This time four years ago Rick Scott was a stranger to Floridians. Then he spent $73 million on his first political campaign and rode an angry voter wave to the Governor's Mansion. For Florida, this has been a hostile takeover by the former CEO of the nation's largest hospital chain. In three years Scott has done more harm than any modern governor, from voting rights to privacy rights, public schools to higher education, environmental protection to health care. One more legislative session and a $100 million re-election campaign will not undo the damage.
This is the tin man as governor, a chief executive who shows no heartfelt connection to the state, appreciation for its values or compassion for its residents. Duke Energy is charging its electric customers billions for nuclear plants that were botched or never built. Homeowners are being pushed out of the state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. and into private insurers with higher premiums and no track records. Federal flood insurance rates are soaring so high that many property owners cannot afford the premiums but also cannot sell their homes. The governor sides with the electric utilities and property insurers. He criticizes the president rather than fellow Republicans in Congress for failing to fix the flood insurance fiasco they helped create.
In Scott's Florida, it is harder for citizens to vote and for the jobless to collect unemployment. It is easier for renters to be evicted and for borrowers to be charged high interest rates on short-term loans. It is harder for patients to win claims against doctors who hurt them and for consumers to get fair treatment from car dealers who deceive them. It is easier for businesses to avoid paying taxes, building roads and repairing environmental damage.
Florida's modern political era began in 1954 with the election of Gov. LeRoy Collins, who skillfully steered the state through the early years of desegregation and is widely regarded as the state's greatest governor. Other governors from both political parties had an instinctive feel for Florida and a passion to help its people. In the 1970s, there was Reubin Askew. In the 1980s, Bob Graham. In the 1990s, Lawton Chiles. In the 2000s, Jeb Bush. There were some mediocre and average governors along the way, but even the least of them demonstrated a deep affection for this state and its residents.
Scott, who moved to Naples just seven years before running for governor, treats Florida like another faceless corporate acquisition to be dismantled and repackaged. Collins created the community college system; Scott ordered the colleges to create a gimmick, a handful of bachelor's degrees that can be purchased for $10,000. Askew established the water management districts and reformed the appointment process for judges; Scott gutted the former and injected more politics into the latter. Gov. Bob Martinez pushed ambitious efforts to manage growth and preserve environmentally sensitive land; Scott decimated both.
The state's refusal to accept billions in federal money illustrates how this governor ignores the needs of everyday residents. He fought the federal Affordable Care Act all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and lost. He stood by as the Legislature turned down $51 billion in federal money to help cover 1 million uninsured residents, and now he refuses to reaffirm even his tepid support for taking the money. Tens of thousands of Floridians are signing up for health coverage in the federal marketplace in spite of a governor who refuses to help them.
Scott's decision to reject $2.4 billion in federal money for high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando was just as callous. At a time when the region was desperate for more jobs, Scott dismissed federal guarantees and let the money go to other states. He called high-speed rail financially risky but then approved far riskier projects to please powerful state legislators. He embraced the expensive SunRail project in Central Florida and the creation of Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland, a boondoggle that diminished the University of South Florida and will cost taxpayers dearly for generations.
This governor shows little respect for individual rights. He advocated drug testing for state employees and welfare recipients; the courts ruled against him. He pursued a purge of voter rolls that threatened to disenfranchise minority voters; the county elections supervisors revolted. He signed into law restrictions on early voting; the public outcry forced changes.
Scott sides with developers seeking an easier time building their projects, utilities winning routine approval of higher electric rates and health insurers that now need no state approval to raise rates. For homeowners, there is less protection from leaking septic tanks. For motorists stuck in traffic, the governor's solution is more toll roads.
The state spends less per public school student than when Scott took office. Parents and teachers have lost faith in a school accountability system in chaos. College students hear the governor's disdain for a liberal arts education as he demands results on the cheap. Meanwhile, Scott eagerly promises hundreds of millions in tax breaks to businesses pledging to create jobs in future years. His administration approved nearly 350 job creation deals in his first three years in office, but only four jobs have been created for every 100 promised.
The son of a truck driver and a store clerk, Scott grew up poor, lived in public housing for a time and worked his way through law school. He moved to Florida as the former head of a hospital company that paid a record fine for Medicare fraud, and he got himself elected to the state's highest office. Yet the governor who overcame so much adversity himself shows remarkably little empathy for Floridians and their everyday challenges as they seek a brighter future for themselves and their children. Scott's soulless approach to governing is turning the Sunshine State into a cold-hearted place, where the warm promise of a fresh start and a fair shake are fading fast.