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Rick Scott Takes Bold Risk With His Swing-to-the-Left Budget

February 1, 2013 - 6:00pm

When Gov. Rick Scott proposed his first budget in 2011, he staged the announcement at a tea party rally in Eustis. On Thursday, the governor announced his latest budget at an event at the state Capitol -- with the tea party movement almost forgotten.

At Eustis in 2011, Scott proposed a state budget of $65.8 billion. Now, less than two years later, he is calling for a budget of $74.2 billion, an increase of almost 6 percent over last years budget. After the legislative waltz ends in May, the final budget will almost certainly be higher than the governors proposal.

In his proposed budget, Scott is throwing money at groups that traditionally do not support Republicans. In his proposed budget, Scott looks to offer bonuses to government workers and across-the-board pay raises for teachers, regardless of their effectiveness in the classroom. With union leaders already grumbling about getting more money from Scotts budget, the governors attempt to neutralize organized labor and state workers in 2014 is not off to a promising start.

Mired in the polls and trailing potential Democratic opponents, including former Gov. Charlie Crist, Scott is trying to move to the center -- which Crist, a former Republican who joined the Democrats at the end of 2012, would certainly like to claim. But this could be the wrong strategy for Scott, especially if his right flank is exposed.

As he stands in support of the largest budget in state history, Scott is gambling that he has the Republican base nailed down as he plans to seek a second term in 2014. That might turn out to be a bad bet. Scott won the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2010 by the narrowest of margins over then-Attorney General Bill McCollum.

But even in 2010, when the tea party movement was at its peak, 54 percent of Republican primary voters did not back Scott. The contentious primary against McCollum is still hurting Scott to some extent. Recent polls show a sizeable chunk of Republicans -- anywhere between 40 percent and 50 percent -- is open to voting against him in a primary in 2014.

As Scott moves to the center, he is also becoming more of a Tallahassee fixture. While he might have launched his budget in Eustis and signed it in The Villages in 2011, as Thursdays unveiling shows, Scott is now increasingly based in Tallahassee. This could also leave him vulnerable.

Scotts victory over McCollum in 2010 showed that Republican primary voters were hungry for fresh faces to knock off Tallahassee insiders. The same message was reinforced down ballot in the primary when Pam Bondi defeated then-Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp and Tallahassee veteran Holly Benson in the Republican attorney general primary. In 2012, Republican voters once again favored outsiders like Ted Yoho, Ron DeSantis and Trey Radel over elected officeholders in congressional primaries.

Scott is banking on conservatives staying in his corner while he moves to the center to stop independents and even moderate Republicans from backing Charlie Crist, Alex Sink or whoever emerges to challenge the governor in 2014. In doing so, Scott is leaving himself open to the right. For the moment, no Republican heavyweights or tea party favorites appear willing to primary Scott. To be sure, Florida CFO Jeff Atwater and Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam have their eyes on running for governor, but they can wait until 2018. Fiery former Congressman Allen West is a favorite of the tea party movement and has proven himself capable of raising money but he has shown no interest in running in 2014.

Scott remains able to fund his own campaign and the Republican establishment and the leadership of the business community are now fully behind him. But those same players lined up behind McCollum and against Scott in 2010. If hes not careful in presenting his spending hikes and selling them to conservatives and the tea party movement, Scott could be setting the stage for someone using the same tactics against him that he used to come into power in the first place.

Tallahassee political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis piece exclusively for Sunshine State News.

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