TALLAHASSEE — Rick Scott begins his second year as governor surrounded by savvier advisers, stalked by persistently dismal poll numbers and converted to spending a lot more money on schools.
What hasn't changed is Scott's determination to fulfill the mandate that put him in charge of the nation's fourth-largest state.
"In the end, it's all jobs," Scott said in a Times/Herald interview. "Jobs is what's going to change everything."
Narrowly elected in 2010 as an outsider with $75 million of his own money and no political experience, Scott has learned in painfully public ways that governing the state of Florida is complicated.
He backtracked on his biggest campaign promise: to create more jobs than what state economists had predicted. The band of outsiders that followed him into power is mostly gone. And a state law enforcement agency is trying to find out why Scott's transition emails disappeared when, by law, they should have been kept.
Florida's unemployment rate has fallen by 2 percentage points, but it's still in double digits. At Scott's direction, lawmakers refused to raise taxes or fees to cover a budget shortfall — in contrast to 2009, when Republicans hiked taxes and fees by more than $2 billion.
Scott reorganized Florida's cannibalized job-creation programs, reduced state debt for the first time in two decades, began a gradual phase-out of the corporate income tax and forced public employees to contribute to their pensions, a change now the focus of a lawsuit by employee unions.
"Pretty much everything I ran on, we got done," Scott said.
Scott also recruited one of the country's foremost economic development coordinators, Gray Swoope of Mississippi, to head Florida's job creation efforts.
"All in all, a good start," said former Gov. Jeb Bush.
• • •
A sign of Scott's retooling is his modest agenda for the 2012 legislative session that starts Tuesday.
Florida's fraud-riddled no-fault auto insurance program is badly in need of reform, but neither Scott nor the Legislature has figured out how to fix it.
He has antagonized the powerful hospital lobby by proposing much lower payments to hospitals that treat the more than 2 million clients of Medicaid in Florida.
And he wants lawmakers to find $1 billion more for K-12 education, which consistently ranks atop most Floridians' priority lists. Scott's first budget slashed school spending by $1.3 billion.
Scott's narrower agenda is a nod to the reality that legislators will be preoccupied with the job of redrawing all legislative and congressional district lines for the 2012 election.
"I know this session they're going to be taking up a lot on redistricting," Scott said. "So the things I'm doing are consistent with what I ran on: streamlining government, reducing regulation that doesn't make sense, reducing taxes that help grow more business."
Last year, Scott inspired protests from children in wheelchairs, teachers, firefighters and police officers when he cut health care spending, pushed to reduce public workers' retirement benefits and backed a law that made it easier to fire teachers.
Now Scott is insisting Florida's higher education system do a better job preparing students for the workforce, though he has offered no specifics on how schools should accomplish that goal. He also decided not to urge lawmakers to push for more pension changes as his advisers warned how difficult that would be in a year dominated by another budget shortfall of up to $2 billion.
• • •
Polls show only about one in three Floridians approves of Scott's performance.
Democratic pollster Dave Beattie said voters are angry at Scott for cutting money for schools.
"Rick Scott came in saying, 'I'm not going to be politics-as-usual' and tried that for a pretty short period of time," Beattie said. "Then he realized he couldn't work with his own party in the Legislature and get anything done."
At the urging of top aide Steve MacNamara, who arrived as Scott's chief of staff in June, Scott ditched his dark suits for casual, open-necked shirts, visited newspaper editorial boards, was more accessible and held "workdays" as a teacher or waiter in the mold of former Democratic Gov. Bob Graham.
"He had his bumps in the first year, but so does every governor, and he learned from them," MacNamara said of his boss. "He's a quick study and a good listener."
Scott, a onetime mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer, still seems more at ease talking benchmarks and numbers rather than to people as individuals. An earnest but unemotional leader, he comes across on TV and in speeches as mechanical and uninspiring — more like an accountant than a CEO.
Scott's willingness to work from within the establishment earns him praise from Republican leaders. But a pared-back agenda, due in part to legislative wariness of taking on anything controversial in an election year, raises concerns that he's clinking glasses with the Tallahassee insiders Scott mockingly said were "crying in their cocktails" after he won the office.
"That's always a risk, but we hope he will remain an individualist and speak to the principles he touted when he was elected," said Pam Wohlschlegel, state coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, an umbrella organization for about 250 tea party groups.
After the tea party movement helped push Scott into office, he disappointed many activists by refusing to halt the Central Florida commuter line known as SunRail, allowing $370 million in federal stimulus money to stay in the state budget, ignoring his own executive order to toughen punishment for public corruption and abandoning the type of Arizona-style anti-immigration law he promised as a candidate.
Yet he remains a favorite among many conservatives.
"We are generally pretty happy with him," Wohlschlegel said. "He's taken some strong stances, some hard stances, to be fiscally conservative."
• • •
The changes Scott made to his staff, wardrobe and agenda invite obvious questions about a re-election bid in 2014, a race he has already committed to run.
A potential challenger is former Gov. Charlie Crist, the Republican-turned-independent who many have speculated could seek to run against Scott as the Democratic nominee.
"I would relish the opportunity to run against Charlie Crist," Scott pollster Tony Fabrizio said. "But is the guy who presided over Florida's economy going into the tank really going to run a campaign when Florida's economy is springing back? How do you work that? Promise to do better this time?"
Scott supporters note the governor has plenty of time to reverse his poor numbers.
Heading into the 2012 presidential race, Scott and President Barack Obama both have approval ratings in the mid 30s among independent voters, according to surveys conducted for Quinnipiac University.
Scott has 34 months to turn those numbers around. Obama has 10.
Pollsters agree that economic conditions, particularly consumer confidence, are among the best indicators of a governor's re-election chances. Scott has made job creation almost the singular mission of his executive office.
Asked what should be done to reduce homelessness among children in Florida, which was featured in a recent 60 Minutes report, Scott replied: "The biggest thing we can do is help people get jobs."
Scott closed the state drug control office and gave away oversight of an energy office. Instead, he has made many personal pleas to bring new companies to the state, calling executives in colder climates he thinks might want to relocate.
Florida ended 2011 with about 900,000 unemployed workers. That's about 120,000 fewer than at the start of the year and the state has spent millions in tax incentives to entice companies to open or expand their Florida operations, such as Time Warner and Coca-Cola.
"His policy decisions are popular, but it's a lot of change," said Mary Anne Carter, Scott's former policy director. "And no matter what, change makes people nervous and a little scared. But the results are already starting to show and will continue to show over the next year or two."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousqu[email protected] or (850) 224-7263.