Rick Scott rode into the Florida Governor’s Mansion in a campaign funded with $70 million of his own money and the help of the anti-establishment tea party.
He wooed them. He professed to share their views, their philosophy and their disdain for the special interests. He boldly exclaimed on the night of his primary election victory that the Tallahassee insiders, aka the Bill McCollum supporters, would be crying in their cocktails. The tea party approved.
Within weeks, if not days, of being elected, those same insiders were his fundraisers, his confidants and his inaugural chairmen. The tea party didn’t seem to care.
Scott signed his first budget at a church in the Villages, a retirement community in Lake, Marion and Sumter counties that is a bastion of tea-party activity. At the signing he decried the special interests and the shortsighted, frivolous, wasteful spending. The tea party was elated.
Scott cut the education budget by $1.3 billion. He vetoed over $615 million although $300 million was land acquisition spending authority, not real dollars. The tea party lauded him for making the tough decisions.
The tea party, sincere in its desire to curb government spending, credited Scott with balancing the budget as though that was a rare occurrence and blistered past budgets that were laced with deficit spending.
• Footnote here: Every legislative session ends with a balanced budget; it’s required by the state Constitution. Deficit spending is not permitted. However, capital projects are often funded through issuing bonds, which means the state does incur debt.
• Second footnote: It’s the Florida Legislature, not the governor, that crafts, amends, debates and passes the annual balanced budget. The governor can veto items, but he cannot add any spending to the budget.
After that initial budget of $69.7 billion with $615 million in Scott vetoes, the governor solidified his fiscal conservative credentials. The tea party had a hero.
But the next three budgets tell a different story. As revenues increased, so did the budgets. In 2012, the budget was $70 billion after $142 million in vetoes.
In 2013, Scott vetoed $368 million, leaving a budget of $74.5 billion.
The 2014 budget represents the highest spending ever in Florida history at $77 billion. This represents an increase of $7 billion over Scott’s first budget in 2011. Yet he only vetoed a mere $69 million.
What could possibly make this year different?
And what happened to Scott’s accountability budgeting of 2011 or to his “It’s your money” philosophy that he repeated throughout the legislative session? Instead of frivolous, wasteful spending, Scott proclaimed that this year’s budget reflected “strategic investments.”
In addition to spending, the tea party also cares about policy.
During the election Scott promised to pass an Arizona-style immigration bill. The tea party rallied. He didn’t follow through and, in a reversal of position, he backed legislation allowing in-state tuition rates for undocumented Florida students. The tea party grumbled.
In 2013, Scott announced he would accept federal funds for three years of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. The tea party was livid, but its followers needn’t have been. Nothing came of it.
Scott summoned the news media and delivered a prepared statement, including the line: “While the federal government is committed to paying 100 percent of the cost of new people in Medicaid, I cannot, in good conscience, deny the uninsured access to care.”
Apparently, he was able to abandon good conscience. House Speaker Will Weatherford, who opposed Medicaid expansion, couldn’t remember an occasion when the governor discussed the issue with him. It died. The tea party was relieved.
Scott vowed to fight Common Core educational standards. The tea party saw hope. He now claims that renaming the Common Core standards and making a few modifications was fulfilling that promise. The tea party reluctantly acquiesced.
What’s at play here? Is it smart politics, flip-flopping or political pragmatism? During an election year, all focus is on winning. It could be a calculated risk. Where else could the tea party go?
Scott has become what he campaigned against. But the tea party folks will stick with him. Maybe he’ll be truer to them after the pesky 2014 election.
Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.