by Amy Keller
Updated 7 months ago
The best illustration of Rick Scott’s trajectory as governor of Florida is captured in the way he unveiled his first two budget proposals. In 2011, the rookie governor unveiled his first budget before a tea party crowd in the central Florida town of Eustis, highlighting cuts in state spending and government jobs. He went on to hold a budget-signing ceremony in the square of the Villages, a retirement community populated predominantly by Republicans.
A year later, Scott rolled out his budget at the state Capitol. This time, Scott highlighted a $1-billion increase in spending on public schools — the same line item he’d cut by $1.3 billion the year before. He signed the budget at a Jacksonville elementary school surrounded by smiling schoolchildren.
Between his first and second budgets, Scott’s priorities, core convictions and management style changed little if at all. He had clearly gained, however, an appreciation for the need to cater to appearances as he governed.
Attention to appearances has bumped his favorable ratings among voters from 29% in his first year to 38% presently — still low enough to have Democrats salivating, but with plenty of time to rise further before he seeks re-election in 2014.
It also has helped him with a state GOP establishment he was mostly indifferent to during his self-financed run for office in 2010. So unpopular during his first year in office that some Republican insiders were speculating about a challenger from within the party, Scott no longer hears those whispers. While he’s still no favorite of national Republicans, the state Republican Party has been funding a series of TV ads featuring Scott talking up education and job creation, and Scott won’t have to spend his own money when he runs in 2014. During the first eight months of 2012, his “Let Get to Work” committee has collected $4.2 million.
In 2011, the state Supreme Court said Scott overstepped his constitutional authority when during his first days in office he signed an executive order freezing all pending rules until he could review and approve them. His knee jerks toward a top-down, field marshal’s approach, but he’s had to learn that his effectiveness at governing isn’t a matter of dictating policies and imposing metrics. The governor has taken steps to cultivate relationships with both lawmakers and the electorate, hosting legislators over private dinners at the governor’s mansion and ditching conservative suits for khakis and casual button-down shirts in public appearances. Resurrecting a page out of former Gov. Bob Graham’s playbook, he conducts “work days” once a month, making doughnuts, waiting tables and doing other jobs with working-class Floridians.
Many of Scott’s closest advisers had little experience in either government or Florida. Perhaps reflecting that fact, his managerial hires have been a mixed bag: Some, like Gray Swoope at Enterprise Florida, have drawn solid reviews. At least seven state agency heads have left since Scott took office for varying reasons, including former Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson. Edwin Buss, hired from Indiana to head Florida’s Department of Corrections resigned after clashing with Scott. Two years into the job, Scott is on his third chief of staff. The second, Steve MacNamara, left after less than a year on the job amid allegations that he steered state contracts to friends. In general, while still showing a preference for managers from the private sector, Scott has shifted toward hiring more people with experience in Tallahassee.
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.