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Tim Nickens

Scott will learn government is not a business

Barely a month has passed since Gov. Rick Scott took office, and it is clear he views his new job as Florida's chief executive no differently than his old job as chief executive assembling the nation's largest hospital chain.

It's just another hostile takeover.

Scott has acknowledged as much himself. He explained to a gathering of editors and reporters last month why he issued an executive order on his first day on the job that requires any expenditure of more than $1 million by state agencies he oversees to be approved by his office.

"It is no different than when I took over companies," he said. "One of the first things you have to do is get control of the checkbook."

The second thing you apparently have to do is reduce the number of employees; Scott promises to cut the state work force by 5 percent. The third thing is to cut the benefits of the remaining workers. The governor announced last week he wants to require workers who have not had a general pay raise in five years to contribute 5 percent of their salaries to their retirement.

Then expect Scott to merge a few state agencies, unload an expensive Medicaid system onto managed care companies and slash prison costs. By summer he should have a meaner, leaner Florida producing positive cash flow and ready to merge with Georgia — or to be sold to the Vegas casinos for a profit.

Despite spending more than $60 million on television ads in last year's campaign, Scott remains somewhat of a mystery. A new Quinnipiac University opinion poll released last week shows just 28 percent of Florida voters view him favorably, and 45 percent say they don't know enough about him to judge. This is not the warm embrace more typical for governors who have just been elected and have yet to pick any fights with the Legislature.

Just as curious is Scott's managerial style. During the campaign, he had a consistent response to questions about what he knew regarding Columbia/HCA's practices that led to a record $1.7 billion in fines for Medicare fraud. Scott repeatedly said he knew of no wrongdoing but accepted responsibility as the chief executive officer and should have hired more auditors. Translation: I hired good people, set goals and they violated the rules without my knowledge to achieve those goals.

Yet Scott starts off as governor as a controlling micromanager with little patience for rules or understanding that the governor is not a dictator. He stood in front of his private plane and said Cabinet members, who by the way are also elected statewide, and other officials can drive or fly commercial after he sells the state planes. His review of expenditures of more than $1 million threatened road projects and other work that creates jobs, which he says is his top priority. His review of all pending regulations, even those that are routine and necessary, effectively throws sand into the wheels of state government.

Either Scott was less than truthful about how he ran things at Columbia/HCA to deflect all of the questions about the company's fraud, or this is just his way of getting a handle on his new job.

Every new governor hits a few rough spots in the early going. The learning curve is particularly high for Scott, who is the first governor in more than 40 years without previous experience in government or high-profile politics. But there is an arrogance here that suggests a chief executive accustomed to issuing orders, ignoring other authority and dismissing anyone who questions his actions.

In the last week, the state gave back federal grants to implement health care reform even though it is still the law of the land until the U.S. Supreme Court rules. Scott also has quietly withdrawn a request that the Justice Department approve redistricting changes that Florida voters approved by a far wider margin than the one that elected him.

Scott is no fan of transparency in government, one of Florida's most precious values enshrined in state law and the Constitution. He doesn't read Florida newspapers. He wants to choose which reporter attends some events, and the Tallahassee press corps and the Florida Society of News Editors reasonably object. He acknowledges he doesn't e-mail to avoid creating a public record. His agency secretaries were directed not to talk publicly without permission, and his office has been slow to respond to requests for public records. Scott claims to support open government, but his actions suggest otherwise.

The inclination is to give a new governor the benefit of the doubt and let him settle into office a bit. Scott squandered that with his arbitrary decisions and disregard for other institutions, including the Cabinet, Congress, the voters and the media. But he will learn that government is not a business. There are more checks and balances on the governor than the chief executive of a private hospital chain that flouted the law.

It will be interesting to watch whether that lesson is taught by the Legislature, the courts or the public.

Scott will learn government is not a business 02/04/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 4, 2011 7:46pm]
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