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In second year, Rick Scott turns from outsider to insider

TALLAHASSEE — Rick Scott, the tea party government-cutting conservative, stormed into office as an outsider and once boasted the "deal-makers are crying in their cocktails."

Now the insiders are toasting Scott in the halls of the state Capitol at the close of the second lawmaking session of his term as governor. Scott racked up a string of wins with a modest poll-tested agenda and an approach that meshed with the Capitol culture instead of antagonizing it. He glad-handed lawmakers more. He gave lobbyists more access. And he chose a consummate insider to be his staff chief.

Delivering relatively small tax and budget cuts, Scott successfully pushed the Legislature to revamp personal injury protection to the liking of the auto-insurance industry, where one player cut Scott's political committee a $100,000 check just days before session ended.

The governor's relatively low-key approach was a clear indicator that the political newcomer and former hospital-chain CEO is retooling his approach to government, which doesn't always run like a business.

"It's not so much change as just the people you meet and then you figure out how to work through a system," Scott said. "Because it's a system up here."

It's a system of colliding political and business interests shaped by prickly legislators who refuse to be ignored. And there's another player: the courts, which have tied up some of the governor's initiatives passed last year.

The legislative system also resists big and sudden change, such as Scott's call his freshman year to deeply cut the budget and taxes in a time of shortfalls. At the time, he and his office staff also had an at-times tense relationship with the fellow Republicans who control the Legislature.

"The governor is growing into his job," said Republican Rep. Scott Plakon of Longwood. "He's learning it's not like being a CEO. He has to work with the Legislature. It's not like dealing with a corporate board or employees."

So this year, Scott sought to undo the damage to his reputation and to the preK-12 schools budget, which he insisted the Legislature cut deeply last year. Partly as a result of those reductions, Scott's poll numbers plummeted — even among rank-and-file Republicans. About a third of voters have a favorable view of him and his job performance, while more than half have an unfavorable view.

Reversing course this year, Scott called for about $1 billion more for schools. Some of the money replaces lost government revenue from property taxes. Some of it funds additional enrollment growth. All told, it doesn't completely undo the deep cuts he initially pushed through a reluctant Legislature last year. This year, the Legislature happily obliged the call for "$1 billion more for education."

The line, which Scott echoed when the session ended just after midnight Friday, is sure to reverberate as Scott positions himself for re-election in 2014.

Since 2011, his Let's Get to Work political committee raised more than $774,000 — 40 percent of which came in the last two months, with $100,000 contributed Wednesday by United Group Underwriters. It's an affiliate of United Automobile Insurance Co., which has a stake in the debate over personal-injury protection, or PIP.

As Scott was depositing the check, he was bashing the Florida Senate's PIP proposal, which didn't crack down on Democrat-leaning trial lawyers, mandated rate cuts and made it tougher for insurers to raise rates.

"The Senate bill seems like it's been written by special interests," he told the Florida Chamber of Commerce the following day.

The Senate's PIP bill died and, with the constant input of the governor and his staff, a House bill passed the Legislature that didn't guarantee savings and, critics said, could make it easier for insurance companies to slow-walk paying claims. But Scott said people will save money and fraud will stop.

The governor's top political adviser and pollster, Tony Fabrizio, said he expects voters will start to warm to Scott as he racks up wins and takes on important issues, such as school funding and PIP fraud, and a package of tax cuts and business incentives. "If you see a problem and try to fix it, voters will give you credit," Fabrizio said.

The business lobby was happy.

"He was very focused this year on an achievable agenda," said Bill Herrle, Florida director for the National Federation of Independent Business. "And he built more friendships and alliances in the Legislature along the way."

Scott lost a few as well. The Florida Senate balked at a bill empowering parents to convert low-performing public schools into charter schools and another measure to privatize some prisons, legislation sought by an industry that pours political contributions into the political parties.

"When he campaigned, he said the lobbyists would be crying in their cocktails, but they're not crying anymore," said Sen. Paula Dockery, a Lakeland Republican and Scott supporter.

"From prisons to PIP, a lot of his big issues are lobbyist issues," Dockery said. "And making Steve MacNamara his chief of staff was a sign the governor was becoming more of Tallahassee, more of an insider."

A chief of staff for Senate President Mike Haridopolos in 2010, MacNamara tried to get Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, to support the prison privatization effort by offering to make some political appointments sought by the Republican statesman. But Jones still voted no and the measure failed by two votes.

"The governor thought, 'Gosh, we've done him a favor, maybe he'll do us a favor,' because his requests were reasonable, and we thought our requests were reasonable," MacNamara said at the time. "He wasn't even willing to listen to us."

MacNamara is a lawyer, college professor and former lobbyist. In talks with legislative staff, MacNamara's team used a baseball metaphor to describe the governor's new approach of "getting base hits," not always swinging for the fences.

Last year, Scott called for tax cuts and business breaks that would total about $2.4 billion in 2013. This year, the Legislature approved about $620 million — though all but $78 million is a postponement of unemployment compensation tax increases. Scott last year also released a two-year budget proposal that called for big spending cuts that the Legislature summarily rejected because of the effects on schools, hospitals, doctors, courts and the environment.

The budget the Legislature passed for 2013 weighs in at more than $70 billion — an increase of about $360 million over the current year.

Scott's budget unveiling also lacked the theatrics of last year when he unveiled his proposal at a tea party rally. Usually, governors unveil budgets in Tallahassee, which Scott did this time.

The budget is peppered with hometown spending projects that Scott will likely veto, giving him a chance to burnish his budget-cutting cred. Lawmakers also sought to strengthen the executive office of the governor and reinforced his push to drug-test state workers.

But Scott didn't win everyone over. Democrats describe his overall agenda as too conservative and extreme for Florida. Legislators also refused to change hospital payments that could have led to deep cuts.

Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, felt that Scott was still adapting to the Legislature. Though he glad-handed more and clashed less with lawmakers, he still came across as imperious to Storms, who had balked when she felt the governor was summoning her to dinner to command her to vote for prison privatization, which she refused to do. "The sense I got was," she said, "he was thinking: 'We have this dinner. And then I'm going to tell you what to do. And then you're going to do go and do it.' "

Instead, Storms said, she had a "very different" conversation with Scott.

"It was a very heated conversation," she said. "And in that conversation, I got the sense it had been a very long time since he had had a conversation, that he could hear other people."

Scott says he has been listening more as he grapples with the complexities and "breadth of issues" facing the nation's fourth-most populous state.

"It's a pretty broad range of issues," he said, "and so to do a good job you have to take your time and listen and get up to speed on each one of them."

In second year, Rick Scott turns from outsider to insider 03/10/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 10, 2012 10:02pm]
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