Florida Gov. Rick Scott plays it safe in an election year


Watch, listen to Gov. Rick Scott’s speech

Gov. Rick Scott will deliver his fourth State of the State Address on Tuesday, March 4, at the Florida State Capitol. The address will be carried live on the Florida Channel.

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

As a Florida governor, Rick Scott will never be confused with Jeb Bush.

Both men are Republicans, but the similarities largely end there. As Scott begins his fourth year as chief executive, his agenda in the Legislature is again modest, anchored by a couple of tightly focused, feel-good priorities: cutting fees and taxes by $500 million and increasing public school spending by $542 million.

The proof of Scott’s play-it-safe approach is that Republican lawmakers, for all their love of spirited combat with the governor, quickly blessed both requests. It would be foolish not to in an election year, and besides, those Republican lawmakers also want Scott, their standard-bearer on the November ballot, to get re-elected.

As an entrepreneur, Scott was a risk-taker, gambling his $125,000 savings on two struggling Texas hospitals and becoming rich enough to finance a successful run for governor in his adopted state.

But as governor, Scott plays it safe. He has to hoard his limited political capital at a time when a recent poll showed a majority of voters don’t want him to win re-election.

Bush, by contrast, relished spending his abundant political capital as he barnstormed the state in pursuit of big, often controversial ideas in two terms from 1999 to 2007.

Backed by a Legislature controlled by Republicans eager to exercise their newfound muscle, Bush created the nation’s first statewide tuition voucher program, a public school grading system based on student performance (now under attack), eliminated some civil service protections for state workers, expanded outsourcing in government and restructured the governance of Florida universities.

“BHAGs,” Bush called them, or “big, hairy, audacious goals.”

Scott similarly has the wind at his back in the Capitol, with a Legislature dominated by fellow Republicans, but his vision is more limited.

He could offer ambitious (and no doubt risky) plans to deal with the festering problems of his era: housing foreclosures, income inequality and a justice system that many Republicans say unfairly locks up too many non-violent drug abusers — with skyrocketing societal and financial costs to Floridians.

If Scott has an audacious goal, it may be that he believes he can win re-election with such relentlessly mediocre poll numbers.

His legislative agenda can almost literally fit on a bumper sticker. Scott himself pared it down to just 11 words in his big announcement on Jan. 29 when he proposed a $74.2 billion budget: “Tax and fee cuts, eliminate government waste and pay down debt.”

That’s it.

If Scott fails to win a second term, that, along with his relentless pursuit of jobs, will be his legacy as the 45th governor of Florida.

By advancing a short legislative wish list, Scott is increasing the chance that he’ll get what he wants: a couple of victories that will help him on the campaign trail next fall.

“He’s going to be able to put good policy points and political points on the board. I think it’s going to be a very good year for the governor,” says House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. “I think they’re being strategic with their initiatives.”

Democrats see it much differently.

They say Scott is using a $400 million reduction of car and truck tag fees to literally buy goodwill with voters (a typical Florida motorist would save $25 a year).

“It’s a Herculean effort to try to mask the terrible things that he’s done the past three years to average, everyday Floridians, and it’s not going to work,” says Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth. “People won’t forget all the things that he’s done to them just because he did something good this year.”

A favorite Democratic example is public education: Scott proposed cutting it by $1.3 billion in his first year, before supporting increases of $1.2 billion and $1 billion the past two years.

Scott’s call for a $542 million increase “barely moves our investment to the level it was when he took office,” says teacher union leader Joanne McCall, vice president of the Florida Education Association. Scott’s proposal also would be $177 less per student than the high-water mark of 2007-2008.

Scott’s small-ball strategy is sure to be on display Tuesday, March 4, when he delivers his annual State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature.

He will hammer home those well-practiced themes of cutting fees and taxes, eliminating waste, reducing debt and loosening regulation on business, while taking credit for the big drop in the state’s unemployment rate and other signs of an economic turnaround.

Scott’s top policy adviser, chief of staff Adam Hollingsworth, says the small-ball notion misses the point. He points to Scott’s biggest promise, to create 700,000 jobs in seven years.

“That’s all reflective of setting really significant goals and I think, even more importantly, having tremendous focus and achievement,” Hollingsworth said.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

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