We are about to find out if Gov. Rick Scott has learned anything about vision and investing in Florida's future — or whether he remains driven by short-term political calculations, rigid ideology and disdain for President Barack Obama.
Shortly after taking office in 2011, Scott turned down billions of federal dollars and killed plans for a high-speed rail line from Tampa to Orlando that would have been an economic boost for the entire region.
Two years later, the governor is deciding whether he wants the state to accept billions of federal dollars to expand Medicaid coverage to provide health coverage for more than 1 million low-income Floridians.
Will the governor make the same mistake twice?
It's hard to be optimistic. The similarities between Scott's approach to high-speed rail and to the expansion of Medicaid are depressingly clear:
Withhold support and criticize Obama.
During his 2010 campaign, Scott refused to support high-speed rail, one of Obama's top priorities. He vigorously fought the Affordable Care Act and the expansion of Medicaid, the president's top legislative accomplishment so far. The fate of health care reform was settled by the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the guts of the law, and by Obama's re-election.
Listen to tea party followers, not business leaders.
Scott rode the tea party wave to narrowly win the governor's race. The tea party folks consider rail part of a government conspiracy to take away our cars and force everyone to live in high-rises. They hate Obama's health care law, which they consider to be socialized medicine, and they are lobbying Scott to reject the Medicaid expansion money. Central Florida business leaders supported high-speed rail, and hospital and insurance executives throughout Florida see the Medicaid expansion as an economic opportunity.
Ignore the facts to appear fiscally conservative.
Scott insisted Florida would be on the hook for too much money for high-speed rail. But the federal government's $2.4 billion would have paid for nearly all of the construction cost, and private contractors would have covered any construction cost overruns or operating losses. In a Tampa Bay Times column last week, Scott contended Florida would be on the hook for $26 billion over 10 years for the Medicaid expansion. That is a wildly inflated figure that does not reflect federal law, which requires the federal government to cover 100 percent of the cost for the first three years and never less than 90 percent.
Create an illusion of reasonableness.
Scott met with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in Washington to talk about high-speed rail, raising hopes a deal could be reached. After he rejected the money, he let local officials try to save it when he had no intention of making it work. Last week, Scott flew to Washington to talk to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to talk about the Medicaid expansion.
Offer an implausible trade.
For high-speed rail, Scott wanted an immediate commitment from Washington for more money for ports. That didn't work. For the Medicaid expansion, Scott wants the Obama administration to approve the state's request to move all Medicaid recipients into managed care. That is a complicated issue that Washington has been studying for months, and the results of an experimental program with a handful of counties were not encouraging.
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Add it all together, and it appears Scott is headed down the wrong path again. Yet there are some differences between 2011 and 2013.
First, the political landscape has changed and Scott is focused on re-election. His job approval ratings are abysmal, and the 2012 election results indicate Florida is moving back toward the middle. The electorate will not be as angry in 2014 as it was in 2010.
Second, the environment is different in Tallahassee. Scott has more pragmatic top staffers than he did when he took office. After heavy criticism, he backed off his bogus $26 billion Medicaid cost figure. The Legislature is still controlled by conservative Republicans, but they recognize the 2010 election was a rejection of extreme views. The Legislature will help determine whether Florida expands Medicaid, and Republican leaders are considering it.
Third, high-speed rail was a regional issue. Medicaid expansion has statewide support among insurers, hospital executives and other health care leaders — many of whom are Republicans. The economic impact of expanding Medicaid will be quicker and broader.
As transformative as high-speed rail would have been, the Medicaid expansion is more important for the health of this state and its residents. We'll soon see if Scott has the vision to look beyond his tea party roots and disdain for health care reform and do what's right.