State Politics

Gov. Scott faces big hurdles to push his legislative agenda

On the night he won reelection in November, a beaming Gov. Rick Scott bolted on stage to rowdy chants of “Four more years!” Dismissed by pollsters as a likely loser, Scott clawed his way to victory, using his personal fortune to pay for a pounding barrage of TV ads that doomed rival Charlie Crist. Near midnight, a giddiness filled the ballroom of the Hyatt in Bonita Springs as a relieved Scott declared an end to a long, brutal campaign.

“You know what they say about democracy,” Scott told supporters. “It’s messy, but it’s absolutely the best form of government there is.”

Messy doesn’t begin to describe the start of Scott’s second term. The gloss of victory quickly faded, replaced by the stench of the botched firing of a top state official, followed by recriminations from Scott’s fellow Republicans and a lawsuit raising allegations of open meeting law violations.

Scott still has a negative job approval rating with voters. He suffered an embarrassing defeat when rank-and-file Republicans fired his personal choice for state GOP chairman, but recently held a reconciliation luncheon with the new chairman, Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill.

As Scott soldiers on, he faces an emboldened Legislature that threatens to challenge him on an array of fronts from water to prisons to tax cuts. With a solid Republican majority of battle-tested senators and a new, veto-proof supermajority in the House, the GOP-controlled Legislature is the elephant in the room in Tallahassee.

The governor took two days off last week from planning for the session to trudge through frigid Philadelphia in a search for jobs, still his highest priority. Scott is, above all, a survivor.

“He stays on message. He survives malapropisms. He survives staff problems. He survives fiscal issues because the guy just has a laser focus,” said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. “This guy has proven that he’s a survivor of whatever people can throw at him.” Scott remains the most powerful one in the room. He has sole control of the line-item budget veto that gives him power to turn any legislator’s wish list to dust.

“It’s ludicrous to suggest the guy is a lame duck,” said Sen. Jeff Clemens, a Palm Beach County Democrat. “The governor still has plenty of juice.”

The mess that engulfed Scott was entirely self-inflicted. Eager to rearrange the deck chairs in Tallahassee, he and his chief of staff, Melissa Sellers, orchestrated the abrupt dismissal of Gerald Bailey, the highly regarded commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, with no explanation or vote. Their coup reinforced an image of Scott as the former hospital executive, a heavy-handed CEO shoving an employee out the door to make way for a favored successor.

It backfired badly.

Bailey did not work only for Scott; he had three other bosses, elected Cabinet members who belatedly questioned Bailey’s ouster and whose awkward attempts to extricate themselves from the fiasco made matters worse. The four officials are now tiptoeing into uncharted waters as they seek a consensus on new standards for evaluating, hiring and firing agency heads.

Under fire from Cabinet members, Scott also was the target of savage editorial cartoons in state newspapers, an ethics complaint and a lawsuit by media outlets, including the Tampa Bay Times, accusing all four officials of skirting the Sunshine Law by avoiding a vote on Bailey’s fate.

In a scripted show of contrition in Tampa three weeks ago, Scott acknowledged that he “could have handled it better,” but refused to say how. Unanswered questions about the Bailey fiasco linger as he prepares to open the 2015 session Tuesday with his annual State of the State address to the Legislature with a call for more money for schools and the environment and cutting taxes.

This should be a moment of triumph for Scott. He should have a commanding presence in the Capitol, joining Jeb Bush as the only Republican governors in Florida history to win back-to-back terms.

The state’s economy is still on the upswing and polls show voters are in a good mood, but Scott appears hobbled by what social media calls “Baileygate,” which has raised new questions about his ability to govern.

When a governor looks vulnerable, legislators are more likely to push him around. Scott also has a brief window of opportunity because others are already jockeying for political position in advance of the next race for governor in 2018.

One of those contenders, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, has already outmaneuvered Scott on the issue of how Florida regulates and protects its water. A bill Putnam favors would shift some water regulations to his agency at the expense of a state environmental agency under Scott’s control.

And in a capital where personal relationships are paramount, Scott’s most powerful aide, chief of staff Sellers, is still virtually unknown. At a reception at the Governor’s Club attended by Scott and a cadre of advisers, a Republican legislator could be overheard whispering: “Which one’s Melissa?”

Scott is finding that the times are very different from a year ago.

He could face resistance from a Republican Legislature that was eager to placate him last year because his reelection prospects seemed dim and the alternative was too scary to contemplate: Crist, a former Republican governor turned Democrat, in the Governor’s Mansion.

The rhetoric now coming from the Legislature sounds very different. Listen closely, and you can hear lawmakers demanding that Scott show more respect for their agendas.

“The House, the Senate and the governor need to respect the priorities of each of those institutions equally,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon. “This is a team sport.”

Even though the session has not yet begun, key lawmakers are sounding the death knell for the spending promises Scott made to Florida voters during his reelection campaign. Legislators are questioning Scott’s budget math. Even with a $1 billion budget surplus, they say, the state doesn’t have enough money to pay for his proposed increase in school spending, other new programs and a bevy of tax cuts along with separate spending ideas of all 160 lawmakers.

“I think it will be very difficult to make the arithmetic work, and I’ve shared that with the governor and his senior staff,” said Gaetz, who chairs a Senate budget panel that will decide education spending. “We’re not going to be able to get everything done that’s been promised.”

A huge trouble spot for Scott is the state prison system.

Shocked by revelations of brutality behind bars that led to deaths, some legislators want to shift oversight of Scott’s Department of Corrections from him to a new oversight board.

But don’t expect to hear much in Scott’s State of the State speech about the festering prison crisis that requires dozens of costly, time-consuming investigations of inmate deaths and beatings. He doesn’t like to focus on bad news.

Lawmakers also question Scott’s plans for reenacting a gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, awarding grants to pro sports franchises and capping graduate school tuition at all state universities.

“Nothing is lining up in a way that seems like it’s going to be helpful for the governor,” said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, the House Democratic leader. “It increases the chance that he could have a rough three-and-some-odd years.”

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or 850-224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

State of the State, checked

PolitiFact Florida will be fact-checking Gov. Rick Scott’s State of the State address as the legislative session opens Tuesday. PolitiFact Florida also will annotate the text of Scott’s speech with deeper context and fact-checks, posting the result at PolitiFact.com/florida. PolitiFact Florida has fact-checked Scott more than 125 times on the Truth-O-Meter and is also tracking 95 of his campaign promises.

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