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Rick Scott puts forth economic plan, and rival McCollum calls him a copycat

MIAMI — With one month left in the costly and caustic Republican gubernatorial primary, the leading candidates both tramped across voter-rich Miami on Wednesday, with Rick Scott rolling out his long-awaited economic plan and Bill McCollum dismissing it as ''partially plagiarized."

Scott's plan was as smoothly packaged as the colorfully wrapped, chartered bus he boarded Wednesday for a statewide tour that will end in Pensacola on Monday. His ''7-7-7" plan calls for seven steps to 700,000 jobs in seven years — a mantra meant to appeal to weary voters looking for a simple path out of double-digit unemployment.

The plan aims to shave corporate and property taxes, cut the state payroll and streamline government agencies.

"There's plenty of money we can cut in spending so we can reduce taxes," Scott said of the state budget, which has been stripped of about $7 billion in the last two years. ''We'll find the money in existing programs, plus we're going to grow the economy. … We're going to live within our means."

Campaigning just across town was McCollum, who dismissed some of Scott's ideas as half-baked and the rest as a ripoff of his own plan.

"If you copy somebody, it's the sincerest form of flattery," said McCollum at a Hialeah senior center. "Most everything he's got in there is something I've announced or been involved with previously. It's good he's following my lead."

Scott has previously accused McCollum of mimicking his calls to crack down on illegal immigration, even running an ad that joked McCollum would shave his head to look like Scott.

The dueling Republican campaigns moved strangely parallel through Miami-Dade, home to more Republican voters than any other county in Florida.

Most of the Republican establishment is backing McCollum in the Aug. 24 primary.

"The difference between my opponent and me is that I've done this before," said Scott, a multimillionaire health care executive. "I've started companies from scratch."

The backbiting between Scott and McCollum has helped Democratic front-runner Alex Sink pull ahead in the contest to replace Gov. Charlie Crist, according to a survey released Wednesday by the Democratic firm of Public Policy Polling. The survey found Sink 6 points ahead of Scott and 14 points ahead of McCollum.

Scott's campaign said it didn't believe the poll but noted that it said he has a more favorable image with voters than McCollum.

"I'm not quite sure who to vote for at this point because the ads are so negative," said 71-year-old Art Martinez at the Sweetwater senior center. "It's difficult for people to find out who is the best. But it's good that Scott is here to see how the people are doing."

Among the goals in Scott's plan:

• Slowly eliminate the state's 5.5 percent corporate income tax and cut property taxes by $1.4 billion. Scott said public schools would not lose a single dollar because of savings found in other parts of the budget.

• Lay off 5 percent of state employees, cut health benefits and require them to make bigger contributions to pension funds.

• Reduce salaries in Florida's prisons and turn more of them over to private companies.

• Screen welfare recipients for drugs. "We have to make sure we have money for people who are vulnerable and not waste money on people who can take care of themselves," he said.

• Reduce Medicaid costs by giving recipients limited vouchers to buy private insurance.

• Roll back state and local spending to 2004 levels, an idea that McCollum's policy director, Karen Cyphers, called unrealistic and heavy-handed.

"Even if it was realistic, it would cripple law enforcement, teachers," she said in a phone call with reporters.

McCollum, who served two decades in Congress before being elected attorney general in 2006, also slammed Scott for his lack of experience.

Scott's campaign and a related committee have spent $25 million on television ads introducing the candidate and trashing McCollum, while the McCollum camp has countered with about $8 million in positive and negative ads.

"He can say what he wants to say, but all you know about him is what he says in his TV ads," McCollum said. "I have a record. There's no record for him other than the Columbia/HCA mess."

Scott's former company, Columbia/HCA, paid a record-setting $1.7 billion fine for Medicare fraud. Scott has said that he takes responsibility for the scandal because he was the head of the company, but has declined to answer detailed questions about what he did and did not know was happening on his watch.

On Wednesday, Scott also visited a cigar factory, Cuban Crafters, where he was given a handful of cigars with personalized campaign wraps and watched workers roll tobacco leaves by hand.

The operations director at the cigar factory is former state Sen. Al Gutman, who served jail time for Medicare fraud.

"Oh, did he? You lose track," remarked Scott as he returned to the bus.

Scott's six-day bus tour is slated to wind its way up the peninsula, passing through more than a dozen counties.

St. Petersburg Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.

Rick Scott puts forth economic plan, and rival McCollum calls him a copycat 07/21/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 11:43pm]
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