On his way out, Gov. Charlie Crist likely to leave much unfinished
After Charlie Crist became governor in 2007, he launched an aggressive agenda to cut property taxes and insurance rates, reduce Florida's greenhouse emissions, and optimistically proclaimed Florida's "best days are not behind us, but before us."

He enjoyed some early success, thanks to his effervescent personal touch, a compliant Legislature and the fading embers of the state's once white-hot economy.

But Crist's decision to run for the U.S. Senate in 2010 means he most likely won't finish much of that agenda.

Critics and supporters alike say that Crist's signature issues have fallen victim to economic pressures, GOP intransigence or his administration's own lack of follow-through.

"He came in with great challenges, and he's leaving lots of things undone," said state Sen. Dan Gelber, D- Miami Beach, a candidate for attorney general who has worked closely with Crist. "Because of his choices, it's hard to define what kind of a governor he's been because he's left so much hanging."

Brian Ballard, a top Crist fundraiser and lobbyist, takes issue with that. "I don't think he is walking away from a tough fight," he said. "I think he feels he's done what he can here and is ready for a new challenge."

Crist has justified his move by arguing that Florida's economic problems stem from national trends he can better address in Washington. Privately, advisers say, he is disturbed by his inability to enact more of his policies as state revenues collapse.

"At different times over the last three or four months, he would say 'You know, our hands are tied,'" said George LeMieux, his former chief of staff. "I think that's frustrating to him, and he thinks he can do more in Washington."

No issue will loom larger over Crist's legacy than his handling of property taxes and insurance. So far, results have been mixed.

The plunge in property values brought on by the recession has largely masked the impact of Crist's property-tax changes, the largest of which was 2008's Amendment 1 expanding the $25,000 homestead exemption.

"Really, it's been swamped by what's happening in the economy," said Amy Baker, coordinator of the Legislature's Office of Economic and Demographic Research.

Home values have plummeted since they peaked in 2005: down 51 percent in Broward County and 44 percent in Palm, to $191,300 and $234,400 respectively, according to the Florida Association of Realtors.

"What we passed was a poll-driven product, and we're paying the consequences for that," said former House Speaker Marco Rubio, a West Miami Republican who pushed for much larger property tax cuts in 2007 and is now running against Crist for Senate. "You can't just lead by what your pollster says is popular."

Likewise, insurance rates have decreased by a statewide average of 15 percent since lawmakers passed sweeping reforms in 2007. But those reforms also put all Florida insurance buyers on the hook for as much as $28 billion in the event of another Andrew-sized hurricane.

Florida's biggest private carriers, State Farm and Allstate, responded by gradually dropping their home insurance business. Dozens of new, smaller companies were given business breaks to write replacement coverage.

But the industry has managed to convince policymakers that the 2007 reforms only exacerbate the state's insurance problems. This year, lawmakers – with Crist's blessing – partially repealed the reforms.

Under a bill Crist signed last month, Citizens Property Insurance Corp., now Florida's largest insurer with nearly 1.3 million homeowner policies, can raise rates up to 10 percent a year until it is financially solvent. Private insurers also will be freer to raise rates, as the state backs away from its pledge to cover their losses after massive storms.

"Did we go too far in 2007? Absolutely," said Rep. Bryan Nelson, R- Apopka, an insurance agent who sponsored the bill to scale back the 2007 reforms. "Fortunately for us, we didn't have a storm. Otherwise, we'd of been in bad shape. We got lucky."

Crist, though, is still looking ahead. He said recently he is "not really" thinking about what he might leave unfinished.

"We're trying to finish everything now," he said.

Aaron Deslatte can be reached at adeslatte@orlandosentinel.com or 850-222-5564.