After a weekend where Democrats expressed confidence that they could beat Gov. Rick Scott in 2014, a pair of events this week sent them a stark reminder of a bromide that approaches cliché: In politics, 17 months is a lifetime.
On Tuesday, a public poll showed Scott’s approval rating improving — not enough to give him a lead on some of his possible Democratic opponents, but enough to give him a chance to put his rumored $100 million re-election budget to good use.
“Now that doesn’t mean that happy days are here again for the governor, but if he is going to make a comeback these are the kind of steps that would be required,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, in a news release announcing the results. “Whether it is the start of something larger, we’ll see in the coming months.”
And the governor got more encouraging news by the time he stepped off a plane Friday, returning home from a trip to Paris. The state’s unemployment rate fell to 7.1 percent in May, the lowest since September 2008.
The week that was in Florida politics from Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.
SCOTT’S TRES BONNE WEEK
The positive news for Scott’s political fortunes could only be seen when considering where he was a few months ago. Florida voters were evenly divided on his job approval rating, with 43 percent approving and 44 percent disapproving. That’s an improvement for a governor who, in March, was staring at 36 percent approval and 49 percent disapproval.
Scott also boosted his standing in a hypothetical race against former Gov. Charlie Crist, who spent the weekend showing off his newfound Florida Democratic Party membership at the Jefferson-Jackson soiree in Hollywood, Fla., but wouldn’t directly answer questions about whether he would challenge Scott.
If Crist does take that step, the poll showed the race moving from a drubbing for Scott to a sound defeat. Crist led the poll by 10 points, instead of 16 points just three months ago. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson would also win by 10 points if he reverses his not-quite Shermanesque insistence that he won’t run.
Scott would beat former state Sen. Nan Rich, but that could have more to do with the fact that Rich remains unknown to 84 percent of Floridians despite Republican Party of Florida Chairman Lenny Curry’s efforts to bring attention to the only current or former elected official to announce her candidacy for the Democratic nomination.
In perhaps the surest sign that the poll was good news for Scott, Democrats tried to downplay the numbers.
“Only in Rick Scott’s world does going from an F to a D- represent success,” state Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant said in a statement. “While polls will go up and down, what’s certain is that Florida voters do not trust this governor to fight for them and their families, and we are confident they will vote him out of office next year”
The governor was not in town to hear about the poll numbers — he had spent the week in Paris, attending an air show while leading a trade delegation. Nor was he there to hear Brown’s advice for how Scott could continue to turn things around.
“The governor needs to make voters believe he is responsible for a better economy. That’s the key to his electoral future,” Brown said. “He isn’t going to get re-elected because he is Mr. Personality. He needs to essentially convince voters, ‘You may not like me, but I’m the guy who is making things better.’ “
But as Scott returned to the country — voila! — the state’s unemployment rate continued its turnaround. It fell to 7.1 percent in May, the latest chance for Scott to use his campaign slogan: It’s Working.
“Each month, we continue to distance ourselves from the national unemployment rate, and it is clear we are succeeding in growing opportunities for Florida families to pursue the American Dream,” Scott said in a release. “Once again, Florida’s unemployment rate is well below the national average.”
The national mark stands at 7.6 percent.
The state’s seasonally adjusted figure is down from 7.2 percent in April, according to the Department of Economic Opportunity.
Economists said, however, that some of the drop is still due to people having dropped out of the work force, in addition to new jobs created in a clearly recovering economy.
An economic overview released Wednesday by the Florida Legislature Office of Economic and Demographic Research estimated the unemployment rate would have been 8 percent in April if the workforce participation rate hadn’t change since December 2011.
Scott also returned to some work that could affect his standing, at least at the margins: the final bills from the legislative session that ended in early May have now hit his desk. Among the newcomers that the governor needs to grapple with are measures to ensure the public has a right to speak at government meetings (SB 50) and block firearms purchases by some people who voluntarily admit themselves for mental-health treatment.
Despite most of their students being out, the two boards that oversee the vast majority of education in Florida spent the week considering policies concerning public schools and universities.
After hearing hours of presentations about the future plans of universities, the Florida Board of Governors shot down those schools’ proposals on student fees — even though the increases were favored by students.
The most sweeping decision came on a proposal by eight universities to increase the “capital improvement trust fund” fees, or CITF fees, which pay for construction projects approved by university panels that draw at least half their members from the student body. But the board also rejected new environmental fees at two Florida schools.
Carlo Fassi, the student body president at the University of North Florida, said he and other colleagues strongly support the increase in the construction fee and the projects it could fund.
“I truly, and the student body presidents here truly do not believe that a vote against CITF is pro-student,” Fassi said. “Not whatsoever.”
But board members said they were growing exasperated with repeated requests to boost fees by what they were constantly assured was a small amount.
“And we amount it to, well, it’s only a cup of coffee,” board member Norm Tripp told students backing one of the fees. “But what we’ve got now are gallons and gallons of coffee that you’re paying for every credit hour.”
Meanwhile, the State Board of Education was maneuvering to avoid another embarrassing rollout for school grades after last year’s release was botched. Superintendents from around the state are warning that a possible collapse could happen because of a slew of changes to testing standards.
“When you put all of that together, I don’t think anybody’s taken the time to examine the implications of the simultaneous coming together of all these variables,” Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said.
The board asked Education Commissioner Tony Bennett to put together a task force to look into the issue. Bennett’s predecessor, Gerard Robinson, resigned in 2012 after less than a year on the job after the public-relations pounding the department took when FCAT scores collapsed, followed a few months later by a school grades mix-up.
SLOW-WALK THE LINES
Looming almost as large as Scott’s poll numbers in the 2014 electoral picture is whether the districts that lawmakers drew for congressional districts — and legislative districts for that matter — would stand. Leon Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis decided Thursday to push back the trial on a case challenging the congressional maps, in part because Lewis is still working on which documents can be used during arguments over the lines.
The trial was set to begin in August, but will now likely be pushed back to December or January, Lewis said. In that trial, a coalition of voting-rights groups will argue that the maps violated the state’s new, anti-gerrymandering “Fair Districts” standards.
Lewis’ decision became despite arguments from Ashley Davis, counsel for the Florida Department of State, that the delay could impact the 2014 election cycle, with candidates facing a March 31 deadline to collect signatures for qualifying petitions.
Meanwhile, the two sides continued scuffling over whose maps were actually biased. George Meros, an attorney for the Florida House, said the coalition’s maps would intentionally favor Democrats.
“A fundamental part of their complaint is that these are non-partisan entities that joined together that wanted to draw fair districts, when we know the evidence shows to the contrary,” Meros said.
But the newest filing from the coalition also included portions of the May 16 deposition of Marc Reichelderfer, listed as a “political operative,” which indicated that he received seven electronic drafts of congressional maps a couple of weeks before they were made public. The maps were given to Reichelderfer by an aide to then-House Speaker Dean Cannon.
When asked during the deposition if he received the maps so he could analyze the political impact of the proposed lines, Reichelderfer responded, “I could have done that, yes, sir.”
STORY OF THE WEEK: The Florida Board of Governors, under pressure from Gov. Rick Scott, shot down a series of fee increases requested by students.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “We always anticipate that when former Gov. Bush doesn’t get his way, he just keeps coming back until he can try and get it.”–Florida Education Association President Andy Ford, on whether he anticipates the return of an education bill backed by former Gov. Jeb Bush