With small victories, Gov. Rick Scott calls session a success

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Gov. Rick Scott came into his first legislative session with goals as specific as they were bold on tax cuts, spending cuts, state workforce reductions and pension contributions.

He failed to reach his targets, but a powerful Republican Legislature approved portions of each, allowing him now to embark on a statewide victory lap to sign bills in front of TV cameras.

Scott calls the session an unqualified success, which he measures by the undeniable steps lawmakers took toward his broad goals. That self-evaluation, however, departs from his devotion to rigid measurements and acknowledges the give-and-take of a legislative process he criticized from the campaign trail a year ago and learned on the fly once he took office.

"We've made big progress," Scott said Friday in his first interview with the Times/Herald since winning election. "We'll make more progress next session."

Scott's willingness to equate progress with victory earns him high marks from Republican lawmakers. But time will tell whether he gets the same reaction from the conservative tea party movement, his base of support that often belittles compromise as a sign of weakness.

"He could have done more, but I don't blame him," said Tampa 9/12 Project organizer Karen Jaroch.

"A lot of us are new to the process," she said of the tea party movement. "We're more apt to give him a pass this go-around and maybe have higher expectations next time."

Scott's biggest victory was forcing teachers, police and other state workers to contribute 3 percent of their salary to their pensions. Lawmakers rejected Scott's call for a 5 percent contribution and other changes, but the compromise means state workers will pay into their retirement for the first time in decades.

He asked lawmakers to cut almost $5 billion from the budget and instead received a $700 million reduction.

Scott backed off his call for the state to pay for private school vouchers for all public school students. But he celebrated less ambitious education bills like one that lets charter schools operate entirely online.

Scott's tax cut deal is one-eighth of the $1.7 billion he wanted. But the governor will be able to say he removed 14,000 businesses from the corporate income tax rolls at a cost of just $30 million.

Meanwhile, conservative radio hosts already are asking Scott about the failure of an Arizona-style immigration bill that is at least partly on his shoulders.

Many tea party activists supported his call to require private businesses to use E-Verify to check employees' immigration status. But after winning the Republican primary, Scott rarely mentioned the change, opposed by some powerful business interests.

Scott disputed that immigration reform has dropped down his priority list.

"Everything that I believe in and ran on is a priority," he said.

Democrats said Scott's pro-business victories were losses for students and the sick. Without raising taxes, lawmakers approved cuts to public schools and health care for the poor.

"Toward the end you saw Republicans trying to drop a bone to Rick Scott," said Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, adding that Republican leaders were wary of crossing Scott and his tea party base.

Republican Sen. John Thrasher of St. Augustine said it was important for lawmakers to support a new GOP governor who "won even by a narrow margin."

"We gave him what we could," Thrasher said. "We wanted to make him successful."

Scott, a former hospital executive and a first-time office holder, was pulled along in the session after a string of stumbles.

Sen. Mike Fasano caused unexpected trouble. The New Port Richey Republican used his committee to grill Scott's aides over their plan to fire hundreds of correctional officers.

Fasano declared the plan "dead on arrival" leading Scott's office to temporarily boycott his committee.

A pair of Republican senators, J.D. Alexander of Lake Wales and Paula Dockery of Lakeland, took the rare step of filing requests demanding all public records related to Scott's decision to sell the state planes and halt high-speed rail.

But Scott was led astray by allies, too.

As a favor to Thrasher late in the session, Scott made personal visits to the Senate offices of four Republicans, including three freshmen, in hopes of getting their support for a bill that would have made it more difficult for unions to collect dues from state employees.

All four told him no and the bill failed.

Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, who is in his first year in the Senate after eight years in the House, said the conversation with Scott was polite and policy-driven.

Scott didn't threaten any of Garcia's priorities with a veto.

"I would expect a little more," Garcia said. "But everyone has a different style. He's learning the process."

Scott laughed when he was reminded about striking out with all four senators. But he disputed the notion that he should leverage his veto power to push his priorities.

"They know that," Scott said. "I shouldn't have to say it."

Scott said policies should pass or fail on their own merits.

"That's how I've lived my life," he said. "That's how I did deals when I built companies.

"I know it wouldn't happen if it wasn't a win-win. If it's not in your best interest, the odds are it's not going to happen."

In the final weeks of session, Scott began using his office as a megaphone to call for a hefty corporate income tax cut. With carefully crafted language, he implied he would veto a budget without his tax cuts.

But with only days left in budget negotiations and fellow Republicans arguing there was no clear nexus between job creation and corporate tax cuts, lawmakers largely shrugged.

"He's been a little late to the party," said Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice.

Scott soon agreed to a deal to increase the corporate tax exemption, a relatively cheap fix that moved halfway to his goal of eliminating the tax on all businesses.

Florida Chamber of Commerce president Mark Wilson, one of Scott's top allies, sent lawmakers a pointed memo in the final days of session urging them to rein in Scott's plan to create one state agency for all economic development programs.

Fearful the plans had not been fully vetted, Wilson successfully lobbied lawmakers to approve smaller changes for the new Department of Economic Opportunity and revisit the bigger plans next year.

"The clock is running out," Wilson wrote. "We recommend fixing what is broken now and taking more time to fully evaluate opportunities for alignment and collaboration."

Scott gladly signed off on the changes, which give his Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development control over some programs in the Agency for Workforce Innovation and the Department of Community Affairs.

"The way I think about it is this: I have a plan. Seven steps to 700,000 jobs," Scott said. "If I could do it in a day that would be really nice. It didn't just happen that way."

Michael C. Bender can be reached at mbender@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelCBender.

With small victories, Gov. Rick Scott calls session a success 05/08/11 [Last modified: Sunday, May 8, 2011 11:37pm]

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