TALLAHASSEE — Facing a highly critical group of black legislators, Gov. Rick Scott largely defended his record Tuesday but distanced himself from a controversial election law that led to fewer early-voting days and long lines.
Scott agreed with black lawmakers that the 2011 election law contributed to the chaos at the polls in November, including long lines all over the state and up to seven-hour waits in Miami-Dade. But Scott, who is seeking re-election in 2014, said it was largely a decision of the Legislature.
"It was not my bill," Scott said. "We've got to make changes, I agree. … The Legislature passed it. I didn't have anything to do with passing it."
Scott signed the bill into law in 2011. His administration spent more than $500,000 in legal fees in a largely successful defense of the law, though a federal judge struck down new restrictions on groups that register voters.
The governor's hourlong meeting with the Legislative Black Caucus was contentious. He sat at times with his arms tightly crossed, sipping from a bottle of sparkling water, and took notes on a yellow pad as his Democratic critics, seated around a large square table, dissected his record on a range of issues.
On a series of issues, Scott was unmoving. Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, the House minority leader, could not persuade Scott to ease restrictions on ex-felons, who must wait at least five years after leaving prison before they can seek restoration of their civil rights. Scott said the law is partly why Florida's crime rate is at a 41-year low.
"Once you're out as a felon, you should spend time making sure you're doing the right thing before you get those rights back," Scott said.
Pressed to reconsider his position, Scott said: "Okay. I'd be glad to." Two years ago, Scott and his fellow Republicans on the Cabinet reversed the policy under former Gov. Charlie Crist that allowed many ex-felons to regain their civil rights without a hearing.
Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, assailed Scott for appointing so few African-Americans to judgeships: six out of 91 in the past two years, or 6.6 percent.
"Your record of appointments to the judiciary is appalling to us," Rouson told Scott, challenging the governor to at least double the number of minority applicants to judgeships.
Scott said he's limited in his appointments to the names provided to him by regional judicial nominating panels (though the law allows the governor to request more names). He added: "If an applicant — I don't care who they are — believes in judicial activism, I'm not going to appoint them."
When Rouson persisted, Scott noted that he appointed Rouson's wife, Angela, to the Children's Services Council of Pinellas County, as well as Ava Parker, wife of another black caucus member, Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach, to the State University System Board of Governors.
Rouson criticized Scott for his 2012 veto of an inmate re-entry bill designed to help nonviolent drug offenders adjust to society faster. Scott said law enforcement experts across the state urged a veto because it would undercut the requirement that prison inmates serve 85 percent of their sentences.
To Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville, Scott was insistent that President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act will be a financial burden to Florida, and he said he remains unsure whether the federal government will pay its share.
Other lawmakers criticized Scott for seeking to privatize the state Office of Supplier Diversity, which tracks the number of state contracts with minority-owned businesses.
As the session ended, Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, said Scott's inflexibility is frustrating.
"It's deja vu all over again from last year," Joyner said. "He's still stuck on judicial activism. He wants everyone to think like him. He runs this state like a corporation — like it's Florida Inc. He's not flexible on a lot of things."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.