Gov. Rick Scott’s greatest source of enduring frustration, the Florida Legislature, is once again threatening to derail his political agenda as the 2016 session enters the home stretch.
Scott’s insistence on $1 billion in tax cuts appears dead in the Senate, a result of conflicting priorities and a slight dip in the state’s revenue picture. His call for a $250 million pot of incentive money to compete for jobs with other states is colliding with a conservative House wary of so much corporate generosity.
Scott’s must-do list is short, as usual, and lawmakers know that by waiting him out they stand to gain leverage in the session’s remaining days. While the rancor of last year is gone, differences linger as Scott and his fellow Republicans dart off in different directions:
▪ On gambling, Scott’s call for an extension of a compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida faces strong resistance in the Senate, which is protective of parimutuel interests and their legions of lobbyists.
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▪ On education, Scott’s call for a boost in per-pupil spending has hit a wall of opposition from Republican senators who refuse to pay for it with what they call an election-year, property-tax increase.
▪ On politics, some Republicans want to strip the governor of his power to appoint two top officials who oversee education and elections. While not likely to pass, it’s a sign of dissatisfaction with both agencies, a symbolic thumb in Scott’s eye.
Senators are giving one of Scott’s most important appointees, Surgeon General John Armstrong, unusual scrutiny as he seeks a confirmation vote to keep his job.
Lawmakers want to give across-the-board pay raises to multiple groups of state employees who have had a raise once in a decade. That is squarely at odds with Scott, who favors bonuses tied to the performance of workers and agencies.
Seeking to build momentum for his priorities, Scott took the unusual step of personally lobbying for his tax-cut proposals in the House and Senate after accepting invitations from both.
Marketing the message
But he still prefers to communicate with voters rather than the lawmakers who control his agenda a few floors above him in the Capitol.
The most message-driven governor in Florida history bought TV ads to pitch his agenda, and he climbed aboard his big blue campaign bus for a statewide jobs tour. He played the tailgating game of corn hole in the Capitol, where he revealingly asked others to lobby lawmakers for him.
“Get to your legislators. Let them know,” Scott told the crowd as he held red corn bags in his hands. “I want money allocated for jobs.”
I’m not patient. We can’t be patient.
Gov. Rick Scott
A perception that lingers in the Senate is that Scott sees himself as largely above the fray, a CEO-governor who views legislators as minority shareholders assigned to carry the torch for him.
Scott acknowledges that he’s impatient with the Legislature’s slow, incremental ways and its tendency to delay decisions.
“I’m never going to be the one that slows the process down,” Scott told a meeting of Enterprise Florida’s board of directors. “I’m not patient. We can’t be patient.”
Waiting for $1 billion
Scott’s single biggest hurdle is his call for $1 billion in tax cuts to fulfill the biggest campaign promise he made when he ran for re-election in 2014.
First, state economists revised the state’s revenue picture downward by nearly $400 million.
Then Scott’s fellow Republicans quickly dismantled the cornerstone of his plan, to eliminate corporate income taxes on retailers and manufacturers. That’s because it would take $770 million out of the state treasury in the first year alone, which senators say is fiscally irresponsible because of its potential long-term impact.
After senators tore up Scott’s tax-cut blueprint, they rewrote it. They want to pump $326 million of state tax money into public schools to lessen the amount tied to higher property-tax bills paid by homeowners and business owners.
“That’s the most broad-based tax cut I can think of,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon.
I can’t just wave a wand and commit to anything without working with my colleagues.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon
On that issue and many more, Lee said, he and his House budget counterpart, Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, are holding detailed private discussions to seek consensus, sometimes over wine and cigars at Tallahassee restaurants.
Lee, who met with Scott last Wednesday, said the governor needs to be mindful that senators have their own spending priorities.
“We have 40 independent actors, 40 free agents,” Lee said. “I can’t just wave a wand and commit to anything without working with my colleagues.”
Lee said budget negotiations have not begun in public because the Senate lacks a consensus on the amount of tax cuts.
Scott has few emissaries promoting his priorities. Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a former Miami legislator and a Republican U.S. Senate candidate, has maintained a very low profile this session.
After arriving nearly an hour late Thursday to a meeting of Broward County leaders, Lopez-Cantera gave a four-minute talk. He never mentioned Scott by name but emphasized his record of job growth and declining unemployment and the need to cut taxes to expand the economy.
The 60-day session is scheduled to end March 11. With three weeks left, Scott still has time to get enough of what he wants to declare victory in the last year before he risks being labeled a lame duck.
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, described Scott’s priorities as “end-loaded” or linked to a final budget deal that traditionally isn’t resolved until the final days.
“This is going to be like an NBA game,” Gaetz predicted. “You need to watch the last four minutes, or in this case the last four days.”
Scott said just the opposite on the day he rallied Enterprise Florida members to lobby legislators.
“You can’t wait until the last week to make sure something happens,” Scott said.
Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reporter Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.