Rick Scott: Florida's 2011 Man for All Reasons
Around the State
Few governors have come to office facing such a crisis of confidence as Florida's Rick Scott.
Scott strode into a hostile state capital in January amid two major hurdles: a Republican establishment still smarting from the licking he had given insider favorite Bill McCollum in the GOP primary, and a snarling, suspicious press corps that had neither recommended him nor predicted his victory over Democrat Alex Sink in the general election.
If he cared, he didn't show it. Weeks after his inauguration the conservative outsider, who spent in excess of $70 million of his own money to get elected, turned his back on the establishment, choosing a tea party rally hundreds of miles away from Tallahassee to unveil his first budget.
"Smart move," observed Alexandra Fitzpatrick, a Washington, D.C.-based GOP consultant. "Exhilarating way to blow off his critics, thank his base and show the voters of Florida there's a new sheriff in Dodge."
But Scott's relentless campaign pitch -- perhaps the one that won him the election -- was his 777 plan.
Before the election he told Sunshine State News, "I am going to make Florida the No. 1 state for job creation. My 777 plan will create 700,000 jobs by following seven steps over the next seven years. By eliminating unnecessary regulation, cutting taxes and shrinking the size of government, Florida's economy will grow and flourish."
Fitzpatrick claims the governor's 777 promise put him in do-or-die territory.
In an interview last week with Sunshine State News, she said, "Governor Scott is an excellent example of how politicians ride into office on a wave of campaign promises, but when they keep those promises, they find out they've stirred up a whole beehive of buyer remorse.
"All voters need after that is for a new governor to do one thing they don't like, even one controversial move, and down go his approval ratings."
In Scott's case that one thing was turning down $2.4 billion in federal funding to build a high-speed rail system across the 80 miles between Tampa and Orlando. Scott's math told him the state could be out that $2.4 billion if the rail system fails. Many voters, however, said $2.4 billion represents thousands of jobs in a state suffocating beneath the weight of joblessness.
The rejection of high-speed rail money also drove a wedge between him and virtually his only supporter in the Legislature during the election campaigns, Sen. Paula Dockery. A longtime high-speed rail proponent, Dockery convinced 25 Republican and Democratic colleagues to ask the feds for more time to challenge the governor's decision.
"So along comes this immediate perception that the new governor is losing more jobs for Florida than he's winning," said Fitzpatrick. "That has since been proved to be wrong. Since Gov. Scott took office, Florida has gained 134,800 private-sector jobs. And for that matter, in a still dismal national economy, the state unemployment rate has dropped 2 full percentage points."
In all, more than 4,000 layoff notices went out to state workers across Florida. It was an effort to reduce state government and cut the state payroll -- a reorganization of state government.
Since the first quarter of Scott's first year in office, more than half a dozen polls have shown his approval rating upside down, at anywhere between a low of 27 percent and a high of 39 percent. But Scott doggedly maintains that polls are unimportant if not meaningless, that he is governing the state of Florida, not trying to win a popularity contest.
In the Thursday edition of Florida Trend magazine, Florida historian Gary Mormino of the University of South Florida called him "a tough-love governor in tough times."
"Even though Republicans have been in power for some time," said Mormino, "Governor Scott has clearly articulated his ideas into action. In austere times, he has imprinted his stamp upon the state."
With the help of a mostly compliant Legislature, Scott kept the majority of his campaign promises by selling the state airplanes, cutting corporate taxes, reforming education, reducing the size of government, drug-testing welfare recipients, making government workers pay into their pensions, and privatizing Medicaid.
"I have kept my focus on creating a climate in Florida that is attractive to new business and making Florida No. 1 in job creation," Scott said. That climate creation included dismantling "unduly burdensome" regulation, instituting tort reform, strengthening local economic development offices, developing more high-tech clusters and fostering relevant, world-class universities.
Of all Scott's accomplishments during his first year in office, the most controversial by far was the elimination of the state's role in growth management, virtually allowing developers to impose their will on lawsuit-fearing local governments throughout the state.
Said Fitzpatrick, "It's too early to predict whether developers will ride roughshod over the state now, or if the absence of these regulatory protections will lure more employers and jobs. But the governor was true to his goals, true to the promises he made the people of Florida before he was elected. Voters will give him credit for that."
Many observers praise Scott's "leadership integrity," crediting the governor for centralizing control of Florida's five, sometimes sloppily managed, water management districts, reducing their budgets by $700 million.
"Here's where you have to hand it to him," said Georgetown political science professor Steven Bilecki. "He saw some fiscal mismanagement afoot in the South Florida Water Management District -- $197 million paid for meaningless land that may never help restore the Everglades. He wades right in and applies a solution. All very rare."
Bilecki also praised Scott's effort to hold higher education in Florida accountable for the relevance of certain liberal arts degrees and for preparing students for the workplace. He also congratulated the governor for pushing the state university system to suspend Florida A&M University President James Ammons after a suspected hazing incident that resulted in the death of a band student.
"This is a measure of true leadership," Bilecki said. "The governor has grown. He sees a problem in the state that holds it back, that harms its citizens, and he attacks it."
Lane Wright, press secretary for the governor, said Scott weighing into higher education issues shouldn't surprise anyone. "Governor Scott is focused on making sure all of our state colleges and universities are meeting the needs of our students. He wants to make sure we have the best-educated work force, which will help keep employers in our state and attract new ones. Everything he does and says with respect to higher education is in an effort to meet those goals."
Some Capitol observers say Scott began to relax in the summer, adjust his style.
His meetings with the press corps were more cordial, he reduced his office's charge for public records, increased radio broadcasts, added workdays around the state, wore open-collar blue shirts instead of suits whenever possible, and for the first time he scheduled meetings with newspaper editorial boards.
Did the changes have anything to do with Scott's change in chief of staff -- from Mike Prendergast to Steve MacNamara?
No, claims the governor. "I've been fortunate to have good people come aboard, very good people, to work in this office. I got great advice from both Mike and Steve."
Asked what the most significant lessons he's learned in office are, lessons that have caused him to make changes in the way he governs, Scott told Sunshine State News, "I've learned that you have to bring everybody along. You have to explain your point of view to everybody and you have to listen very carefully. I've done that all around the state. I've listened and adjusted accordingly -- education, for instance."
Scott says he believes adamantly that his experience as a Tallahassee outsider was the best preparation he could have had to be governor.
"I've lived in public housing, I've been in business, I've seen life from the outside," he said. "There is no job I could possibly have in which I would have more impact on people's lives.
"I will continue to work to ensure that every Floridian who wants a job has the opportunity to get one, and that Florida's children can receive a quality education."
Speaker of the House Dean Cannon, meanwhile, said last week he looks forward to working with Scott in the upcoming session. "The governor is thoughtful and he makes smart policy choices. He has certainly presented a fair budget with a significant increase of $1 billion for education. Can we find the money? I'm cautiously optimistic that we'll get there."
This story is analysis: Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (850) 727-0859.