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Florida Political and Governmental Newsmakers in 2011

Governor, Tallahassee

A Clear Agenda

Gov. Rick Scott
[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

Florida state senator, Lake Wales

J.D. Alexander
State Sen. J.D. Alexander saw to it that USF Polytechnic received $46 million for new construction at a time when most university construction projects were denied. [Photo: Josh Ritchie]

Strong-arming a Pet Project
At the close of the 2011 legislative session, Florida Republican Sen. J.D. Alexander, who chairs the powerful Senate Budget Committee, lamented "one of the most difficult budgets in Florida history." Cuts included $1.3 billion to public schools. Lawmakers sliced Medicaid support for hospitals 12% and 6.5% for nursing homes. State university funding was cut 5.7%. Most construction projects requested by the Board of Governors for the state universities were denied.

One campus, however, got the Legislature and governor to sign off on $46 million for new construction — more than twice as much as the Board of Governors had requested. It was also the only one whose construction funding was not vetoed later by Gov. Rick Scott: University of South Florida Polytechnic in Lakeland, a pet project Alexander has championed during his entire 14 years in the Legislature.

Poly's success during such a harsh budget year reflects Alexander's influence with lawmakers, the governor and others during his final term; Alexander is term-limited out at the end of 2012.

2011 appears to have clinched his legacy: In the fall, he sat in the front row as the Board of Governors debated a controversial proposal to split Polytechnic off from USF to create Florida's 12th university. Over strong objections from USF's president and others,
the board left the door open for Polytechnic to become a separate university provided a number of hurdles are cleared.

Meanwhile, on some other issues, Alexander proved more powerful than the governor, blocking in the Senate, for example, the "E-Verify" proposal that would have made it a crime to be in Florida without legal residency. Alexander, a farmer and developer, said the immigration proposal would have harmed Florida's farming, hotel and construction industries.

Alexander says he plans to concentrate full-time on his family's agricultural operations after he leaves office in 2012. "I never intended this to be a career. I wanted to make a difference in education in my region and in my state."

— Cynthia Barnett

Rendering of USF Polytechnic's futuristic campus

U.S. congressman, Winter Park

[Photo: Scott J. Ferrell]

A Green Light for SunRail
U.S. Rep. John Mica, a Republican who this month begins his 20th year in Congress, had an admittedly bumpy first year as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. In February, Gov. Rick Scott rejected $2.4 billion in federal high-speed rail funding despite Mica's efforts to negotiate a middle ground that would have given Florida the money if private investment could be found to foot the state's share.

Then, both parties criticized Mica's transportation reauthorization bill that spends $230 billion on road construction in the next six years. On top of that, many blamed Mica for the FAA shutdown resulting from a standoff over funding for rural airport programs.

Mica says he's funding only those projects that can be paid for with federal gas-tax money — making it ironic that 2011 was a crowning year for SunRail, which has drawn criticism for its high cost ($1.2 billion total) and low projected ridership (2,150 a day to start in 2014). For two decades, he muscled SunRail through wary agencies and Congress. Last year, he managed to persuade a skeptical Scott to go forward with the last step — the state's purchase of the rail lines from CSX for $432 million. Mica says the transfer is crucial not only to launch construction but also to create jobs for central Floridians. Because the state now owns the track, it will receive payments from anyone, including CSX and Amtrak, using the line.

Construction is on schedule to begin in the first quarter.

— Cynthia Barnett

Florida agriculture commissioner

Adam Putnam
[Photo: Steve Cannon/AP]

Expanding Role
Adam Putnam spent his first year as state agriculture commissioner dramatically expanding the position's role and impact. Among other moves, Putnam took over the state Energy Office from the Department of Environmental Protection and is changing the office's role from grant-maker to policy-driver. He's also launched an audit of all the state grant and federal stimulus money the energy office handed out to alternative-energy projects in Florida and will report to the Legislature where the money went and how the investments fared.

Putnam, a Republican from Polk County, convinced the U.S. Department of Agriculture last year to approve a special waiver transferring the responsibility of providing school lunches in public schools from Florida's Department of Education to his Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. He is working to better connect Florida's school districts with local farmers, boosting the state's agricultural commodities while bringing more fruits and vegetables to schoolchildren.

— Cynthia Barnett

Executive director, GrowFL, Orlando

Job Farmer

Tom O'Neal
Tom O'Neal oversees GrowFL, which aids "second-stage" businesses. Since 2009, the program has helped create more than 1,400 jobs at 300-plus companies. [Photo: Brook Pifer]
In a year when "jobs, jobs, jobs" was the dominant catchphrase, one group has delivered. In 2009, the state set up the Economic Gardening Technical Assistance pilot program, now known as GrowFL. The program helps so-called "second-stage" businesses with $1 million to $25 million in revenue and 10 to 50 workers that have demonstrated potential for growth and expansion in industries on the state's target list. GrowFL provides various technical and educational assistance, including market research data, workshops, seminars and assistance with business strategy. A study last year found that since late 2009, GrowFL has contributed more than 1,400 direct jobs at more than 300 companies, which grew nearly 11% faster than similar companies that didn't get help. The largest single category of jobs created was in the high-paying "technical and scientific" category. The study found GrowFL had generated nearly $19 million in state and local tax revenue beyond the $3.5 million cost of the technical assistance program. GrowFL — now managed under UCF's Florida Economic Gardening Institute — is led by Executive Director Tom O'Neal, who is also associate vice president of research and commercialization at UCF; and Fran Korosec, director of client services for the Gardening Institute.

— Mark R. Howard