Gov. Rick Scott, the outsider, has had to become more of an insider.
Scott aims to eliminate Florida’s corporate income tax. In 2011, lawmakers increased the business tax exemption from $5,000 to $25,000 and doubled it to $50,000 this year. He also convinced the Legislature to put a constitutional amendment on this month’s ballot to eliminate the personal property tax on businesses with between $25,000 and $50,000 in machines and other property — a change that could cost local governments approximately $20.1 million by 2013-14. He also signed legislation nearly cutting in half an increase in the unemployment tax for 460,000 businesses.
Scott and the Legislature removed state-mandated concurrency requirements and gave more control to local governments. He also eliminated the state’s planning agency, the Department of Community Affairs, and folded some of its previous functions into the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
Florida’s unemployment rate has eased somewhat, but Scott is nowhere near delivering on his campaign promise to generate 700,000 jobs over seven years. Business leaders praise Scott’s energy and willingness to engage in cold-calls and other nitty-gritty of economic development. The governor has embarked on six foreign trade missions (he heads to his seventh destination, Colombia, in December). He also reorganized Enterprise Florida and created a Department of Economic Opportunity, which serves as the point of contact for businesses interested in relocating to Florida. To help facilitate trade between Florida and Brazil, Scott opened an office for Enterprise Florida in São Paulo in 2011 and lobbied the U.S. government on visa waiver status for Brazil.
According to a June Orlando Sentinel analysis, Scott has cut more economic development deals than his two predecessors, but the deals have generally involved cheaper incentive packages and are often aimed at expansion projects for Florida companies like Publix, Raymond James and Chico’s.
Scott has moved to expand Florida’s seaports in anticipation of increased container traffic after the Panama Canal expansion in 2014. Under Scott, the state’s investment in port expansion and modernization projects — including projects in Miami, Port Canaveral and Tampa — has grown 278% from $148.8 million in 2011 to $562.7 million budgeted for next year.
Scott hasn’t fully restored the $1.3 billion he cut from K-12 funding in his first year in office. He signed legislation — now being challenged in court — that eliminates teacher tenure and creates a “merit pay” system that ties salaries to student performance. He signed a bill making it easier for high-performing charter schools to expand. Most recently, he’s positioned himself behind changes in the FCAT that were already afoot. By the 2014-15 school year, the test will be replaced by a system known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers.
Scott has taken a hard-edged approach toward imposing more accountability on the higher education system, suggesting that liberal arts degrees like anthropology are a bad investment. He has also questioned the “purpose” of faculty tenure and bypassed the Board of Governors by creating a Blue Ribbon Task Force on State Higher Education Reform that will deliver recommendations this month. During the 2012 legislative session, Scott approved a $300-million cut for Florida’s state universities but vetoed a bill that would have eliminated caps on tuition increases for Florida State University and the University of Florida. He also signed a bill championed by Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander that created Florida Polytechnic from a former Lakeland branch of the University of South Florida.
Scott’s decision not to expand Medicaid eligibility has alarmed some Florida hospitals, which were depending on new Medicaid enrollees to offset cuts in Medicare payments that were part of the Affordable Care Act. In 2011, Scott commissioned a study to scrutinize the state’s public hospitals. More recently, Scott warned three state-supported cancer research facilities that they are at risk of losing state research funds if they franchise their brands to private entities.
Scott has pledged to cut $1 billion from state prison spending, in part by privatizing medical care for 100,000 inmates. He’s also supported Republican lawmakers’ efforts to outsource more than two dozen state-run corrections facilities — a move that would create the largest private prison system in the country but that has thus far been stymied by court challenges and the state Senate. Scott believes he can privatize the prisons without the whole Legislature’s sign-off.