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Gov. Rick Scott's priorities in danger as session hits crucial stage

TALLAHASSEE — As Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Will Weatherford sat shoulder-to-shoulder at a recent legislative prayer breakfast, the governor may have had a special reason to look to the heavens.

With two weeks left in the 2013 session, Scott's legislative priorities are in serious disarray. He hasn't asked for much, and lawmakers aren't placating him.

His top priority of a $2,500 teacher pay raise appears in budget proposals not as the across-the-board, no-strings increase he advocated; instead, legislators want a portion of it tied to performance. On Sunday, both houses came to agreement on how to handle the merit raises, unifying them as at odds with the governor.

"There's going to be merit pay as a part of funding for teachers," Weatherford said. "The governor asked us to spend $1 billion on education. Our budget does that. The Senate's budget does that. I think he'll be happy and pleased at the end of the day."

The workings of a merit-pay plan remain contentious among educators and could undercut a Scott victory lap around the state after the session. After meeting with superintendents who spoke against the merit pay idea, Scott was insistent.

"The right thing is to do it the way we proposed it," Scott said. "I think the right thing is to give them an across-the-board pay raise."

Scott's other goal, a modest sales tax exemption for manufacturing equipment, is sluggishly moving forward after weeks of legislative indifference.

Then there's Medicaid.

Two months after Scott brazenly championed an expansion of Medicaid that he had fought for years, Weatherford remains intractable. He opposes accepting billions in federal money to expand the health care program and Scott has done nothing to try to change the minds of the speaker or his top lieutenants.

"As Republicans, our caucus believes that taking that federal money is not good policy for the state of Florida," Weatherford said.

Scott is in a delicate political spot on Medicaid. He took a bold stand that has damaged him with the conservative wing of his party, but losing on the issue would frustrate moderates who want Scott to show stronger leadership on the biggest issue before the Legislature.

"If this were Jeb Bush, he'd be on the phone constantly," said Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, a supporter of Medicaid expansion, recalling the former governor's take-no-prisoners style in dealing with lawmakers. "The problem is, they're not afraid of this governor."

Lawmakers personally like Scott, but his poor job approval ratings, coupled with his stiff personal approach, diminish the power of his bully pulpit and limit his ability to deal with back-slapping lawmakers.

That's not Scott's style; in fact, he rarely raises his voice.

Enough time remains for Scott to prevail on his priorities. His top advisers note that the House and Senate have not yet passed each others' priorities, dealing with ethics, elections, campaign finance and public employees' pensions.

The Legislature typically delays tough decisions until the final days, and tension between legislative and executive branches is seen as necessary, with each acting as a check against the other.

"We're good, man," said Weatherford, dismissing notions of policy rifts between the House and governor.

Scott has other fights, though.

He fiercely opposes raising college tuition and the Senate agrees, but the House insists on an increase between 3 and 6 percent. The House would have to capitulate to Scott or risk him vetoing part of the budget.

The Senate may not confirm one of Scott's top appointees, Dr. John Armstrong, the state surgeon general and a former official at the University of South Florida's medical school.

On economic incentives, Scott, the "jobs governor," wanted $278 million to attract and keep businesses, but the Legislature appears unwilling to approve anywhere near that amount.

On Sunday, as budget negotiations continued, the Senate offered $75 million, which includes $26 million unspent in this year's budget, and the House was proposing $62 million.

Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, who oversees economic incentives in the House, said Scott's team hasn't spent all the money it has in the current year's budget so it makes no sense to ask for more.

"We don't want to kill incentives. We think they're important," Hooper said. "But we can't just park $200-plus million off to the side for the governor to use as he sees fit."

On Medicaid, Scott supports accepting the federal money and predicts that the Legislature will "do the right thing."

Fasano remains puzzled by Scott's relative silence on the need to expand the Medicaid program to cover an additional 1 million Floridians.

A two-decade veteran of the Capitol who has served with four governors, Fasano said Scott should seize the moment and order lawmakers into special sessions until they agree to take the federal Medicaid money, estimated at $51 billion over three years.

"I don't get it. What does he have to lose?" Fasano said. "His political life is on the line."

Staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Gov. Rick Scott's priorities in danger as session hits crucial stage 04/21/13 [Last modified: Monday, April 22, 2013 7:35am]
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