Florida Political and Governmental Newsmakers in 2011
These government and political leaders were exceptionally notable during the past year.
A Clear Agenda
[Photo: Andy Newman/AP]
"He's a tough-love governor in tough times."
— Florida historian Gary Mormino
Florida Gov. Rick Scott set the tone for his first year in office within weeks of his inauguration. First, he took the unprecedented step of unveiling his budget outside of Tallahassee — at a tea party rally at The Villages development. Then, he made the surprising move of turning down $2.4 billion in federal funding to develop high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando.
During his inaugural year, the former Columbia/HCA CEO slashed Florida's budget and government rolls and cut corporate taxes. The Legislature passed Scott-backed measures like performance-based pay for teachers, drug testing for welfare recipients and a managed-care model for Medicaid. But his biggest priorities were to lower taxes and to eliminate costly and "unpredictable" regulations — both in an effort to draw more employers and jobs by "making Florida the best state in the country to do business."
He succeeded particularly on dismantling regulation. He effectively eliminated the state's role in growth management, made it harder for citizens to challenge development decisions and axed the state mandate for "concurrency" — which made developers pay for the road, school and other improvements their projects require.
The impacts of these changes to growth laws are hard to assess at this point because Florida has not returned to the dizzying population growth that spurred passage of the measures in the 1980s.
The more immediate and dramatic impact has been Scott's centralizing control of Florida's five water-management districts. Cuts in their taxing authority, state budget allocations, land-buy funding and certificates of participation resulted in a $700-million reduction to water-management budgets and projects statewide, the vast majority in the South Florida Water Management District responsible for Everglades restoration.
At Audubon of Florida, Executive Director Eric Draper says that while the budget cuts are brutal, the shift of control from the watershed-based districts to Tallahassee may have the most-lasting negative impact as permit-seekers turn to lobbyists rather than regulators. "I don't think we'll ever get out of that ditch," Draper says.
Whether the regulatory changes have drawn jobs is a matter of debate. But business and political leaders say Scott's constant focus on jobs has indeed lured companies to the Sunshine State, which added more than 100,000 private-sector positions in 2011. American Energy Innovations choosing Martin County over North Carolina; Emerson choosing Sunrise in Broward over Missouri for a new headquarters; and Time Warner building a services center in Tampa instead of Atlanta — all involved Scott's outreach.
"Even though Republicans have been in power for some time, Gov. Scott has clearly articulated his ideas into action," says historian Gary Mormino at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg's Florida Studies Program. "In austere times, he has imprinted his stamp upon the state."
— Cynthia Barnett