and craft a new spending plan.
“If at the end of the day, he prefers to make headlines and politically self-serving statements, that’s his decision,” Alexander said. “I have to believe that those who are predicting some of these actions are not accurate.”
One controversial bill Crist is likely to sign authorizes statewide use of red-light cameras. Violators will get $158 tickets in the mail. The state expects the cameras to be so pervasive that, by 2013, more than 1 million tickets statewide will be issued, according to one staff analysis.
Crist said he’s “inclined to go ahead and be supportive” of the red-light cameras, which passed the Legislature with a few dozen small-government conservatives in opposition.
Another possibility for Crist is to haul legislators back to Tallahassee not with his veto pen, but through his authority to call a special session.
Legislators failed to enact ethics laws to combat a wave of corruption in Florida politics or to address the troubled Public Service Commission. The governor is considering a special session to address those issues. He also could call legislators back to deal with energy issues, after the oil spill off the Louisiana coast.
Crist disputed that he’ll act any differently — with his veto pen or otherwise — now that he’s no longer tied to the Republican Party.
“There are those who would argue I’ve been liberated even when I was a Republican,” he said. “It’s just a lot more fun now.”