TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Gov. Rick Scott came into office on a conservative wave, promising to change Tallahassee, fight President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul and make Florida as business friendly as he could.
He shunned the press, announced his first budget at a tea party rally in a central Florida church and entered his first legislative session like the powerful CEO he was before spending more than $70 million of his own money to win office in 2010.
What a difference two years can make.
Scott is preparing to give his third state of the state address on Tuesday, and while the major theme — jobs — will still be the same, Scott has undergone a transformation. He’s cozying up to teachers instead of antagonizing them, he’s learned the art of compromise with the Legislature and he’s even cooperating with the federal government to put the president’s health care plan into place.
“He’s really the Benedict Arnold of the tea party/patriot movement in Florida. Most conservatives feel betrayed by him and members have been calling me and saying they want him fired,” said Everett Wilkinson of the South Florida Tea Party, who once called Scott a rock star. “He’s flip-flopped on such major areas. It shows how a man can be corrupted with D.C. and Tallahassee.”
Scott will outline his 2013 priorities as the Legislature begins its 60-day session, and unlike his first year, there is more likely to be applause from teachers than tea partiers as he calls for more state spending.
After he was elected, Scott proposed a budget that cut funding for education and he rejected billions in federal money for high speed rail. He had early clashes with the Legislature and he kept his distance from both the press and lobbyists. By the end of his first session, though, the former CEO of the nation’s largest hospital chain realized that the Legislature was an equal branch of government.
In 2011, Scott began following through on promises to cut the size of government, streamline regulation, reduce corporate taxes and reduce state spending. And while he didn’t get everything he wanted, it was a banner year for conservatives.
Scott signed a bill to base teacher raises on performance and strip new teachers of tenure. He got the Legislature to go along with a corporate income tax break, though not nearly as large as he had proposed. He pushed through a measure to force government workers to start paying into their pensions. Hgot rid of the Department of Community Affairs and its growth management oversight. Overall, he cut thousands of government jobs.
Just about the only campaign promise that saw no follow through of some sort was enacting tough laws dealing with illegal immigration.
But despite doing almost everything he campaigned on, Scott got off to a rough start. His poll numbers plummeted and he was typecast as being a governor to only the far right. His metamorphosis began later that year when he a replaced his chief of staff with the epitome of Tallahassee insiders.
Suddenly he started traveling the state and meeting with newspaper editorial boards, he shed his suits in favor or more casual khakis and polo shirts and he began holding “Let’s Get to Work Days” modeled after the work days former Democratic Sen. and Gov. Bob Graham used to endear himself to voters.
His new spirit of cooperation was a major theme in his second State of the State address, when he said he welcomes ideas from either party in remarks he punctuated with the comment, “Let’s get to work — together.” After angering teachers his first year, he demanded and received a $1 billion increase for schools which nearly made up for the cuts the previous year.
He also received another corporate tax cut and more bills designed to help businesses. Another priority was achieved when, at the last minute, the Legislature passed a bill to help lower the cost of personal injury protection required in auto insurance policies and to reduce fraudulent claims
Still, his approval ratings remained low, which could be a problem as he faces re-election next year.
He is on his third chief of staff and he is straying further than the tea party support that helped elect him. He has been less rigid and more open to “dialogue” with traditional GOP foes such as the state’s teacher union, including his proposal to give all teachers a $2,500 pay raise whether they are bad, excellent or somewhere in between.
“OK, so now here’s the guy who’s all about accountability, and merit and holding teachers accountable and he stands up and says he wants to give every teacher a $2,500 across the board raise? What’s that about? Huh?” said Alex Sink, the Democrat who faced Scott in 2010. “I hate to give my Republican friends advice, but I think if one of them would get brave and say ‘Enough is enough, our emperor has no clothes,’ the state can do better, the party can do better. I think his support would disappear. I really do.”
And in the most stunning decision, Scott called for GOP lawmakers to expand Medicaid to those making up to 138 percent of the poverty line.
The flip on Medicaid expansion was shocking for a candidate who had been such a determined opponent to the federal health care overhaul. Scott got his political start in 2009 by using his own money to star in TV commercials opposing the president’s health care plans, and just last summer he vowed to block Medicaid expansion after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could opt out.
“He suddenly goes to Tallahassee and drinks the water there, goes to D.C and drinks the water there,” the tea party’s Wilkinson said of the Medicaid decision. “It’s not just a lie or a flip-flop, it’s rather insulting.”
Scott defended his reversal by talking about his recently-deceased mother and recalling the strained finances of his youth. And when asked about the criticism coming in from conservative groups, Scott replied “What I worry about is Florida families.”
And in a very un-tea party like move, Scott proposed a $74.2 billion budget this year, or a 6 percent, $5.3 billion increase over the current budget.
One thing Scott is guaranteed to highlight in this year’s State of the State is Florida’s job growth since taking office and his plans to continue to make the state even more business friendly.
“The governor deserves credit for his focus on job creation,” said former Gov. Jeb Bush in an email. “His policies and energy have had an impact.”
Scott and his office are quick to point out the numbers: In the four years before Scott took office, Florida’s unemployment rate more than tripled and more than 800,000 jobs were lost. Since he took office unemployment has dropped to a four-year-low of 8 percent and nearly 200,000 non-government jobs have been created.
“I’m going to make sure that we continue the progress we have had. We have had great progress getting our state back to work,” Scott said. “I’m going to focus on three things, getting our state back to work, making sure your child can get a great education so they can live the American dream and keeping the cost of living low.”
Just how much Scott’s efforts have caused unemployment to go down is hard to pinpoint. Much of what’s happened in Florida is a reflection of the business climate in the nation as a whole and the rebound itself has been slow, said Sean Snaith, a University of Central Florida economist.
“The things that have been done, the sort of streamlining of government and the marketing efforts the governor’s made trying to build international relationships and foster that, these seeds that are sown don’t necessarily sprout immediately. It may take a couple of more years before we can make a fair assessment of how what was done actually impacted the economy,” he said.
He added that a governor has few tools to counter national and global trends.
“I don’t think what the governor’s done has harmed the state’s recovery, but the recovery has not outperformed to date the national recovery,” Snaith said.
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