Florida Legislature shifts power to Gov. Rick Scott's office

Published March 16, 2012

TALLAHASSEE — Thanks to the Legislature, Gov. Rick Scott has a little more power.

More power to supervise agency rulemaking. More power to remove members of local jobs agencies. More power to dish out millions of dollars to help businesses relocate to Florida.

In each case, Republicans say they wanted to take big decisions out of the hands of unelected agency bureaucrats and give them to the state's highest-ranking official — the one accountable to voters.

Democrats call it part of a disturbing trend.

"Why don't we just change the title of governor to king and give him a crown and be done with it?" said Rep. Franklin Sands, D-Weston.

Sands objected to a massive rewrite of Department of Health laws that erased many duties of the state's surgeon general, a Scott appointee. No longer is that leader explicitly responsible for being Florida's leading voice on wellness and disease prevention or the promotion of healthful lifestyles.

It's just a small example of the Legislature shifting the balance of power in Tallahassee. Changes to regional workforce boards are a bigger deal. The boards have been criticized in Orlando and Miami-Dade for mismanaging taxpayer money meant for job training. Republicans said increased oversight was necessary to prevent bad actors who, for example, spent $14,000 on capes (not a typo) for unemployed workers in Orlando as part of a "Cape-Ability" challenge to vanquish Dr. Evil Unemployment.

Instead of requesting resignations for poor performance, as he did with the entire Workforce Central Florida board, Scott will soon be able to deliver pink slips to members and executive directors with cause.

Last year, the state Supreme Court ruled that Scott overstepped his authority with an executive order that froze pending agency rules. A majority of justices agreed that even though Scott appoints agency heads, the Legislature delegates implementation of state law to the agencies.

In their first father-son bill, Panhandle Republicans Sen. Don Gaetz and Rep. Matt Gaetz responded with a proposal (HB 7055) that makes clear Scott has authority to weigh in on these policies — via an office Scott created — before they enter the public rulemaking process. The Gaetzes say their aim is to corral agency rules that "carry the weight of law" over Florida businesses.

"No governor should be gun-shy about speaking out on a rule," Rep. Gaetz said.

Democrats and attorneys say requiring proposed rules to first get approval from Scott could have a big impact on policymaking. "We're hopeful that's not going to be how it's interpreted," said Cindy Huddleston, a lawyer who served as co-counsel against Scott in the rulemaking case. "It certainly is a fear and a big risk."

Scott "already gives a strong opinion," said Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston. "He hires these people to make rules. There's no reason for another layer where the governor gets to weigh in."

Tom Pelham, who served under Republican governors as secretary of the recently dismantled Department of Community Affairs, warned the move could politicize the process and cut off proposed rules before they enter public review.

The Legislature watered down or rejected other attempts to consolidate power in the governor's office.

Scott almost got authority to fire most of the people chosen to nominate judges, without cause. Though it passed both chambers, the proposal ultimately failed in the House because of a Senate provision that spared appointees of former Gov. Charlie Crist.

Another proposal, HJR 931, would have allowed Scott to handpick the student member of the Board of Governors, the governing body of state universities. An amended version of the proposed constitutional amendment quelled Democrats' concerns by making that member one of the universities' student body presidents.

Then there's money. Scott asked the Legislature for $230 million in economic incentives. He got about $101 million, most of which he can spend as he sees fit. Rich, the Senate minority leader, questioned why legislators continue to make an exception for Scott's pet agency even as other departments went through another round of budget cuts.

"I don't care what anybody says," Rich said. "They're giving him more power, and I don't think it's called for."

Times/Herald staff writer Toluse Olorunnipa contributed to this report.