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Rick Scott Hopes Smaller Ambitions Propel His Re-Election Bid

February 27, 2014 - 6:00pm

When Gov. Rick Scott entered his first legislative session in 2011, he had an ambitious series of goals.

Scott called for moving all new state employees into a 401(k)-style retirement plan. He pushed for $2 billion in tax cuts, including reductions in the corporate income-tax rate. He pressed measures to implement drug testing for people who receive state benefits. The governor even wanted the Legislature to pass a two-year budget.

The newly-minted governor won partial victories on most of those issues, but his wish list has gotten smaller in subsequent sessions. In 2013, Scott focused on two issues -- pay raises for teachers and a sales-tax exemption for manufacturing equipment -- and essentially got what he wanted.

This year, Scott has arguably trimmed things even further in the final legislative session before he faces voters again in November. Aside from a few highlights in his budget, like an increase in education funding, the governor's agenda basically boils down to $500 million worth of tax and fee reductions. And his re-election campaign says the tax cuts and a victory on his spending plans are basically all Scott needs.

"Gov. Scott will spend this legislative session fighting for Florida families, workers, and students," said Greg Blair, a spokesman for the governor's campaign. " ... Gov. Scott is committed to moving Florida forward with a fiscally responsible agenda that cuts spending, pays down another $170 million in state debt, and does not contain a single tax increase."

Republicans say they're inclined to go along.

"The good news is, his agenda is aligned with ours, and vice versa," said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

Democrats have a more cynical answer when asked what Scott needs from the session, which begins Tuesday.

"Fifty percent plus 1 in November, and that's what they're working on," said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, after GOP lawmakers had few questions for Scott's office at a recent budget hearing.

House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, said issues like the expansion of Medicaid -- a controversial issue last year -- are likely off the table. Such an expansion was projected to bring $51 billion in federal money to Florida over a decade.

"Without a doubt the Republicans are looking for a very smooth session," he said. "We think the last thing they want to address is the $51 billion elephant in the room."

The scaled-back agenda has been accompanied by changes in Scott's approach. During his first session, some observers thought Scott acted like the chief executive officer of a private business, expecting his board of directors to largely follow his lead.

Scott has since worked to bridge gaps with lawmakers, including by appointing former House Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera, R-Miami, to be his lieutenant governor.

"(Scott) got here, he was a CEO, had that kind of background and mentality," said Sen. John Thrasher, a St. Augustine Republican who also serves as Scott's campaign chairman. "I think he understands that there are probably 160 folks (lawmakers) out here who think they've got just as much understanding of what ought to be done for the state as he does."

The passage of time from a bitter 2010 primary between Scott and then-Attorney General Bill McCollum -- a race in which most of the GOP establishment lined up against Scott -- has also helped.

"I wouldn't call it a hostile takeover," said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. "But in business terms, when you step into an organization that didn't really want you, you've got some real challenges."

Not that the 2014 session doesn't contain the possibility of a few land mines. Weatherford and Gaetz have unveiled a more ambitious agenda that includes a pension overhaul similar to the one Scott once proposed and a dramatic expansion of the state's de facto school-voucher program.

Gaetz said in a recent interview that he believed that the House-Senate "Work Plan" could be a boon to the governor -- even if it wasn't designed that way.

"All of that work, I think, is good policy. ... And I believe that good policy becomes good politics," he said.

Others think that what Scott gets or does not get from lawmakers is almost completely beside the point. Rick Wilson, a Republican political consultant not affiliated with Scott's campaign, said Scott's fate will instead hinge on issues like his handling of the state's economy.

"Voters do not make their decisions based on what happens in the Legislature with the governor," he said.

(This is part of a package of stories previewing the 2014 legislative session.)

Senior writer Dara Kam contributed to this report.

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