Rick Scott pares down ambitions for election-year legislative session

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Gov. Rick Scott entered the 2011 legislative session, his first one as governor, with several ambitious goals.

All new state employees would start a 401(k)-type pension plan; he vowed to cut $2 billion in taxes, including a comprehensive reduction in corporate income taxes. Drug testing for recipients of state welfare benefits and passing a two-year budget — each of them was haughty objectives.

As time wore on, and a number of victories (at least in part), the governor’s wish list kept getting smaller with each successive session. In 2013, he offered two proposals — a manufacturing equipment tax break and teacher pay raises. With a list down to only two, it was a slam dunk for Scott to get he wanted.

Now, in the last session before he faces re-election, the single issue in Scott’s plan – other than a handful of budgetary highlights — is $500 million in tax and fee cuts.

And that is all he might need for his re-election campaign, writes Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

Republicans are following Scott’s lead in the new legislative session beginning Tuesday while Democrats are a little more cynical.

“The good news is,” says House Speaker Will Weatherford, “his agenda is aligned with ours, and vice versa,” said, R-Wesley Chapel.

“Fifty percent plus 1 in November and that’s what they’re working on,” Rep. Mark Pafford said at a recent budget hearing.

House Minority Leader Perry Thurston feels expansion of Medicaid is probably off the table. The controversial issue would have brought in about $51 billion in federal money to the state over 10 years.

“Without a doubt the Republicans are looking for a very smooth session,” Thurston told the News Service. “We think the last thing they want to address is the $51 billion elephant in the room.”

It is certainly clear that there has been a distinct change in Scott’s style. In his first session, it seemed as if Scott was chief executive officer of a corporation, with a board of directors expected to yield.

Since then, he has taken a more “bridge building” approach dealing with lawmakers, highlighted by the appointment of House Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera as lieutenant governor.

“(Scott) got here, he was a CEO, had that kind of background and mentality,” said St. Augustine Republican Sen. John Thrasher, who serves as Scott’s campaign chair. “I think he understands that there are probably 160 folks (lawmakers) out here who think they’ve got just as much understanding of what ought to be done for the state as he does.”

Time heals all wounds; years after the vitriolic 2010 primary against former-Attorney General Bill McCollum, where most of the GOP establishment lined up against Scott, hostility towards the governor has softened considerably.

“I wouldn’t call it a hostile takeover,” Senate President Don Gaetz tells the News Service. “But in business terms, when you step into an organization that didn’t really want you, you’ve got some real challenges.”

That doesn’t mean the 2014 session will not be without its challenges. Weatherford and Gaetz disclosed an ambitious agenda, with pension overhaul similar to Scott’s 2011 proposals, and substantial expansion of the state’s “scholarship” program, which equates to a de facto school-voucher program.

A House-Senate “Work Plan” could help the governor, Gaetz says, even that wasn’t the primary intent.

“All of that work, I think, is good policy,” Gaetz said. “And I believe that good policy becomes good politics.”

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.