How effectively did Gov. Rick Scott implement his agenda in his first legislative session? Editor Matt Walsh grades the governor.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott always talks about measuring results and accountability. He welcomes it — even that of his own performance.
In that vein, if you measured the results of the most recent session of the Legislature against Scott's specific legislative agenda outlined in his State of the State address and on the campaign trail, the following shows how he fared.
Scott didn't get exactly what he sought on every issue, but on every issue on Scott's agenda, the Legislature at least moved in his direction. To wit:
BUDGET — Scott proposed cutting the budget to $65.9 billion. The Legislature adopted a $68 billion budget.
TAX CUTS — Scott proposed tax cuts totaling $2 billion, including the phase-out of the corporate income tax. The Legislature delivered $308 million in tax cuts. The cuts included $210.5 million from the state's five water management districts, a 30% drop in their property-tax collections.
The cuts also include $30 million from corporate income taxes. This will be achieved by increasing the threshold that triggers the 5.5% income tax. The new threshold rises to $25,000 in profits, up from $5,000. Scott said this change will mean nearly 50% of Florida's corporations will no longer pay the state corporate income tax.
REGULATION/DEREGULATION — Scott called for the elimination of “unreasonable regulation that stands in the way of job creation” in his State of the State address. The Legislature in turn adopted what it dubbed the “Community Planning Act,” one of the biggest easing of regulations in the state's 1985 Growth Management Act.
Some of the provisions of the new legislation shift more responsibility to local governments on whether to continue to require developers to pay for infrastructure improvements. The bill also removes limitations on the number of times local governments may process plan amendments, and there is no longer a state-mandated review of all changes to comprehensive plans.
Scott said “probably one of the biggest steps we've taken” is the downsizing of the Departments of Community Affairs and Environmental Protection. “They're dramatically different, and they now work with our economic development team,” he said, alluding to a practice that wasn't common in previous administrations.
ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT — Scott said recruiting companies to Florida would be a top priority. He wanted to combine multiple agencies into one super Department of Economic Opportunity. The Senate was expected to adopt Scott's plan Friday, the last day of the session.
The measure was expected to combine the functions, duties and programs of Enterprise Florida Inc., the Florida Sports Foundation Inc., VISIT Florida, the Florida Black Business Investment Board Inc. and Space Florida into a not-for-profit corporation called the Jobs Florida Partnership Inc.
EDUCATION — Scott made this a top priority in his State of the State address. He called for increasing the number of charter schools; expanding the state's “opportunity scholarship” program, which allows students in failing public schools to attend better performing schools; and he wanted legislation that would allow the state to give public-school teachers merit pay based 50% on students' performance and to make it easier to fire underperforming teachers.
The Legislature gave Scott all that he asked.
Previously, teachers' contracts were almost automatically renewed and raises given on the basis of length of service. And in the event of an underperforming teacher, it often would take more than two years to fire a teacher, with the teacher remaining in classrooms all the while. No more.
“The right thing happened” Scott said. “We are now putting kids first.”
STATE PENSIONS — Scott began his term, saying state employees needed to contribute some of their own money to their pension plans, heretofore not required. The Legislature adopted a measure that will now require state employees to contribute 3% of the salaries to the pension system.
“It's important that this system be fair to state workers and to taxpayers,” Scott said. He said he will determine before the 2012 session whether he will pursue additional pension reforms.
MEDICAID REFORM — Scott's State of the State address said the costs of Medicaid in Florida ($21 billion a year) “have been spiraling out of control.” He said the system could save money by “adopting market principles and giving patients more choices.”
The Legislature complied. It adopted Medicaid reforms that would call for Medicaid recipients to enroll in private-sector operated health maintenance organizations. The legislation also places limits on medical malpractice awards against physicians who treat Medicaid patients.
Scott was unable to estimate how much the HMO system would save taxpayers. “The reforms should increase the access for recipients, and the service will be at prices that are better for taxpayers,” Scott said.
UNEMPLOYMENT COMPENSATION — “The costs of unemployment insurance cannot be allowed to deter job creation,” Scott said in his State of the State address. “By working with the Legislature, we will bring those costs down.”
The Legislature complied. It reduced the length of time unemployed workers can receive unemployment insurance compensation. The higher the state's unemployment rate, the longer benefits will be paid — up to a maximum of 26 weeks if the unemployment rate is 12% or higher (that's in the Senate version). When the unemployment rate falls to 5% or lower, unemployed would be eligible to receive benefits up to 12 weeks.
The bill also will require recipients to show state officials proof they are searching for work. Without that, benefits would be cut off.
“The best way to keep unemployment compensation costs down is to get more companies to move into the state,” Scott said.
LEGAL REFORM — Although a lawyer, Scott spoke often on the campaign trail for lawsuit reform — discouraging frivolous suits, high monetary awards and fraud.
The Legislature was unable to deliver on reforms to personal injury protection insurance (PIP) that would have capped attorney fees and made it more difficult for insurance fraud. But the Legislature did adopt measures that should help bring down the cost of auto insurance and eliminate some fraud in property insurance.
One is known as the “crash worthiness” law. This law will now allow insurance companies to take into account a driver's physical and mental conditions just prior to an accident. Heretofore, trial lawyers would go after the deep-pocketed auto manufacturers, often claiming faulty manufacturing for auto accidents. The insurance companies, meanwhile, could not assign blame to a driver's condition.
Rep. Bryan Nelson, R-Apopka, says the old law added a $300 to $400 tax onto every new car in the state.
The other measure lawmakers adopted was known as the “expert testimony” amendment. This bill raises the threshold for who qualifies in jury trials as an expert — raising the burden of proof for complainants in trials.
The third measure makes it more difficult for consumers to file fraudulent sinkhole insurance claims. This measure also would require the claims funds to be used on repairs, a practice that often was not followed.