Will Florida’s economic rebound get Scott re-elected?
Published: Sunday, August 18, 2013 at 5:23 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, August 18, 2013 at 5:23 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott’s chances to win re-election next year may well pivot on his ability to sell himself as the “jobs” governor to Florida voters.
A former business-executive-turned-politician, Scott clearly believes his strategy of taking credit for the state’s economic turnaround is working, bolstered by a new economic report on Friday that showed Florida’s unemployment rate of 7.1 percent remains below the national average. The report also found that 34,500 private-sector jobs were created in July.
Having promised in his 2010 campaign to create 700,000 jobs in seven years, he called the report “great news.” By his tally, the state has created 369,100 private-sector jobs since he took office, and he has spent considerable time over the last several months highlighting a series of small jobs gains.
“We are more than halfway to our goal of creating 700,000 jobs in seven years,” Scott said. “In the four years before I took office, Florida lost 832,000 jobs and unemployment tripled to 11.1 percent.”
The last statement was clearly a reference to his predecessor, Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-Democrat who is expected to challenge Scott’s re-election bid next year.
Independent analysts say Scott, whose popularity numbers remain low, may be able to craft a successful campaign strategy around those economic numbers.
But Democrats note that in his first campaign, Scott promised to create far more than 700,000 jobs. They counter that whatever jobs growth Florida has experienced is due to President Barack Obama’s policies, not Scott’s, and they argue that his policies have hindered, rather than helped the state’s recovery from the Great Recession.
The tension over who is to blame — or credit — for Florida’s economy is certain to continue for the next year.
A poll from Quinnipiac University in June showed that more than eight out of 10 voters who thought Florida’s economy was improving gave at least “a little credit” to Scott. Some six out of 10 gave it to Obama.
“That’s the key to his electoral future,” Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown said. “He isn’t going to get re-elected because he is Mr. Personality. He needs to essentially convince voters, ‘You may not like me, but I’m the guy who is making things better.’ ”
Foes take issue
During the past 2½ years, Scott has cited several dozen businesses that have expanded or have come to Florida.
They range from the introduction of the Wawa convenience store chain last year to the Navy Federal Credit Union’s $200 million expansion in Pensacola that is expected to yield 2,200 jobs.
In recent months, Scott has touted his support for the elimination of a sales tax for manufacturing equipment, which takes effect next year.
Despite his relentless advocacy — including nine foreign trade missions — Scott has not been able to claim a game-changing project such as a car manufacturing plant or the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which he tried to entice to leave Illinois.
In fact, Scott has irritated a number of governors in other states — with Massachusetts being the latest example — by trying to poach businesses from those states.
“He is tweeting to other states that business is open here, and I have yet to hear of a single job that was created through one of those letters or tweets or, frankly, sophomoric attempts to claim credit where none should be given,” said former state Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach.
Citing factors like the rising stock market, federal monetary policy, the housing market and population growth, Gelber said the governor’s office has little to do with the overall economic trends.
“It’s the dumbest argument ever,” Gelber said. “What rocked Florida was a national if not a global recession. After a recession, there is generally an expansion ... He’s trying to take credit for something that had nothing to do with him.”
Conversely, Gelber said Scott can be blamed for his rejection of federal funding for a high-speed rail system in 2011, and his failure this year to win legislative support for the expansion of Medicaid under the new federal health care law.
Advocates say both those initiatives would have added billions of dollars to Florida’s economy and thousands of high-paying jobs.
“The only thing that Rick Scott has done really in terms of jobs is turn down billions of dollars,” Gelber said.
Is data misleading?
Florida’s economic recovery, like the national recovery, has plenty of caveats, including the fact that the labor force has shrunk — in other words the lower unemployment rate has been aided by the fact that fewer people are looking for work.
A report from state economists last month showed that although Florida’s unemployment rate fell from 9.4 percent at the end of 2011 to 7.1 percent in May, 35 percent of that decline was attributable to the smaller workforce. If the same number of people were still looking for work, Florida’s unemployment rate would have been 7.9 percent.
The lower labor participation rate is a problem nationally as well as in Florida, said Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida.
The national rate has not been this low since 1979, and Florida’s is lower than the national rate.
“We can’t just hold up the declining unemployment as a sign that the labor market has returned to full health — that’s not accurate,” Snaith said.
Snaith said he expects more workers to look for jobs as the economy improves, which will actually make it harder to decrease the unemployment rate.
UCF’s Institute for Economic Competitiveness annual Florida forecast last month projected a 6.9 percent unemployment rate next year, dropping to 6.5 percent by 2015 and below 6 percent by 2017.
But leaving no doubt that the debate over Florida’s economy will be front and center in next year’s governor’s race, state Democratic and Republican Party leaders issued statements on Scott’s latest jobs claims.
Democratic Party Chairman Allison Tant called Scott’s assertions “a cheap re-election gimmick.” She said the state’s recovery “is part of a national economic turnaround under President Obama.”
She also reminded Scott that he had once promised to create the 700,000 new jobs on top of normal economic growth — with Tant calculating that Scott’s real goal should be 1.7 million new jobs.
“He’s barely 20 percent of the way there,” Tant said. “He has fallen so far short of his promises, his only choice is to take credit for jobs he didn’t create.”
GOP Chairman Lenny Curry said Tant’s comments show Scott’s opponents “have no positive agenda to share with voters.”
“We’re more than happy to talk about Rick Scott’s record of nearly 370,000 private-sector jobs created and an unemployment rate that has been under the national average for five straight months,” Curry said.
Curry said Scott has been responsible for “the second-largest drop in unemployment” in the nation, while Tant “is desperately laying out the red carpet for Charlie Crist,” who had the second-largest increase in unemployment in the nation while he was in office.
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