State Politics

Scott’s role in Capital: consolidation king

TALLAHASSEE -- Gov.-elect Rick Scott should arrive in the state capital with a wrecking ball to tear down a dozen state agencies and merge them together to save money and streamline services, advisers to the new governor say in a series of transition reports delivered to him this week.

Scott, who has promised to cut 6,000 state jobs on his way to creating 700,000 private-sector positions, could be the consolidation king if he adopts the proposals offered to him by his transition committees.

Over at the Department of Education, his transition team suggests no mergers, just a massive restructuring of education that would provide vouchers for all, eliminate teacher job protection and tie school salaries to student performance.

“I wanted to be provocative,” said Alan Levine, the former secretary of the Agency for Health Care Administration under Gov. Jeb Bush who led Scott’s healthcare transition committee and recommended Scott make Medicaid reform a top priority as he merges the healthcare agencies. “It doesn’t do any good for us to give him mealy-mouthed ideas. They really need some bold ideas to make sure they have a good place to start from.”

Levine’s Health and Human Services Transition Team suggests Scott merge the departments of Health and Elder Affairs with AHCA and Persons with Disabilities. The big new agency would be called the Department of Health and Human Services.

The Regulatory Reform Transition Team wants to fold three agencies now overseeing environmental protection, growth management and transportation into a single agency called the Department of Growth Leadership.

And the Law and Order Transition team called for decentralizing the state’s prison agency and detaching it from the police unions while eventually merging the Department of Juvenile Justice with the Department of Children & Families.

Those are some, but not all, of the recommendations offered by four of Scott’s six transition teams. Some ideas are very specific, such as suggesting that Scott talk about the “financial storm ahead” brought on by the exploding Medicaid budget, or whom to hire for various deputy posts at the agencies.

The 20-page transition report from the 20-member education team may be the most provocative, offering one radical recommendation after another.

Among them:

Giving all parents an “education savings account” equal to 85 percent of the amount the student would have generated in the public school system (or about $5,800 this year.) The money could be used for private school, dual enrollment or college savings, although the panel did not explain how the proposal would clear the constitutional hurdles that tripped up the earlier voucher program championed by former Gov. Bush.

Eliminating tenure for newly hired K-12 teachers, making it easier to fire bad teachers, removing teacher evaluations from the collective bargaining process and paying teachers more if they squeeze more progress out of their students or work in high-poverty schools.

Giving parents a bigger say in schools, such as parental consent to place students in classes with teachers rated ineffective; creating “student achievement growth charts” to monitor students’ progress, and allowing parents in struggling schools to decide what kind of turn-around solution they want.

Giving the agency a name with a positive spin: the Department of Education Innovation.

By consolidating the health agencies, Scott would reverse the work of Gov. Lawton Chiles 20 years ago, who pushed for the separation of the state’s massive Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services into the Department of Health, the Agency for Health Care Regulation, the Department of Children & Families and, later, the Department of Elder Affairs. The Agency for Persons with Disabilities was created under Bush.

“We are in a different place today than we were when HRS was there,” said Levine, who said he realized the efficiencies a larger agency could employ when he was Secretary of the Department of Health and Hospitals in Louisiana under Gov. Bobby Jindal.

The healthcare advisory team recommended leaving DCF out of the large health agency to allow it to focus on child welfare, Levine said.

Another transition team, tasked with looking at the Department of Health, was headed by Jason Rosenberg, a medical doctor. It criticized the current agency for lacking leadership and a sense of mission.

Among the team’s recommendations:

Getting the state out of the business of providing primary care through county health departments, except if it is the only facility available in a region.

Closing the A.G. Holley State Hospital in Lantana.

Setting up a panel to consider selling the state’s public hospitals -- a group that includes Jackson Health System and the North and South Broward hospital districts -- and if sold, give them state subsidies for serving low-income patients.

Scott’s Regulatory Reform Transition Team, chaired by Chris Corr, an executive with the building and design firm AECOM, contended that by merging the Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Community Affairs, state regulation could focus on making “good development happen” rather than interfering with it.

Other agencies could be integrated as well, the committee said, such as the state’s regional planning councils, the water management districts, even the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Currently those agencies are mired in “regulatory mistrust, competition, duplication and conflict,” the committee warned. It complained that DEP had even gone from a mission of “protection” in the 1970s to one of “suppression” in the 2000s even though that was during the two terms of business-friendly Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.

Scott should also abolish some longstanding growth-management rules and block local governments such as Hillsborough County from enforcing their own, more restrictive regulations protecting wetlands from development, the committee concluded.

The Law and Order Transition team recommended that the state revamp the way it handles juvenile justice by bringing a “more communty-based approach,” such as the organizational structure at DCF.

The goal of the committees was to think broadly, said Carlos Alfonso, a Tampa architect and developer who served on Scott’s regulatory reform committee.

“Maybe it’s because of the economy and the way things are going right now,” he said, “but there’s a desire to think of the big idea, rather than just the solutions.”

St. Petersburg Times reporters Ron Matus and Craig Pittman and Miami Herald reporter

John Dorschner contributed to this report.