Gov. Rick Scott’s relations with fellow Republicans who control the Legislature are at an all-time low, and as the 2016 session enters its last week, he is perilously close to becoming a lame duck with nearly three years left in his term.
With cool efficiency, Republicans have bludgeoned Scott’s agenda, especially on his signature issue of jobs, and the worst might be yet to come. It is nothing personal, lawmakers insist.
Yet, the same House and Senate leaders who battled each other throughout 2015 are no longer feuding. Instead, they are united in their lack of enthusiasm for Scott’s goals on taxes, spending and jobs. Other Scott priorities, such as confirming his surgeon general and endorsing a gambling compact he signed with the Seminole Tribe, are in jeopardy.
The legislators who feared Scott’s veto pen last year are now almost daring him to use it as a sledgehammer. They are talking about calling a special session to override his line-item vetoes, an act of defiance and retribution that would weaken Scott and make his final two sessions even more miserable.
Scott associates are surprised by how things degenerated so quickly.
“Beats me,” pollster Tony Fabrizio, who advised Scott’s two campaigns, posted on Twitter. “His first two sessions where [he was a] newbie with no relationships, he got pretty much everything he wanted. Now, bupkis.”
Scott and the Legislature have been on a collision course for a while. But now that his 2014 re-election victory is a distant memory, Republicans speak in exasperated tones about Scott’s dismissive approach, which they compare to a corporate executive’s treatment of low-level workers.
You have to meet with people. You have to listen to them. You have to take into account their ideas. Unfortunately, the governor has not been able to do that as well as he would have liked.
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville
Lawmakers in both parties say that after more than five years in office, Scott’s failure to foster closer ties with members has finally caught up with him.
“You have to meet with people. You have to listen to them. You have to take into account their ideas,” said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. “Unfortunately, the governor has not been able to do that as well as he would have liked.”
A key legislator on spending decisions, Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said he was ready to meet with Scott any time during the session, but weeks rolled by with little communication.
“He was not available for a good long while, and all of a sudden, the day broke when he had a series of [one-on-one] meetings” with lawmakers, Lee said.
Democratic Rep. Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach, the House minority leader, has long been highly critical of Scott’s policies. That’s why he was shocked when Scott called him recently and asked him for his vote on a bill to create a framework for spending the $250 million in incentive money.
“If they’re reaching out to me to help him, that’s hard to believe. It’s preposterous. But I got the call,” Pafford said, describing it as an act of desperation.
Scott’s biggest defeat was the Legislature’s rejection of his call for $250 million for a new job-creating incentive fund, leaving Enterprise Florida with no new money to close deals with employers.
Scott launched a splashy, campaign-style crusade for the money. He toured the state, bought TV ads and collected endorsements from politicians.
But the political ground in Tallahassee was shifting.
On the same day last October when Scott was in New York recruiting jobs, House Republicans heard state economist Amy Baker testify that cash and tax incentives to out-of-state firms are not as effective as helping existing small businesses and paying higher wages to workers.
From that point, Scott’s pet project was in trouble.
Lee, the Senate budget-writer, said many lawmakers concluded that Scott’s goal of giving cash and tax breaks to corporations in exchange for jobs is bad policy.
The Legislature flatly rejected the governor’s request for $250 million in incentives for Enterprise Florida and its mission to attract job-creating businesses to the state.
“I think it’s more of an ideological problem,” Lee said. “Too many of them do not believe there’s any bang for the buck. They think this is more of a marketing program than it is a real job creator.”
As Lee sees it, senators and Scott have contrasting views of the state’s fiscal future. A slower-than-expected recovery imperils prospects for long-term revenue growth, he said, which is one reason why senators were strongly opposed to Scott’s call for recurring or permanent tax cuts.
After choking off Enterprise Florida’s money supply, the Legislature took aim at Scott’s other priority and refused to help him fulfill a campaign pledge to cut taxes by $1 billion over two years.
Senators said a revised state revenue projection showed the state would have $400 million less than anticipated next year, making Scott’s goal impossible.
Scott will reach his goal of the highest per-pupil spending yet in public schools, but counties are complaining that the 1 percent increase is less than they expected and it comes with strings attached.
Lawmakers diverted $400 million in state revenue to avoid raising property taxes on homeowners — money that Scott wanted to use for tax cuts for businesses.
The gaming deal Scott negotiated with the Seminole Tribe, which he promoted as a way to save jobs, fell flat in the Senate. His secretary of health will lose his job if senators don’t change course and confirm him by Friday, making John Armstrong the first agency head ousted by the Senate in more than two decades.
Scott infuriated lawmakers last year when he vetoed $461 million in spending without warning after they chopped down his priorities. He is dropping hints that he might do it again.
“Everyone knows what I proposed,” Scott told Capitol reporters Wednesday. “The Legislature gets to pass a budget that they want to pass, and then I review the budget that they pass.”
Legislative leaders deny they are planning to override Scott’s line-item vetoes. But Pafford said it’s “widely discussed” on the House floor.
If that happens — and it hasn’t been attempted since the days of Gov. Claude Kirk in the 1960s — lawmakers realize that Scott would have to fire back and declare political war on them.
That could include recruiting and raising money for Republican candidates to run against GOP incumbents, sending Florida Republicans in a downward spiral in a critical presidential election year.
$400 million is how much less revenue the state will have next year than was originally projected, which doomed the governor’s priorities.
Even though Scott has decided not to endorse a presidential candidate before Florida’s March 15 primary, he has made clear his preference for Donald Trump, which puts him at odds with nearly every one of his fellow Republicans in the Capitol.
Scott still has allies in the Legislature, but they are increasingly hard to find.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, last year said Scott “declared war” on the Legislature, accused him of being “totally isolated” and criticized chief of staff Melissa Sellers and other top advisers as “kids from Louisiana.”
Now, Latvala is striking a more conciliatory tone, saying it‘s too soon to write off the 2016 session as a failure for Scott.
“It’s not over till the fat lady sings,” Latvala said. “I think the governor and his priorities will be respected, eventually.”
Herald/Times staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.