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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Rick Scott's reversals and misteps

From the Palm beach Post

by John Kennedy

TALLAHASSEE — After a governor's race marked by his laser-like focus, Rick Scott has instituted a dizzying series of policy reversals that could threaten the key promises that powered him to the Governor's Mansion.

With the legislature entering its final three weeks, Scott's pledge to cut regulations, shield businesses from lawsuits and enact almost $2 billion in tax cuts, mostly for corporations and property owners, hangs in the balance.

And just when his skills at schmoozing, cajoling and muscling legislators need to be at their peak, the governor's recent uncertain political steps, combined with his lousy poll numbers, appear to be damaging the first-year executive.

"He sends mixed signals to Floridians - and to the legislature," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who has served in the legislature under four different governors. "His unpredictability is hurting him. And I think it's pretty clear that few of us in the Senate are really concerned any more about what he wants us to do."

After narrowly winning election last November over Democrat Alex Sink, Scott picked fights early with lawmakers, by not consulting them before killing the $2.4 billion high-speed rail project and selling the state's two aircraft.

Now he has added a cloud of uncertainty to the mix.

In recent weeks, Scott sent shockwaves across the state by ordering an immediate cut in funding for the developmentally disabled, only to reverse himself last week. He vowed not to sue to recoup tax money lost to the BP oil spill, only to ease back on that pledge days later. And he sought to repeal a prescription drug database from the beginning of the legislative session until one of his department heads OK'd a contract lest than two weeks ago; then last week he testified before Congress in support of the state's effort without mentioning his previous opposition.

"Anytime you feint right and go left, there are those who are going to say he didn't have his legs under him," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. "But it's pretty clear, he's trying to find his way through a bramble he is not used to."

Scott also may be banking on intimidating Republican legislative leaders into falling in line behind his policies with a show of strength from tea party activists, far removed from Florida's Capitol.

"We're putting pressure on legislators to do what the governor has been saying," said Billie Tucker, a leader of the First Coast Tea Party group, and a longtime Scott associate. "His interests are the state's, not the special interests. We'll do all we can."

Over the weekend, the governor appeared at two tea party rallies and in his weekly radio address Friday said he wouldn't sign a state budget that didn't include tax cuts and called on the public to urge lawmakers to "make the right decision."

"I ran for governor for eight months and the issue we have in this state is that we have a million people out of work, without jobs," Scott said Monday. "The way you get this state back to work is you reduce the cost of government, the size of government and you put money back in taxpayers' hands, both businesses' hands and individuals' hands so they can build private sector jobs."

Neither the House nor Senate has included Scott's tax cuts in its budget proposal. But each side has slashed public schools by $1 billion, hiked tuition and public pension contributions, and dramatically reduced spending on health and social programs, environmental spending and government oversight.

Scott's demand for new tax cuts probably would force deeper cuts to classrooms and health programs - the areas that absorb most state spending.

But even after Scott issued his threat, Senate budget chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said the governor's tax cuts remain "down the list," as lawmakers struggle to craft a budget that first covers a projected $3.8 billion shortfall.

Republicans hold veto-proof majorities in the legislature, meaning they could try to override Scott on any legislation he vetoes - including the entire state budget.

"He doesn't seem to be improving his relationship with the legislature," House Democratic Leader Ron Saunders of Key West said of Scott.

Scott is serving in his first elected office after a career as a health-care executive. His push to shrink government, cut taxes and create jobs played well during a campaign in which he spent more than $70 million of his own money.

But as governor, the political honeymoon has been short -- and not so sweet.

A Quinnipiac University poll earlier this month showed Scott's unfavorability rating among Floridians has doubled since February - to 48 percent, while only 35 percent approve of his job performance.

Scott's flagging figures may play a central role in the legislature's homestretch.

With Scott's popularity in question, lawmakers don't appear humbled by the power of the office.

That's a departure from recent first-year Florida governors. Lawmakers were wary of going too far in bucking former Govs. Jeb Bush and even Charlie Crist, who commanded an approval rating of 70 percent at this point in his first year as governor.

Bush pushed his A-plus education plan, including private-school vouchers, school grading, and $1 billion in tax cuts during his first spring as governor, even though he also was successfully sued by then-Senate President Toni Jennings, R-Orlando, over a partial budget veto he tried to issue.

Crist spearheaded a property-insurance special session within weeks of becoming governor and generally got what he wanted from lawmakers his rookie year.

Like Bush, Crist had a setback, challenged and stymied by a legislative leader, then-House Speaker Marco Rubio, over the governor's attempt to unilaterally enact a gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe.

But Scott's difficulties are compounded by playing in a new political world, lawmakers said.

"I think he's trying to find his way through a new world of conflicting forces and interests," Gaetz said of Scott. "There isn't just a group of shareholders waiting for their annual report at the end of the year, and their dividends. There's a group of legislators and interest groups who get engaged throughout the whole process."

Lawmakers say it's not just Scott's policy U-turns that have hurt his credibility. Several also have scoffed at his recent positioning on Solantic, the chain of urgent care clinics his family owns and plans to sell next week for less than its reported $62 million value.

Scott had earlier disavowed any role in the company he founded in 2001 because, he had put it in his wife's trust when he became governor. But Solantic proved a political albatross for Scott when The Palm Beach Post reported that it could profit from health care policies he is advancing as governor.

On the heels of Solantic, Scott further antagonized lawmakers last week.

The Post obtained a letter Scott's chief legal counsel wrote the Florida Supreme Court admitting that he had presented inaccurate information to justices during arguments that decided the fate of the high-speed rail project.

Charles Trippe told the court the state already had spent almost all of $130 million budgeted by lawmakers, suggesting that Scott was authorized to end the project.

Last week, Trippe told justices he had overstated high-speed rail spending by $100 million -- blaming the Florida Department of Transportation for providing the misleading figure. Lawmakers of both parties who sued Scott challenging his rail decision said they are still gauging what legal steps to take following the revelation.

Several lawmakers said Scott's awkward moves can be chalked up to first-year errors. But they are still magnified with so much at stake.

"I'm willing to give a new governor, with no experience previously, an opportunity to learn how to do things effectively," said Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart. "I'm confident he will. But he is still trying."

Gov. Rick Scott’s policy changes

* March 31, ordered immediate cut in funds for the developmentally disabled; reverses that order April 14.

* April 11, says he doesn’t want to sue to recoup tax money lost to BP oil spill; eases back on pledge April 13.

* Pushes for repeal of prescription drug database from Feb. 7 until April 8, when a signed contract by one of his department heads indicates he’s no longer opposed. April 14, testifies before Congress in support of state effort.

* Says he has no conflict and plays no role in Solantic since January inauguration; last week, his office announces family is selling the company.

* Scott’s general counsel tells Florida Supreme Court March 3 that state has spent most of high-speed rail money; writes justices April 14 admitting he was wrong

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