Gov.-elect Rick Scott's wasting no time meeting a broad sampling of Florida businesses. It speaks volumes about his pledge to promote business growth in a state whacked by an economic 2 by 4 these past three years.
The preliminary verdict — Scott does not even take office until Jan. 4 — is a thumb's up. He's laser-focused on what was billed last week as a listening tour of the state to find ways to honor his 7-7-7 pledge of seven steps to create 700,000 Florida jobs in seven years.
On his five-day, 10-city "Let's Get to Work" tour this past week, Scott began his odyssey in the military-rich Panhandle, touched base with the aeronautical industry in Jacksonville and swept across agricultural and rural counties in Central Florida. He checked in on the Space Coast, heard Miami's pleas for funds to dredge its ample port, toured orange juice operations in Bradenton and talked tourism opportunities aboard a cruise ship in Fort Lauderdale.
On Day 5, Friday, he toured the University of South Florida's Research Park and business incubator in Tampa and wrapped up the tour at an Orlando area complex of health care businesses dubbed "Medical City."
Maybe that work ethic we heard about during the governor's race is true. That's a lot of travel, a lot of meetings, a lot of new faces (many asking for money) and a lot to absorb in just a week. Now let's see what materializes from this tour, and no doubt others to come, to help Florida's 11.9 percent jobless rate — which represents almost 1.1 million unemployed out of the state's labor force of 9.23 million.
As a first-time politician, Scott must feel some early frustration. No longer can he simply say "hire them" or "fire them" as he could when he was a company CEO. To his credit, he's already surrounded himself with a lot of advisory talent to learn which levers a business-friendly governor can pull to lower taxes and trim red tape.
Scott likes to refer to the "return on investment" of state programs and wants to boost those that have shown good results. That includes Visit Florida, the agency charged with attracting tourists back to a state still nursing wounds from the BP gulf oil spill. But Scott wants to scale back or halt other programs whose "ROI" is lacking, though he has not publicly identified those targets.
At the same time, the "Let's Get To Work" tour is pure eye candy. It's great PR before taking office for Scott to visit Florida companies and remind business owners and employees that he's one of them, and that he's heading to Tallahassee to streamline an inefficient bureaucracy.
Scott's honeymoon period won't last long. The conservative state Legislature has its own agenda and ambitious leadership. Even those cuts to the state payroll and employee pensions that Scott envisions as ways to reduce costs are under attack.
One pre-emptive strike occurred last week. The state Department of Management Services issued its Annual Workforce Report that concluded Scott will inherit a state government work force that, per capita, already claims to be the nation's smallest and least expensive.
The hopeful message? Welcome aboard, Gov. Scott, but there's less fat here than you might think.
To the vast majority of Florida business owners and workers, Scott is still an unknown. Many businesses — even the Florida Chamber of Commerce — backed other candidates early in the governor's race. Ethical questions plagued Scott's past role as CEO of the Columbia/HCA hospital chain.
But the voters have spoken and many companies (the Florida Chamber and Associated Industries of Florida even ponied up funds to cover much of the week's tour) are on board — at least enough to see if a very pro-business governor can jump-start Florida's still tentative economy.
Judging from Scott's whirlwind tour, there are signs of hope and hints of renewed confidence. Indications of Scott's economic priorities are emerging as he talked about his vision for Florida:
On boosting employment coming first: "You cannot fix public safety, you cannot fix education, you can't do the right thing in health care unless people have jobs."
On becoming Florida's best salesman: "I'm going to travel this country, I'm going to travel the world, I'm going to try to make sure people know this place is open for business."
On the business concern he hears most often: The lack of timely responses by too many regulatory agencies. "I think people are okay with things that they feel are logical. It's when they are not logical or when they take too long because you put your money up and it takes too long to build something, that's frustrating."
On Florida's comparative advantages: Scott praises the lack of a state income tax, Florida's right-to-work status and warm climate. "If we do better than everybody else, people are going to move here."
Of course, Florida had those same advantages and they did not stop the harrowing decline in the state economy, the dramatic drop in housing values or the severe job cutbacks.
Certainly one strategy emerging in Scott's arsenal appears to be incentives. Most states wave incentive packages at businesses to persuade them to relocate, to expand or to stay where they are when other states come calling.
The challenge during hard economic times? Incentives typically require tax dollars or, at least, the promise to businesses of lower taxes in the future.
In other words, they are state subsidies. And that's where Scott's position gets murky.
When Scott toured Miami's port last week, he made a point of saying he opposes state or federal earmarks that allocate money to projects, including some with job-creating potential.
"I don't support any earmarks," Scott told the Miami Herald. "You can call it whatever you want."
So we'll have to wait to find out if Scott sees incentives as a tool of good governing if earmarks aren't.
The early news for Florida's economy is Scott has already gotten to work. He's out there in major urban areas and rural towns looking to remove impediments to growing businesses that, eventually, will add more jobs.
A tough reality remains. Tallahassee is a rough mistress, and Florida's economy is deeply stressed. Remember: "Let's get to work" is just a punchy four-word phrase until something real happens.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]