TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott paid a rare, personal visit to the offices of four Republican senators Wednesday in a last-minute attempt to rescue an anti-union bill that appeared destined for defeat.
The governor asked the same question of Miami Sens. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, Rene Garcia and Anitere Flores, and Inverness Sen. Charlie Dean. And he got the same answer: no.
Scott's intervention was the "Hail Mary" pass of Sen. John Thrasher, the Jacksonville lawyer and former Republican Party of Florida chairman whose top priority was passage of the bill to ban public employee unions from using automatic payroll deduction to collect dues. But by the end of the day, Thrasher had all but conceded defeat.
"If it isn't right and we can't get the votes to get where we need to get to, we'll come back and fight another day," he said.
Scott's failure to change the minds of fellow Republicans underscored the lack of popularity of the bill and of the freshman governor, who adopted the talking points of the nationally watched issue but lacked the political juice to get it.
The governor is getting used to the rejection. In recent weeks, Scott has threatened to veto the budget if it didn't include some of his $2.4 billion in cuts of corporate income taxes and fees, urged legislators to pass an Arizona-style immigration bill and has lobbied lawmakers to end the state's traditional defined contribution pension plan and replace it with a 401(k)-style retirement plan. Each has been scuttled by lawmakers, raising doubts about the success of the governor's session agenda.
Senate President Mike Haridopolos on Wednesday painted a more positive portrait.
"We'll have a balanced budget without raising taxes, without raising fees and we'll have some tax decreases and some fee decreases," Haridopolos said. "One thing the governor's really added to this discussion is everyone knew he would not support a tax increase. … I consider that to be a success for the governor and the entire state of Florida."
Although Scott never campaigned on the union dues issue, and never mentioned it as a session priority, he started to push the issue as it became a talking point of Republicans in other states.
On Wednesday, Scott told about two dozen members of the Center-Right Coalition, a conservative activist group, that banning payroll deductions was an important piece of his jobs agenda along with making it more difficult to sue companies, reducing regulations and cutting taxes. He said he was mystified the bill was in jeopardy.
But opponents said the bill, which singled out unions from payroll deduction, was not the legacy Republicans wanted to leave in a year when unemployment was at record levels.
"It creates division and turmoil, and doesn't create jobs," said Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, after the governor met with him.
Dean, an Inverness Republican and former sheriff, told Scott: "I'm not union. … I just really think it's not my money, leave it alone."
He held firm to his opposition to the bill as a matter of principle, he said. "I'm a conservative Republican. I support the governor and I support the president and speaker," Dean said. "But I also reserve the right somehow to make up my own mind."
Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, an opponent of the bill, said that "if the bill was perceived as being more fair, members might be more willing to support it. But they have been really pressuring members, and it's not working."
As Senate Rules chairman, Thrasher had scheduled the bill for a vote early Wednesday. But when it ran into trouble with 11 to 12 Republicans privately telling him they would vote against it, he enlisted the governor to corral some of them as the Senate took a lunch break.
Thrasher acknowledged that he employed every tool he could muster to get the votes as the bill got entangled in other top priority issues, such as the fight over court reform.
"You use things you think will work until you realize they're not going to work and you're not going to get there — without being disruptive," Thrasher said.
Thrasher's Republican colleagues acknowledged the high-level disagreement between Republicans was awkward. As Scott left Diaz de la Portilla's office, the senator told him: "I'm sorry this had to be our first face-to-face meeting — but I think you're doing a great job."
Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo and Michael C. Bender contributed to this report.