FLORIDA POLITICS

Pay to play culture flourishes under Gov. Scott

 
 
DOCKERY
DOCKERY

pdockery@floridavoices.com

During the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, a new candidate who had never held or run for political office before entered the Florida political scene.

Many weary voters, tired of business as usual in politics, liked the idea of an outsider. It was refreshing to see a self-made multimillionaire fund his own campaign to avoid being indebted to the big moneyed political establishment that controls the campaign dollars through a myriad of political committees and the incestuous network of lobbyists, political consultants and professional fundraisers.

Rick Scott, shut out from all the normal money streams, decried the party apparatus and vowed to spend $20 million of his own money to secure the Republican nomination despite the party stacking the deck for their nominee. He actually spent $50 million in the primary and over $70 million through the general election.

Despite naysayers’ claims that he bought the election, many voters liked the idea of a candidate spending his own money rather than engaging in the high-dollar back scratching that’s prevalent in political campaigns.

Tea party folks cheered wildly when Scott exclaimed on Election Night that those political insiders who preferred the status quo were “crying in their cocktails” over his gubernatorial victory.

But they never really had to take out their hankies. Before you could say “there, there,” money was flowing freely into Scott’s Let’s Get to Work Political Action Committee. Clearly, nothing says “I’m sorry for supporting your opponent” quite like a hefty political contribution.

The self-proclaimed outsider was in like Flynn before he was even sworn in.

Scott’s PAC was originally financed with family money. Scott’s wife, Ann, deposited roughly $13 million between June and August 2010. But after the primary, very generous gestures of goodwill replenished the coffers. In fact, Ann really hasn’t had to reach into her purse for a couple of years.

Tea party supporters might not realize the extent of the not-so-charitable contributions over the past three years of those cocktail criers. Healthcare insurance giant Blue Cross Blue Shield (now known as Florida Blue) injected at least $837,500; U.S. Sugar sweetened the pot with at least $300,000, while GEO, which was hoping for private prison contracts, delivered $200,000.

In fact, the 48-page contribution list — you can check it out at http://www.letsgettowork.net/contributions/ — is a veritable who’s who of those with business before the state of Florida. You’d be hard-pressed to find a major player in Tallahassee who is not connected with a sizable contribution.

In 2013 alone, after eliminating all the “paltry” contributions of under $50,000, there are still 52 eye-popping investments in good government. Gaming interests contributed heavily in January, while the insurance industry targeted March.

March, by the way, is when the legislative session begins.

Heritage Insurance, which contributed at least $140,000, was awarded a $52-million contract in May to absorb 60,000 policies from Citizens, the state-backed insurer. At the time, Heritage Property and Casualty Insurance had been licensed less than a year.

Scott initially distanced himself from the controversial deal, but emails obtained by The Associated Press show that the Scott administration met with a Heritage representative in March. Hmmm, wonder if it was March 5, the day a $100,000 check made its way to Scott’s PAC.

In April, Sarasota showed the governor some love. Notable among the contributor names were developers Pat and John Neal of Neal Communities. In April they contributed $35,000 to add to their $50,000 contribution from March. Randall Benderson had a similar pattern of giving, with a March check for $100,000 followed in April with an additional $25,000.

In 2011, after his first session, the governor pleased his tea party base by vetoing $615 million in line items in the budget, including $5 million for a proposed Sarasota rowing park to be built by Benderson Development.

Over the next two sessions, the project the governor had vetoed because it “lacked a statewide purpose” received a total of $10 million in state funding, doubling down on the original $5 million that was vetoed. Recently while attending an event to celebrate the project, the governor awkwardly defended his funding reversal.

Were these outcomes directly related to the contributions or just a coincidence? No doubt the governor’s supporters and opponents will offer vastly different interpretations. But what is clear is it doesn’t look or smell right to reasonable observers. In fact, it sends the message that powerful politicians are shaking down special interests.

With finance reports online, it is incumbent on the news media to expose potential quid pro quo deals.

The governor’s independent wealth, his eagerness to please his fiscally conservative base and his insistence that things would be different in his administration offered hope that he would set a different tone. Unfortunately, it appears “pay to play” is alive and well, and the governor is toasting the dry-eyed cocktail crowd that continues to feed the kitty.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.

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