Scott alters his strategy, saying it's in reaction to what Floridians tell him
Published: Saturday, January 7, 2012 at 5:31 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 7, 2012 at 10:47 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE — For Republican Gov. Rick Scott, the 60-day legislative session that begins Tuesday could go far in determining the Republican Party's prospects this year, as well as shape the remainder of his term.
Critics say Scott overreached in his first year, misreading Floridians' appetite — and the courts' tolerance — for the sweeping conservative changes he pursued.
The governor insists he is delivering what he promised and he will not retreat, even on issues such as elimination of the state corporate income tax, which now provides about $1.8 billion a year for the budget.
Scott, a political novice who made his fortune as a corporate executive, stumbled frequently during his first year in office as he sought to translate his business experience to public office.
In response, he has changed some of his tactics and policies, and he has sought to soften his image. He shook up his staff and cultivated relationships with the press.
He adopted some techniques deployed by more popular predecessors, most notably mimicking Gov. Bob Graham's "workdays." He often ditched his business suit and tie for a more casual open-collar look, hoping to connect with the public and lawmakers.
But 12 months into his four-year term, Scott remains among the most unpopular governors in the country, a potential drag on Republicans' hopes for winning the state in the November presidential election.
Pressed to evaluate his first year, the former head of the private hospital chain Columbia/HCA concedes no errors and attributes any course changes to listening to taxpayers, state employees and business leaders, much as a business executive listens to his employees, customers and shareholders.
Scott repeats a frequent argument that he will ultimately be judged on the state of the economy.
"You try to solve everybody's needs as well as you can," he said. "I've never figured out how to make everybody happy in life."
Said Scott: "I think we've made a lot of progress."
Scott said his day-to-day contact with Floridians has helped him shape his second-year agenda, including calling for a $1 billion increase in school spending instead of the $1.75 billion cut he proposed last year.
To pay for the increase, he would cut in other areas, including health care for the poor, transportation and prisons.
"I've talked to people around the state and here's what they say: They don't want their taxes to go up. They think government takes enough money as it is," Scott said. "They want their taxes allocated to education and jobs. And that's what I've done with this budget."
As the economy improves, he wants to continue cutting the corporate income tax, arguing that revenues will grow enough to sustain the tax's eventual elimination.
"I'm very optimistic that we can do that," Scott said. "I know that ultimately that is one of the things that is going to create more jobs."
In his first year, Scott invited considerable backlash by pushing for deep spending cuts, taking on hundreds of thousands of public workers and teachers by requiring them to contribute to their pensions, dismantling the state's top land-use-planning agency and rejecting a $2.4 billion high-speed train for the state.
Scott also opposed a database to crack down on prescription drug abuse, though he reversed course and later supported it. And he angered some supporters by refusing to block a Central Florida commuter rail line.
Several of his signature measures, including drug testing for welfare recipients, have been challenged in court and in some cases overturned by judges — moves that have rankled a business executive accustomed to seeing directives immediately implemented.
"In big business, you have the same concerns — that you can't ever move fast enough," he said.
Getting to work
Scott believes the only measure that counts is jobs. He won election by focusing almost exclusively on a pledge to create 700,000 more of them in Florida.
After 12 months in office, he can point to more than 120,000 new jobs and an unemployment rate that has dipped nearly 2 percent since he became governor.
But he now says he's pushing for 700,000 more jobs no matter what the economy does.
And despite the gains over the past year, more than 900,000 Floridians remain jobless.
To identify with the working public, he has spent days in various jobs, including stints as a donut shop worker in Tampa and as a cafeteria employee at an Orlando elementary school.
His image makeover also included replacing several top aides who had little experience in state government with advisers who have deeper roots in Tallahassee. Lawmakers and lobbyists have praised his selection of Steve MacNamara, a veteran Capitol insider, as his chief of staff.
House Democratic leader Ron Saunders said the governor has evolved.
"I'm more in agreement with Rick Scott 2.0 than I was with Rick Scott 1.0," Saunders said.
But Saunders said Scott is still saddled with the negative impression voters got from the race for governor, which he narrowly won.
Republican legislative leaders, who share Scott's philosophy of a smaller government and lower taxes, say the political rookie has learned quickly.
Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, who accompanied Scott on a trade mission to Israel last month, said he has "an outstanding working relationship" with the governor, cemented in part by Scott's selection of MacNamara, the former chief of staff to the Senate president.
Haridopolos said he and the governor's office are in constant contact on their agendas.