THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Jan. 4, 2011 --
Republicans have been in charge in Florida for years.
Now, they’re practically unstoppable.
Rick Scott became governor on Tuesday, replacing independent Charlie Crist, who has blocked major parts of the GOP agenda in the last year, becoming one of the biggest thorns in the side for the party he once called his own.
Joining Scott in taking office were three new Republicans on the Cabinet. The GOP gained super majorities in both chambers of the Legislature in November, but may not need them. They’re likely to be largely on the same page with the new governor.
“There is now an alliance of positive leadership,” said House Speaker Dean Cannon. “It is a blessing that we want to work together to solve problems.”
Republicans are already looking at the Crist administration as a break from a line of conservative leadership that ran through the Jeb Bush years. Judging by Scott’s inaugural speech and campaign promises, the new administration will resemble Bush’s two terms immediately prior to Crist’s one.
Senate President Mike Haridopolos said that now, the way is clear for the GOP to accomplish its goals.
“We are ushering in a whole new generation of leadership, who really believe in the principles of Jeb Bush,” Haridopolos said.
As for Bush, he said Tuesday he is “on call” for Scott.
"If the new guy calls, I'll give him my advice. He doesn't have to take it,” Bush said at the Capitol following Scott’s inaugural. “I won't tell anybody that I gave it. I won't be offended if he doesn't take it. If he doesn't call me, my life goes on.”
Bush's education advocacy group, however, will likely play a big role in advising Scott on education policy. One of Bush’s top education advisors, Patricia Levesque, led Scott's education transition team, which put out a policy paper advising the new governor on several policies championed by Bush.
Another top Bush aide, who helped shape the former governor’s vision for overhauling the Medicaid system, Alan Levine, headed up Scott’s health care transition team. While Scott ran as an outsider, he has clearly gotten much of his counsel in the run up to his election and in the months since from former Bush staff. Several other Bush aides dot the Scott advisory team, including Donna Arduin, a key shaper of both the Bush and Scott budget philosophies.
The Scott administration began with a flourish, announcing on Tuesday a freeze on new agency rule making pending a review by Scott’s office. Along with lower taxes, and an increased enthusiasm for lawsuit reform, reducing regulations was one of three key focuses for Scott on his first day in office.
A top priority for the business community that appears likely to be Scott’s major ally, the break from regulations, was the first action taken by the new administration.
As for Republican initiatives derailed by Crist, Scott has already said he supports the high profile teacher pay initiative Crist vetoed last year. That would tie teacher pay more closely to student achievement. Scott also is thought to be aligned with Republican lawmakers who want to make it easier for property insurers to raise rates and reduce costs.
Less clear is what Scott’s position is on another high profile measure Crist vetoed, one that would require more women seeking abortions to first see an ultrasound image.
In addition to quickly taking on regulations, Scott also waded immediately into the immigration debate, another GOP interest, signing an executive order Tuesday requiring state agencies to use a federal Internet system for checking the immigration status of potential hires.
One question for the new administration, and the newly emboldened Legislature, remains how their policies will stand up in the courts, which now serve as the only possible check on the Republican agenda. More than half of the state Supreme Court was appointed by Crist, who was criticized by conservatives for appointing justices some considered too liberal. None of those justices will be forced by age into retirement during Scott’s first term.
And for the most part, Bush’s impact on the court is gone. Of the three other members of the court, two, Fred Lewis and Barbara Pariente, were appointed by the state’s last Democratic governor, Lawton Chiles. The other, Peggy Quince, was a joint appointment of Chiles and Bush, put on the court after Bush was elected but before he took office.
Cannon, R-Winter Park, lashed out at the court during his opening speech to the Legislature upon being named speaker last year, because it did exactly that – blocked the GOP’s agenda. Cannon told House members that the court was wrong to knock down efforts by elected lawmakers to change the constitution.
Democrats have been outsiders looking in for more than a decade in the Legislature and can count only former Attorney General Bob Butterworth and just departed Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink – and Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford for a very brief time – in positions of state power during the last decade.
Despite that, Crist reached out openly to moderates and liberals when he took office, telegraphing in his 2006 inaugural speech, perhaps, his eventual departure from the party, saying he’d been elected to solve problems, not politicize them.
“And reject labels – red, blue; liberal, conservative, Democrat Republican,” Crist said, as he outlined his mission on his inaugural day four years ago.
Scott made no overt effort to reach out to Democrats on Tuesday, despite having defeated Sink in November in the closest governor’s race in recent times in a state that also voted for Democrat Barack Obama in the last presidential election.
“I think he had a golden opportunity to bring everybody together and start from a fresh page and say ‘look, these are my goals, but today we are one Florida.’ I think we missed that a little bit,” said Rep. Alan Williams of Tallahassee, one of the few Democratic lawmakers who attended the inauguration ceremony. Williams said he hoped Scott would “work with all members of the Legislature, not just members of his own party.”