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Snappy slogans aside, can Rick Scott rejuvenate Florida's job-wary economy?

‘Let's get to work."

The slogan worked like magic for candidate Rick Scott. Now his best post-election line is "Florida is open for business." Come January, let's see how newbie Florida Gov. Scott can make those words a reality and help some of the state's more than 1 million jobless residents — the 11.9 percent unemployed.

Nearly a week after voter discontent pushed many Republican candidates into and many Democrats out of public office, Florida business leaders and economic development officials say they expect Scott, an all-Republican state Cabinet and a Republican-heavy state Legislature to waste no time in trimming taxes, shrinking state government and cutting perceived regulatory inefficiencies — all in the name of increasing job opportunities.

If only it was all that easy.

With the election decided, questions about Scott's iffy ethics as CEO of Columbia/HCA are no longer front-of-mind concerns for Florida's business community. Instead, there's growing anticipation that, just maybe, Scott is not simply another all-talk politician but rather someone who can actually deliver on his campaign promises — including 700,000 jobs in seven years.

That's the early hope. After all, Republicans have controlled state government for years, and they weren't able to keep the state out of a severe recession.

What is emerging in interviews since Tuesday's election is a clear business frustration and backlash against the Obama administration, both for its surprising ineffectiveness in the economic recovery and its badmouthing of businesses.

"His constant vilification of business was wrong," says Steve Raymund, chairman of the board and former CEO of Clearwater's Tech Data Corp., Tampa Bay's largest public corporation, and a director of two other Fortune 500 companies.

"Unfortunately," Raymund says, "Obama and the Democrats running Congress have been more concerned with reslicing the pie, rather than growing it, and now the public sees the sorry results of this misguided effort."

Also disappointed by the failure of federal efforts to revive jobs is Stewart Gibbons, the southeast regional president of CoastOak Group, which now oversees the huge Connerton planned community in Pasco County.

"That will impact the time it takes for our region to recover from our deep recession and high unemployment, which obviously affects all of us in one way or another," Gibbons says.

The good news for Scott and the now all-Republican leadership in Tallahassee government is the worst of Florida's recession is behind us. That means there is political opportunity to bask in any upswing that may be ahead.

The bad news is that so many economic experts still warn that any improvements in Florida's jobless rate, housing values, foreclosure crisis and consumer confidence will likely be painfully drawn out. That makes Scott and the other current crop of newly elected officials vulnerable if Floridians still find the state's recovery lacking four years from now.

"I think Rick Scott will be viewed favorably," says Mark Vitner, a Wells Fargo economist and longtime observer of Florida's economy. "He is a business person and understands the motivation of businesses trying to expand their operations."

But Florida's got big challenges, Vitner warns. "I travel the country and, frankly, see less improvement in Florida than in California and other affected areas."

Even in an ideal conservative world of leaner government and lower taxes, it would take time for the effects of such changes to reach the business world and then influence decisions to hire people.

Any shrinkage in state government may carry a cost elsewhere.

"I suspect the real fights will be at the local level as communities confront increased ills in an antitax era," suggests Tony Carvajal of Florida's nonpartisan Collins Center for Public Policy. "Businesses will be forced to protect their tenuous bottom lines while struggling to maintain the relatively high quality of life in their community."

Let's first let Scott get to work. Then we'll see if other Floridians join him.

• • •

Surprising and troubling to Tampa Bay's mainstream business community in Tuesday's voting was the thumping defeat delivered to Hillsborough County's penny sales tax increase that would have helped pay for a new mass transit project of light rail, expanded bus service and improved roads.

The defeat left major economic development groups, business leaders, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and other pro-transit officials licking their wounds after a long and well-financed campaign to back the penny tax.

A group of pro-transit leaders gathered for a what-happened-and-what-do-we-do-now confab Thursday at the offices of the Tampa Bay Partnership. The regional economic development organization, which helped create the Hillsborough Moving Forward pro-penny sales tax campaign, emerged as the business community's primary leader pushing for a new mass transit system.

The group's resolve to seek a regional, multicounty mass transit system is no less than before the election results, says Stuart Rogel, Tampa Bay Partnership CEO. But that does not mean it will decide to repeat the same strategy and effort that failed this time around.

"We want to learn from this and understand what works and what did not, and what we need to do differently," Rogel says. Other metro areas have suffered similar learning curves.

Ripples from the rejection of Hillsborough's penny tax vote are already being felt.

Pinellas County planned to follow Hillsborough's initiative with its own for mass transit but is now unsure what to do.

The federally backed project to link Tampa and Orlando with a high-speed rail system is still moving forward, but even it may face a fresh backlash from Scott and congressional Republicans.

Lacking the go-ahead to start a regional mass transit service in Tampa Bay, high-speed rail passengers will be dumped out at the end of the line in Tampa with today's thin transportation choices: a bus ride, a taxi or, perhaps, a car rental.

Rogel's refrain — that many metro areas had to try multiple times before winning sufficient public support for mass transit funding — is correct. We'll be hearing it often now as the pro-transit forces regroup and consider when conditions are more favorable to try again.

CoastOak's Gibbons says it well for most businesses.

"Metropolitan areas with well-conceived transportation systems, which often includes rail in regions of Tampa Bay's size, are likely to do better in providing attractive lifestyles for their citizens and in attracting new businesses."

That sounds canned but it's a lesson larger metro areas had to learn the hard way. Tampa Bay will have to take its knocks, too, until more voters see the light.

And if that doesn't happen? Well, Tampa Bay: Sprawl Capital of America has a catchy tone to it, right?

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Snappy slogans aside, can Rick Scott rejuvenate Florida's job-wary economy? 11/06/10 [Last modified: Sunday, November 7, 2010 12:34pm]
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