TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott is going into his second legislative session with the same priorities — creating jobs and making the state more business friendly — and a new approach.
Scott is a conservative Republican and the Legislature is overwhelmingly conservative Republican, but the sides clashed at the beginning of the year as Scott came in as a political outsider vowing to change Tallahassee. He surrounded himself with a team also made up of outsiders, announced his proposed budget at a tea party rally in a central Florida church and set an agenda that even had other Republicans politely questioning if it was too much.
This year his goals are more realistic, he announced his budget in the Capitol without a crowd waving "Don't Tread On Me" flags and his team now includes longtime Tallahassee insiders. In other words, the former CEO is recognizing that while he is governor, passing laws isn't about telling the Legislature what he wants, but working with lawmakers to achieve what he can.
"I feel like the governor came in with a steep learning curve and has continuously improved," said House Speaker Dean Cannon, who added that Scott's new team will help. "Individually and in the aggregate, they all appear to be really good changes and I think that they're increasing his effectiveness ... At least from my perspective, we're very pleased."
Scott still wants corporate tax cuts, stripped down business regulations, fewer government jobs and to have many state employees contribute more for their benefits. He's no longer talking about cutting corporate taxes by about $1.4 billion in his first two years in office.
"I didn't quite get there, did I?" Scott said, adding that he also didn't anticipate a budget deficit this year, which is stalling his goal to eventually phase out the tax.
Instead of getting a rate cut, last session he settled for raising the corporate tax exemption, which cost the state $11.7 million. This session he wants to raise the exemption again, which will save businesses a total of $8.4 million.
"I want to put us in a position that, if you think about being in business, if you're going to be in business in America, you're going to be in business in Florida," Scott said. "People like to live here. We don't have a personal income tax, if we don't have a business tax, then it will even make it even more logical that people are going to pick Florida first."
Among cuts he's proposing are 4,500 government jobs, many in the state prison system. He also wants to raise the cost of health insurance contributions for many state employees. In all, he wants to cut state spending $1.8 billion — about 4.6 percent — mostly from Medicaid by changing the way hospitals and doctors are reimbursed for providing care. He does, though, want to boost school spending by a $1 billion.
"It's one of these good-news-and-bad-news situations," said Democratic House Leader Ron Saunders of Key West, adding he's glad that Scott is boosting money for education, but it shouldn't come at the expense of other vital programs. He said he has had a few meetings with Scott and told him that Democrats also support jobs, but they're encouraging spending on infrastructure needs instead of corporate giveaways.
"Those are hypothetical jobs. What I'd like to see is sewer projects and funding for roads and bridges. Those are real jobs," Saunders said.
But Saunders, too, notices a difference in Scott's approach this year.
"He's seeing the polls, and if he wants to re-elected, which he says he does, 26 percent isn't where he wants to be," Saunders said.
Saunders and others credit his improved relationship with lawmakers with the arrival of his second chief of staff, Steve MacNamara, who left Senate President Mike Haridopolos' office. Haridopolos said he remembers when Scott approached him about hiring MacNamara away.
"I was like, 'Heck yeah!' It will only improve the relationship more," Haridopolos said.
Haridopolos said there isn't really a philosophical difference between Scott, himself and Cannon, but the communication has improved.
"The difference between this year and last year is that his staff last year did not have that Tallahassee experience, understanding not only process but even some of the complexities of the issues," Haridopolos said. "Even when we disagreed on the corporate tax — that was a high profile thing last year — he understands why we made the decision we did. And you saw this year he adjusted the corporate tax cut versus his previous request."