Rick Scott Absent in the Midst of Florida Budget Crisis

by | May 4, 2015

By Steve Bousquet

As the 2015 legislative session stumbled to a close Friday, Gov. Rick Scott's agenda lay in shambles, another victim of the Capitol's worst political breakdown in decades.

Fellow Republicans who control the Legislature failed to pass a state budget, so Scott's call for more money for schools remains unfulfilled. He did not get $673 million in tax cuts he wanted, a freeze on graduate school tuition, repeal of the sales tax on college textbooks or a permanent end to the sales tax on manufacturing equipment.

Scott's goals weren't grandiose. But every one became a casualty of the dysfunctional Capitol and what lawmakers describe as a disengaged style that has alienated Scott from many in his own party.

At a time when legislative leaders desperately needed intervention to break a budget deadlock, Scott was far from the action -- attending political fund-raisers, casting for jobs in California and dedicating a new amusement park ride in Orlando.

"I would rank Scott as the least effective, most incompetent governor in modern Florida history," said Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of political science at USF St. Petersburg and a registered Republican who has written about Florida politics for 30 years. "Scott was largely absent from the legislative session. He does not understand the process and he is not highly respected even by Republicans in the Legislature."

No second-term mandate

When the session began March 3, Scott appeared to be in a strong position.

As the leader of single-party control in the Capitol, he had come off a tough re-election victory and Florida was riding a $1 billion surplus thanks to an improved economy.

Yet winning by a 48 percent plurality had robbed Scott of a second-term mandate, and other Republicans began treating him with disdain that at times bordered on mockery.

"The governor is entitled to all of his positions on the issue," said a sarcastic Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, after Scott abandoned his past support of Medicaid expansion. That flip-flop isolated the Senate in its support of accepting federal money for its modified health care expansion plan.

Angering the Senate further, Scott waited until April 20 to propose a fix for the expected loss of $2.2 billion to cover the cost of hospital charity care to uninsured patients. Then what he sent to Washington mirrored the Senate plan for dealing with the loss of the so-called low income pool or LIP.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate publicly berated his chief elections official for his stubborn resistance to an online voter registration system, and when Scott threatened to veto senators' bills if they didn't pass his tax cuts, they revolted.

"Not productive," Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said of Scott's closed-door threats to several senators.

Scott has a standoffish style. He does not regularly knock on lawmakers' doors or invite them to the mansion for dinner the way Jeb Bush and other former governors did.

His reputation for aloofness makes it hard to reach essential compromises with legislators, and Scott paid a price for that. The Senate refused to confirm a dozen of his agency heads, including those who oversee Medicaid, public health, transportation and Ken Detzner, the chief state elections official. As a result, Scott must reappoint them within 45 days.

All in all, it was the shabbiest treatment Scott has received from the Legislature since he became governor more than four years ago.

Another dilemma Scott faced was the loss of a loyal ally to help him deal with the Legislature when John Thrasher left the Senate to become president of Florida State University last November. In past sessions, Thrasher bridged the gap between Scott and lawmakers and was in constant contact with Scott's top advisers in the governor's office.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, a skillful political tactician, stepped into the void left by Thrasher.

Latvala often professes his admiration for Scott. But amid the wreckage of the session, he too said he wished Scott showed stronger leadership and less of an eagerness to side with the House in the stalemate over health care.

"The governor needs to be an honest broker," Latvala said. "He needs to get people in the same room and work this out. And in working something out, everybody should be a winner. Everybody should try to achieve some of their goals in the process."

The disconnect was apparent when Scott hinted that he would call the Legislature back into a special session if Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli could not do it themselves.

"What's important is that the House, the Senate and the governor need to find out a way to work together and make sure it's good for all of our citizens," Scott said in his last meeting with Capitol reporters, a five-minute session on April 22.

Despite their criticism of Scott for being disengaged, senators say it would be a mistake for Scott to call a special session and would reveal an ignorance of the state's political history.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said Scott's intervention in setting a special session would be "ill-advised" and "paternalistic" and that a session should never be called before the chambers have shaped a compromise in private.

Scott also showed a lack of understanding of the process when it was apparent the House and Senate wouldn't draft a spending plan by May 1 and he called for a "continuation budget," similar to what Congress does. Senators pointed out no such provision exists in state law. "There's no such word," Lee said.

Asked late last week to respond to legislators' concerns, Scott's office cited his April 30 statement that called for all sides to "work together to craft a budget before July 1."

Bound for California

The governor's standing with legislators, especially in the Senate, has never been great. That relationship only worsened, however, as the choatic session wound on -- in part because Scott just wasn't around.

A former hospital chain CEO, Scott held many one-on-one meetings with lawmakers early in the session. But as relations soured between the House and Senate, the meetings became less frequent. Scott was often gone and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a former House majority leader, was rarely seen.

In April, with the House and Senate hurtling toward a meltdown, Scott flew to Los Angeles to poach jobs, dished paella in the Capitol courtyard as part of Miami-Dade Days and posed with the University of Florida Gator mascots and his "tax cut calculator" for tax cuts that don't yet exist. Scott continued to raise money during the session from special interests with a stake in the outcome of legislation, which rankled lawmakers who are prevented from fundraising during the 60-day session. Scott's continuous fundraising, even though he cannot run for governor again, paid for TV ads promoting his legislative priorities but also fueled speculation that he will run for U.S. Senate in 2018.

As the situation deteriorated in Tallahassee in the last couple weeks and senators warned of long-term damage to the Republican brand, Scott was dedicating a Wawa convenience store in Fort Myers.

On Wednesday, the morning after the House suddenly closed its doors three days before the scheduled adjournment, Scott was alongside a giant ferris wheel in Orlando with the daredevil Nik Wallenda, dedicating the state's latest tourist attraction, a 400-foot observation wheel.

"When this Legislature is screaming for leadership, he's on a Ferris wheel, he's opening up the Wawa, he's in another state on a private plane," said House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. "It's really remarkable how bad this governor has been."

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