State Politics

2011 FLORIDA LEGISLATURE | Session begins Tuesday

TALLAHASSEE -- Sen. J.D. Alexander’s cell phone buzzed with a six-word text message: “We just killed high speed rail.”

The terse note from Gov. Rick Scott’s top policy adviser, Mary Anne Carter, understated the explosive decision to stop a politically sensitive $3 billion project dead in its tracks.

And the casual conveyance to the powerful Senate budget chief, accustomed to being deferred to, underscored the challenge that Scott, 58, could face massaging his ambitious agenda through a veto-proof Legislature that naturally bristles at the executive branch.

“Governors have among the biggest egos in the state of Florida. But so do members of the House and Senate,” said former state Sen. Steve Geller, D-Hallandale Beach. “I do foresee some problems here.”

In his first two months in office, Scott has shown two very different sides of himself in his approach to the Legislature.

At times, the Kansas City native exudes Midwestern politeness. He asks lawmakers about their families, insists on pictures during meetings in his office and invites fellow Republicans to private dinners prepared by the Governor’s Mansion chef.

But other times Scott, a former CEO at the nation’s largest hospital chain in the 1990s and a leader in the rebellious tea party movement, moves through the Capitol like a boardroom where his decisions should be rubber-stamped.

Lobbyists complain only a select few can schedule meetings in the governor’s office; Scott’s press office threatens media outlets before unflattering stories are published; and, in the Legislature, Scott temporarily barred his aides from a committee after the chairman peppered them with aggressive questions.

The Legislature has already shown signs of pushing back. Alexander suggested Scott violated the state Constitution with the sale of two state planes and has filed a public records request for documents related to the move. One of Scott’s earliest supporters, Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland, authored a letter signed by a veto-proof majority of 26 senators rebuking Scott for his high-speed rail decision.

“We now see what the outsider perspective looks like,” Republican consultant David Johnson of Tallahassee said. “And it’s going to take some getting used to by the old bulls of the Legislature.”

Scott’s first-year agenda can largely be found within his controversial budget proposal, which he unveiled at a tea party rally in Eustis. Sen. Mike Bennett, a Sarasota Republican and supporter of Scott’s, said Scott “sent the wrong message” by unrolling the budget to a select group of Floridians.

Scott, however, has shown little interest in appealing to the 51 percent who voted for another candidate for governor.

The staggering $4.6 billion spending cut in Scott’s budget was applauded by tea party leaders. But even conservative lawmakers who have made budget cuts a top goal say some of Scott’s spending priorities might not be welcomed.

For example, conservative leaders are unlikely to cut public school spending by 10 percent while paying for tax cuts on corporate income and pollutants. Scott has recommended both.

“I doubt we’re going to have 100 percent agreement, but we’re going to find a lot of common ground,” said Senate President Mike Haridopolos, a Merritt Island Republican and 2012 U.S. Senate candidate. “He’s a very good salesman.”

Scott has pulled back on some plans, such as a hefty property tax cut and a universal school voucher program, as he attempts to turn campaign promises into state policy.

But lawmakers are left to fill holes for others.

Scott is still pushing to eliminate corporate income taxes, even though such a move would jeopardize the Florida Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship Program, a system that uses corporate taxes to fund private-school vouchers for poor students. Scott has acknowledged the problem but has not offered a potential fix.

“His core goal is something we completely agree with, as far as reducing the tax burden on businesses when you’re trying to soak up unemployment,” said House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park. “But the full implications of the concept he put forward may need to be modified to be workable.”

Both chambers, like Scott, have made a priority of cutting the business taxes used to pay for unemployment benefits.

The House proposal (HB 7005), which Scott supports, is ready for a floor vote the first week of session.

But Democrats say the unemployment changes would shift costs, at least initially, to the federal government and that Scott’s attempts to cut spending will result in a bigger burden on school boards, cities and counties.

“It’s a shell game,” said Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando. “That’s why street carnies make money, because it’s tough to follow a shell game.”

Few Republicans will publicly admit any lingering resentments from the 2010 primary season, but no one has forgotten the attacks traded between Scott and nearly the entire GOP establishment.

As Scott spent $50.2 million during the GOP primary decrying Tallahassee as overrun by special interests and career politicians, Cannon and Haridopolos returned fire.

Committees controlled by the two spent at least $1.5 million to paint Scott as untrustworthy at best and potentially criminal.

Cannon and Haridopolos sheathed their swords after the primary, directing $300,000 and $25,000, respectively, to Scott’s campaign.

But Scott maintains much of the vocabulary from his stump speech.

He describes the state budget written by his fellow Republicans as “bloated” and still insists he’s “going to win.” But his competition now is Texas, Illinois and any other state that might vie with Florida for new business.

Scott has formed strategic alliances with Tallahassee-based business groups, such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, that backed Bill McCollum in the primary. But he opted for loyalty over legislative experience as he built a staff that will share in the successes and failures of his first year in office.

Carter, known as “Mac,” ran a Tennessee consulting firm that specialized in political research before joining Scott; Enu Mainigi, a corporate attorney from Washington, D.C., is running a transition that remains unfinished after five months; chief of staff Mike Prendergast spent three decades stationed around the world as a U.S. Army colonel before retiring to Tampa and coming up short in a 2010 U.S. House bid.

When asked about his relationship with the Legislature, Scott said he and his fellow Republicans have a shared goal. “We have to get the state back to work,” Scott said, repeating his well-worn campaign slogan.

Lawmakers, however, say creating jobs is the goal, not fulfilling Scott’s campaign pledges

“We’ve been trying everything we can to let him know we want to work with him,” said Alexander, R-Lake Wales. “But it’s a two-way street.

Related stories from Bradenton Herald