Remembering Rubio's Record as Florida House Speaker

His tenure was marked with disappointment, embarrassment and little to brag about. But his anti-tax stance helped him politically.
by | March 9, 2016
(AP/Cliff Owen)

Marco Rubio is hoping a victory in next Tuesday's GOP primary in Florida will help revive his struggling presidential campaign. It's unlikely, however, that his record in the state will win over many more voters.

Rubio served as speaker of the Florida House nearly a decade ago during his mid-30s. He wasn't at the center of any major scandals, and the legislature passed balanced budgets during his tenure. But he didn't accomplish anything so memorable that it guarantees him bragging rights.

"I can't say with honesty there was any powerhouse idea [from Rubio] that transformed the state of Florida," said Darryl Paulson, a retired University of South Florida government professor.

Other Florida speakers have reorganized state government or sponsored landmark water or disability bills. For his part, Rubio cut taxes and crafted budgets that were smaller than the ones proposed by the governor or state Senate.

In retrospect, Rubio's stint as speaker -- from 2007 to 2008 -- was poorly timed for pursuing bold agendas. Florida's tax revenues were already starting to shrink as the housing market began to go south. There wasn't a lot of money to play with, but neither were there huge challenges that needed to be addressed.

Rubio himself describes his time with occasional tones of disappointment and frustration in his memoir, An American Son. "Nothing seemed to go smoothly in my first months as speaker," he wrote.

He was frequently distracted by minor flaps, such as the amount of money he spent on office renovations and staff salaries or his personal use of a state party credit card. Other speakers had spent even more gussying up their offices, but Rubio had a thin skin and lashed back at critics.

"In the months following my election as speaker, I would make personal and political decisions that would cause me considerable difficulty and embarrassment in the future when I tried to explain them to a skeptical press," he recounts in his memoir.

The moment for which Rubio may be best remembered happened immediately after he was designated speaker. He presented his colleagues with a book called 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future. The book was blank. Rubio was challenging his fellow Republicans to help him fill it.

A real 100 Ideas roadmap was soon printed up. It contained some of the standard proposals you would expect from GOP lawmakers, including calls for tax cuts, government spending reductions and school choice. In the end, two dozen laws were enacted from Rubio's blueprint, with 10 other ideas gaining partial passage. But not many of them were earthshaking. Multiyear car registration and an online health insurance database may have been helpful, but they didn't do much to reshape the state.

When it came to bigger ticket issues, Rubio often was unable to set the terms of debate. He never got along too well with Gov. Charlie Crist, whom he saw as too accommodating to Democrats. (Crist had been elected as a Republican, became an independent after Rubio successfully challenged him during the 2010 U.S. Senate election and then unsuccessfully sought the governor's office again in 2014 as a Democrat.)

Crist, for example, took a more populist stance toward property insurance -- a huge issue in the hurricane-prone state -- than Rubio. Crist chose to freeze rates and push a regulatory overhaul bill that Rubio didn't like but was only able to tweak at the margins. Crist also prevailed on the issue of property tax rates, enacting a much smaller cut than Rubio wanted. Rubio had offered an ambitious proposal to abolish property taxes for primary residences, replacing the revenue with increased sales taxes.

"I knew the bill wasn't good enough," Rubio writes about Crist's tax package. "But I also knew we had gone as far as we could. We had done our best and fallen short."

Rubio's appearances around the state touting an anti-tax stance, however, worked for him politically. It's hard to remember now, when Rubio has spent the year attempting to emerge as the choice of the Republican establishment, but he was elected to the U.S. Senate six years ago as one of the earliest darlings of the Tea Party.

"The one thing that Marco is still known for is that he is such a gifted orator," said Pete Dunbar, a former GOP legislator who lobbies in Tallahassee.

Even on his last day as Florida's speaker, Rubio faced frustration. He had to settle for a much narrower version of a bill addressing health insurance for disabled children than he'd hoped for.

"He left office to mixed reviews," wrote Manuel Roig-Franza in The Rise of Marco Rubio, "but with big goals for the future."