Despite surprising decisions to spend more money on education and Everglades restoration, Gov. Rick Scott is sticking to his principles of shrinking government and growing the economy.
Who. Gov. Rick Scott
Key. How the first-time politician is navigating the Tallahassee political morass in his second year in office.
TALLAHASSEE — It has often been observed that the longer a politician is in office, the more his ideals corrupt. Through the power and trappings of office and the general horse-trading games played, whether in Washington, D.C., or Tallahassee, the anything-goes atmosphere corrodes personal integrity and idealism.
If this is one of those laws of nature understood by the Founding Fathers, who desired a “citizen legislature,” then how long will it take for the law of political corruption to assert itself on a newcomer such as Gov. Rick Scott?
Not yet, according to an interview the Business Review conducted with the governor in his Capitol office recently.
Scott still comes off just as normal, natural, unassuming and genuine as he did before he ran for office. After one year in office, the politics of Tallahassee have not jaded him. His optimism about what Florida can be if it follows his prescriptions is positively Reagan-esque.
“At the end of four years, this is where I think we will be: we'll be a fast-growing state again; we will be a state where people can find a job; and we'll be a state where people can afford to live,” he says, as confidently as if he is projecting the sun will rise in the east.
“We're going to be on a pathway to solve the major financial issues we have in the state. The major financial issues we have are Citizens, PIP insurance, pensions, state debt,” he says, pulling down a finger for each one.
Indeed, Scott is already hitting on all four of those.
But perhaps his biggest accomplishments in his first year fall into the categories of creating jobs and reigning in the size of state government.
On the first, Florida has generated 142,000 private sector jobs in Scott's first 12 months in office, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. After accounting for government jobs eliminated during the year, the state had a net gain of 127,400 jobs.
That has contributed to an unemployment rate that has fallen more than 2% in his first 12 months, from 12% to 9.9%. Too high still, to be sure, but the state has the third-fastest job creation rate in the country.
In the area of learning curves, he is finding that raw partisan politics are never far from the surface in Tallahassee, even with great news. In this area of good news, for instance, Florida Democrats respond to the falling unemployment rate and rising levels of job creation with attacks on Scott.
“Governor Rick Scott's Tea Party agenda is moving our state in the wrong direction and forcing Florida's economy to lag behind the rest of the nation,” state Democratic Chairman Rod Smith said in a statement. Smith went on to complain of the state jobs that Scott has cut.
The governor seems somewhat amazed at special interest politics based in unreality. But he is accepting it as part of the landscape.
On the second area of accomplishments, Scott and Republican leaders in the Legislature closed a $3.6 billion budget gap last year and eliminated 6,200 state jobs. He managed a minor tax cut and is hoping for more this year, although the state is facing another $2 billion budget hole -- making tax cuts a political challenge.
“If we don't put ourselves in a position where Florida companies can do better, we won't grow,” he says.
A year later
The old saw goes, “What a difference a year makes!” But in Scott's case, it is not actually much, at least as far as his agenda goes. What has changed somewhat is his approach, specifically toward journalists.
The media is painting him as more acquiescent and more conciliatory as he is spending more time talking to them.
While members of the media see themselves as objective outsiders observing and reporting on what is going on among the powers in the state Capitol, the media is actually very much part of the power structure that attempts to move agendas. That structure is made up of politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists and the media. And not necessarily in that order.
The media bristled last year at not being made an integral part of Scott's every move. They were used to fawning politicians such as Gov. Charlie Crist. Scott just wanted to get the work done as he had in the private sector, but discovered that the media powers can thwart good work.
Indeed, the media admit as much. A Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel editorial last summer lauded Scott for saying he would spend more time speaking to the media:
“The governor only hurts his own cause by keeping the state's media organizations at arm's length. That was proven to be the case in this year's session, where the governor struggled to build broad support for key pieces of his agenda.” Message: the media can support or thwart Scott.
Scott recognizes this fact of life. He has to deal with politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyist and, yes, the media. So he holds more press conferences and allows more interview time.
Beyond dealing with the media more, Scott is staying on point, not changing from last year.
“Last year I had just come off a campaign,” he says. “I ran a campaign on all the things I care about. So I walked into the session and everyone knew, and the public agreed with me and elected me.”
Those items could be boiled down to: creating private-sector jobs and putting the state's house in financial order. This year is essentially the same: private-sector job creation, no-fault insurance reform and education.
A billion for education
When Scott announced he wanted to add $1 billion to education, there were a few mumblings. Was this revealing the first signs of political corrosion?
For many who see the schools in more need of dramatic reform than more money, this looked like throwing away a billion dollars and for what? To curry favor with teachers and their unions.
But Scott, in his trademark button-down shirt with the state seal over his name above the pocket, happily dismisses the notion. He got much of what he wanted in education last year and now was the time to start funding changes.
“We had great education reform last year,” he says. “We've had a dramatic expansion of charter schools, so it is more than just choice. We got rid of tenure for new teachers. That means principals will be able to keep the best teachers and get rid of bad teachers.”
