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Gov.-elect Rick Scott meets with Tampa Bay legislators

Gov.-elect Rick Scott listens Tuesday to a panel of bay area legislators in Tampa. Scott is meeting with legislators around the state.

STEPHEN J. CODDINGTON | Times

Gov.-elect Rick Scott listens Tuesday to a panel of bay area legislators in Tampa. Scott is meeting with legislators around the state.

TAMPA — A week before he will be sworn in as Florida's 45th governor, Rick Scott brought his boardroom brand of politics here Tuesday during a meeting with 16 lawmakers from the Tampa Bay area.

The hourlong meeting at the Hilton near Tampa International Airport resembled a company executive session, as Scott sat at the head of a circle of tables and went around the room soliciting ideas.

Scott, who mostly listened and took notes during the meeting, faced a potpourri of issues — Republicans complained about burdensome regulations, Democrats worried about the effect of a revived comprehensive teacher pay bill, and nearly every lawmaker pleaded for more jobs.

"There are a lot of people out of work," said Rep. Betty Reed, D-Tampa. She noted that the proposed high-speed rail line could be a major source of jobs.

Scott is under the gun to fulfill a campaign promise of creating 700,000 jobs over seven years. That's on top of the roughly 1 million new jobs state economists predict will come without new policies.

The governor-elect already has faced heat for a report by his transition team that recommends cutting off unemployment checks for people who don't work hard enough to find work. An economics professor at Princeton University has been critical of the report, saying it misinterpreted an unemployment study he did.

Scott initially said he had not seen the Princeton study and couldn't comment. Pressed by a reporter, he said, "I think people are looking for jobs. They're out there hustling every day."

Scott said he's glad the federal government has offered $2 billion for the rail plan, but he is waiting to see a February feasibility study about construction costs, operating costs and whether private businesses will back the Orlando-to-Tampa line.

The discussion was tempered by Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, who warned that Florida's budget hole could grow to $3.5 billion next year.

"If anyone thinks that's going to be a small task, they're wrong," he said. "All of the things we'd like to do to make Florida a better place to work are going to be overshadowed by that shortfall."

Neither lawmakers nor Scott gave detailed plans on what they would like to cut to balance the budget. Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Scott listed three areas where he will look for savings: Medicaid, the Department of Corrections and state purchasing guidelines. He will submit a detailed budget to lawmakers in February.

Rep. Rick Kriseman, a St. Petersburg Democrat, said he would like to see Republicans close the budget gap with a mix of cuts and new revenue by closing dozens of outdated tax loopholes that he said "don't make sense anymore." But he's not holding his breath.

"The dogma may be so strong that programs are going to be completely hacked rather than go that route," he said.

When Kriseman asked Scott whether he would back a renewable energy standard for the state's utilities, the governor-elect responded with a question of his own, asking how much Kriseman would be willing to have utility rates rise to pay for it.

Regarding energy policy, Scott said he is considering providing rate breaks for relocating companies, but it wouldn't be at the expense of residents.

Almost to a person, Republican lawmakers said overbearing regulations are stifling businesses: "We have so much redundancy in this state," said Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, noting that contractors must meet rules set by seven transportation districts in Florida. "There's a lot of savings to be done if we start looking at that."

Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, told a story of a canning plant that was forced to throw away thousands of labels because they lacked a certain piece of information. She said state regulators should have required that information only on new labels. "That kind of regulation is just smothering small business," she said.

Along with financial and regulatory issues, education dominated much of the discussion. In the spring, majority Republicans likely will approve a bill to end long-term teacher contracts, informally known as tenure, and base a portion of teachers' pay on student test scores and other learning gains.

Democrats pleaded with Scott to include the views of teachers — who complained of being virtually ignored on a similar bill passed this year. That bill, known as Senate Bill 6, was vetoed by outgoing Gov. Charlie Crist.

Scott, who said during the campaign he would have signed SB 6, challenged teachers to give their views.

"The teaching profession, they ought to come up with how they want to be measured," he said. "I tell them all the time, you ought to come up with a bill. Because if not, there will be a bill."

Other issues brought up during the meeting include:

• The effect of freezing weather on strawberry and citrus farmers in eastern Hillsborough. "Those farmers are getting creamed," Scott said.

• A plea not to eliminate the Office of Drug Control from Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-Petersburg, a former crack addict. "Please understand that treatment works," he said.

Lee Logan can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or llogan@sptimes.com.

Gov.-elect Rick Scott meets with Tampa Bay legislators 12/28/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 29, 2010 6:34am]

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