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Hefty budget poses stark spending choices for Gov. Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott addresses a crowd at the Capitol in Tallahassee on Friday. Scott will soon receive a $74.5 billion budget.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Gov. Rick Scott addresses a crowd at the Capitol in Tallahassee on Friday. Scott will soon receive a $74.5 billion budget.

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Legislature's hard work is over and Gov. Rick Scott's is just beginning.

Scott, who promised as a candidate to shrink government, will soon receive a $74.5 billion budget filled with line-item projects in every corner of the state that he has the power to veto.

The question for Scott is whether he seizes the moment or takes the easy way out.

As he surveys hundreds of grants for parks, trails, museums, aquariums, water projects and youth programs, Scott faces a stark choice. He can shore up his support among fiscal conservatives by slashing discretionary spending, or bless those projects and curry favor with legislators as he launches a difficult 2014 re-election campaign.

"It's Floridians' money. They expect it to be spent wisely," Scott said Friday after the Legislature adjourned its 2013 session. "So I'll be going line by line and making sure we don't waste any dollars."

Scott has 15 days to act on the budget after he receives it in the coming days, making this a "money year" for the governor in more ways than one.

The Legislature was flush with billions in extra tax dollars for the first time in years, but Scott had only two requests of his fellow Republicans: a pay raise for teachers and a modest tax break for manufacturers.

Lawmakers said yes to both issues, but on their terms. They linked the raises to performance measures that will be difficult and time-consuming to implement in some school districts.

And they narrowed the sales tax exemption on manufacturing equipment to three years starting next May, sharply limiting its scope.

"He was willing to work with us," Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said of Scott.

He had no choice.

Because Scott didn't ask for much, it was nearly impossible for lawmakers in his own party to say no to him and he was able to declare victory as the session ended.

"This was a great session," Scott proclaimed.

It didn't start that way. Top legislative leaders felt blind-sided when Scott sprung the teacher raise on them in January, in effect daring them to oppose a popular constituency: classroom teachers.

But Scott can't afford to wait until next year to begin improving his shaky standing with Floridians. In his third year as governor, he needs to give voters a reason to re-elect him.

Scott has limited political capital because of his mediocre job approval ratings, and the strain of his testy relations with the Legislature was obvious in the session's final week.

After using frequent news conferences to remind lawmakers of the importance of the teacher pay raise, he invited two reporters to his office to call out legislators for writing a budget that would raise in-state college tuition by 3 percent while they threatened to reject his tax break for manufacturers.

"It would be ridiculous to not cut taxes this year," Scott said Tuesday as the tax break languished in the Senate. "I can't imagine they want to go home and say, 'Not only did I not cut your taxes, I raised your taxes in the form of a tuition increase.' "

Scott's lack of political skill was often conspicuous in his dealings with legislators, who relish hushed conversation and horse trading. Not once in the nine-week session did Scott meet with legislative leaders to publicly discuss their mutual goals.

Differences were hashed out in phone calls between one or two key lawmakers and Scott chief of staff Adam Hollingsworth, who has had extensive dealings with lawmakers as a former business executive.

As Senate Rules Committee Chairman John Thrasher spoke to a reporter Thursday, his BlackBerry lit up and Hollingsworth's name flashed on the screen.

"Excuse me," Thrasher said, heading toward a quiet corridor. "I've got to take this."

Democrats complain that Scott squandered a chance to take the lead to expand Medicaid after he endorsed the idea in February.

"Rick Scott has shown his inability to lead and unwillingness to stand for his legislative priorities," Democratic Party chairwoman Allison Tant wrote in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Democrats said it seemed as if Republican lawmakers didn't take Scott seriously.

"They treated him like the red-headed stepchild," said Rep. Perry Thurston, the House Democratic leader. "They were playing coy with him. They're holding onto all of his stuff to see if he gives them their stuff."

Sure enough, a day after Scott lashed out at lawmakers, the logjam broke.

On Wednesday night, Scott signed into law two of their priorities, dealing with ethics and campaign fundraising, including higher limits on contributions that lawmakers wanted and that he repeatedly criticized. He has not explained the inconsistency.

The tax break for manufacturers sprang to life in the House that night as the fate of those two key bills rested in Scott's hands.

"I've learned one thing," Scott said of the Legislature. "A lot happens in the last week of the session."

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Hefty budget poses stark spending choices for Gov. Rick Scott 05/04/13 [Last modified: Sunday, May 5, 2013 12:26am]

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