Indeed, the state has added 89 new charter schools and also expanded opportunity scholarships. But what animates Scott most is the opportunity to change how education is measured and thus improved. In this, Scott takes the same, keen-eyed analytical approach that made him so successful in acquiring hospitals and building the largest chain in the world.
“I'm trying to get every agency to think like a business,” Scott says. The phrase makes some people groan, but there is value in it. “In a business, you measure things. My belief is people want to be the best. The teachers, the principals, the superintendents are going to want to be better and the parents are going to hold them accountable.”
So he is directing the state to gather far more measurements for schools to give parents.
“You should know how you are doing compared to the other 66 school districts. You should know how your school is doing compared to other schools. You should know how your teacher for your child is compared to other teachers.”
Right now, such numbers are scarce and not easy for parents to obtain. “My personal belief is you want to be No. 1. As a parent, you want your child to go to the best schools...now that you have better information, you're going to force the change.”
And this can only work with lots of data and with lots of easy opportunities for parents to change schools.
“We need as much choice as we can, because I think parents will make a better decision. It's their money, their child, and they ought to have good information.”
And then, in a rare moment of passion, Scott leans forward and makes the point again: “I think if we empower parents with choice and good information, they'll make good decisions.”
After Scott made his anthropology remark in Sarasota last fall, his daughter called him from California. “Dad, you might want to pull up Yahoo! right now. You're the number one story.”
Scott had ruffled the higher ed tut-tuts by suggesting the state not give the same support to anthropology degrees as to engineering.
Scott recounts the conversation: “You might remember I got my degree in anthropology,” she said, to which Scott replied: “'How did that work out for you?' She didn't laugh.”
Scott still believes that higher education dollars should go to degrees where people can get jobs. And he adamantly believes that students ought to be informed of their job prospects before declaring a major.
“Students need to know where they can get jobs,” he says. “I don't think they're informed where the jobs are.”
He does not intend to let the issue die just because the media got all sidetracked on the relative merits of anthropology. Pushing STEM — one of the hottest acronyms in education right now, standing for science, technology, engineering and math — is a priority.
State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan has agreed. While assuaging the liberal arts community by saying there are no plans to gut the humanities, Brogan also says it is critically important to move STEM to a higher priority.
The other area that raised eyebrows among some Scott backers was his announcement to fully fund the Everglades restoration project with another $40 million. That gave Scott a rousing ovation from a consortium of the state's most powerful environmental groups — who have been natural opponents of the governor's pro-jobs, small-government approach. And it made the Miami Herald question whether Scott was now governing by poll because his cuts to Everglades funding last year polled badly.
The Everglades restoration plan has long pitted agriculture against development against environmentalists against the state's budget. Crist at one time signed off on an extravagant plan to spend $1.75 billion to “save” the Everglades by buying United States Sugar and restoring the land. But that 2008 jaw-dropper was derailed by the recession.
Scott's $40 million proposal is peanuts compared with what Crist wanted to do. But it still surprised some given the state's ongoing budget problems. And his explanation for the move is somewhat less persuasive and passionate than his case for education funding.
He lays out the fact that 6 million people rely on water flowing through the Everglades and says the state needs to improve the flow of that water. So he put a proposal on the table in October and there have been many meetings with federal officials. In fact, any plan will require the approval of loads of federal agencies. Scott says he expects those agencies will have ideas for improving the plan.
“I'm optimistic we will have a long-term plan the state can afford, rather than a plan we cannot,” he says.
A few days after the Business Review's interview with the governor, Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Florida and the federal government are making progress on the Everglades.
“The governor and I have many conversations about this,” Salazar said. “We're not interested in litigation, we're not interested in finger-pointing; what we're interested in are results that matter and for us having success in the restoration is very important to the president of the United States. It's very important to this governor and it's very important to me.”
Scott lands on more natural ground with his success in cutting state spending and long-term debt.
“We had been increasing the amount of state debt by a billion dollars a year for 20 years,” he points out. While Florida is constitutionally required to balance its operating budget each year, it borrows money for capital expense such as road and building construction and buying environmental lands.
“We balanced the budget by borrowing more money,” Scott says. “Now, did they spend it on things that were long-term assets? Sure. But how much money can you afford?”
The state has rang up $27.2 billion in debt and has been increasing it by about $1 billion annually the past decade; typical unrestrained political spending. Most politicians will not reduce spending and debt unless compelled by law.
But Scott, working with the Republican Legislature, not only did not add anything to the debt, but cut $500 million.
“This is the first year we've paid down state debt in 20 years,” he says. “Our credit rating was on 'credit watch,' it's now on triple AAA. It's higher than the federal government's.”
He intends to cut more this year. It is part of Scott's vision for a financially stable state that is attractive to job-creating companies.
“If you look at what we accomplished last year, it's going to put us over the years in a better position,” he says, adding that he wants people saying, “I should move to Florida because of good schools, good universities and I can get a good job.”
After one year in office, he has stayed true to that focus.