TALLAHASSEE — In his fight against the Zika virus, Gov. Rick Scott's strongest allies are county mosquito control boards, the "boots on the ground" stretching from Key West to Pasco County to Panama City.
But Scott once targeted them for possible extinction, calling the local mosquito fighters a major "tax burden" of dubious benefit to taxpayers.
The shift in philosophy shows the evolution of a leader who rode to power on a wave of tea party revulsion of government and then learned the details of governing on the fly.
At Zika roundtable forums around the state, Scott makes sure local mosquito officials have seats at the table -- as they did in Panama City last week where he described them as "really quality people, all over the state."
"A lot of it is boots on the ground," Scott said.
Four years ago, after Scott wiped out thousands of regulations that he said stifled job creation, he demanded a review of 1,600 special districts to ensure that they "operate in a transparent manner and be fiscally accountable in order to safeguard the public interest."
"Though many may not realize it," Scott said at the time, "some of Florida's greatest tax burden on families and businesses can be found among the $15.4 billion in revenue taken in by the state's special taxing districts."
Scott's executive order of Jan. 11, 2012 directed his budget experts to conduct a "deliberate and thorough review" of the single-purpose districts that levy property taxes to pay for specific services such as fire protection, flood control, health care, street lights and sidewalks.
In much of Florida, mosquito control is a function of county government, including Miami-Dade, Broward, Pinellas and Hillsborough. A property tax to pay for it appears separately on taxpayers' bills.
But 18 cities and counties, including Pasco, the Florida Keys, Brevard, Citrus and Sarasota have special mosquito control programs. Most are independent taxing districts, mini-governments run by elected commissioners who levy property taxes to control mosquito breeding.
Statewide, the 18 districts collected $58 million in taxes in the 2011 fiscal year.
Scott's order sent shock waves through an obscure layer of local government that had grown accustomed to being roundly ignored.
"You couldn't call it friendly to special districts," said Terry Lewis, a lobbyist for the districts. "The governor was asking, 'Do we need them?'"
The answer turned out to be yes — and Scott's executive order quietly disappeared.
Reflecting on that decision Monday, Scott's office said of his 2012 order: "He wanted to review all special districts to ensure taxpayer dollars were being put to the best use. The mosquito special districts provide many important functions in local communities and protect Floridians against mosquito-borne diseases. We will continue to work with them to ensure they have all they need to combat Zika."
The budget expert assigned to carry out Scott's 2012 order, Jeff Woodburn, began by reviewing 18 mosquito control boards. He visited the boards to see them at work, including Pasco County, where mosquito control director Dennis Moore said Scott had the right to question his agency's mission.
"There was some concern, quite frankly, as in 'What's the agenda?'" Moore said. "But over the long run, it actually came out favorably for a lot of mosquito control programs."
Moore praised Woodburn's attention to detail: "He was very respectful," Moore said.
Six months later, Woodburn produced a 31-page report on the mosquito control boards.
It noted that the annual pay of Keys mosquito commissioners was more than $21,000 at the time, four times higher than any other district. The report also said the Keys district lowered its overall tax rate by 43 percent over a three-year period, more than any other district.
Woodburn's report concluded that mosquito control districts did not need to be evaluated again because their elected commissioners are accountable to voters.
"The district may have some inherent inefficiencies, but may also provide a more consistent mosquito control service," he wrote.
After Woodburn's report, Scott's order faded into oblivion in Tallahassee, never to be heard from again.
Now, as Zika hovers over the state, Scott is one of the mosquito districts' biggest supporters.
"We have very good mosquito boards," Scott told NBC's Meet the Press Sunday.