At the end of the 2011 regular legislative session, Gov. Rick Scott can point to some portions of his priority list addressed by the Legislature, but other parts of his agenda failed to make it through or were largely ignored by lawmakers.
Among the complete successes were the merit pay bill that eliminates tenure for new teachers, which Scott has already signed into law, as well as separate legislation that expands virtual and charter schools. Drug screening for Florida’s welfare recipients was another Scott scalp. All were campaign promises.
Scott put a positive spin on the relatively small property and business tax cuts the Legislature included in the budget, but they fall significantly short of the ambitious goals he set out during his campaign and at the beginning of the session.
The $210 million property tax reduction in the budget is a fraction of the 19 percent cut he called for during the campaign. An increase in the business income tax exemption is expected to remove 14,000 businesses from the tax rolls and save employers $30 million, but is a far cry from his plan to cut the entire rate before phasing it out altogether.
Scott stated repeatedly throughout the session that the business tax cuts were essential to his goal of stimulating private-sector job growth that results in 700,000 jobs created in seven years, but legislators seemed to ignore the plan until the end of the session. The cuts were not included in the budget until the final two weeks.
“My 7-7-7 Jobs Plan called for a complete phase-out of the business tax over seven years, and with this budget we are entirely phasing out the tax for almost half of Florida’s businesses. This was one of the core components of my 7-7-7 Jobs Plan and a central piece of the jobs budget I submitted in February,” Scott said.
On pension reform, Scott has accepted the 3 percent pension contribution rate for state employees enacted by the Legislature, although he originally called for a 5 percent rate and held a press conference with business interests two weeks before the session ended, urging lawmakers to take up his pension reform proposal.
Scott set a “bold” agenda for the Florida Legislature in his first regular legislative session in office, with some lawmakers saying he helped set the tone for 2011.
“I think from his inaugural speech all the way through, he has set the overall agenda for the Legislature and to a large degree we’ve followed suit. Now, you know maybe the details get changed around, but at the end of the day, I’d say that in large degree I think he should take a big victory lap and say in fact he did set the agenda and for the most part, we followed suit,” Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said.
But then he failed to follow up with effective lobbying, waiting until session’s end to try to explain the logic behind his various proposals.
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said he was enthusiastic about Scott’s plan to consolidate economic development functions under his guidance, with $300 million in incentives to use at his discretion, but needed a detailed business plan before overhauling state agencies. Instead, Scott’s economic development funds were reduced, with greater restrictions placed on his ability to spend them.
The most glaring piece of unfinished business from Scott’s first session was the lack of an Arizona-style immigration law. Scott pushed heavily for stricter immigration control during his primary campaign against then-Attorney General Bill McCollum, but did not lobby legislators working on an immigration bill during the session.
Alexander, who helped defeat a provision prompting private businesses to use the federal E-Verify system that screens the legal status of prospective employees, said he didn’t hear from the governor’s office at all on the issue.
The final budget of $69.7 billion came in $4 billion higher than Scott’s original proposal, but he has largely endorsed the budget, with the caveat of a promise to conduct a “rigorous, line-by-line review" of it.
“Looking ahead, we’ve still got a lot of work to do in order to get our state back to work. We’re not there yet. I’ve already got ideas for the things we’ll tackle together in the next legislative session, but for now, it’s time to celebrate a job well done,” Scott said.
Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, said the governor, a first-time elected officeholder, ran into the realities of governing.
“I think the governor saw it firsthand. There is a difference between running for office and being in office. Everyone is always a lot more conservative with your budget as opposed to their budget,” Haridopolos said.
Reach Gray Rohrer at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (850) 727-0859.