[UPDATE] Success for Scott in First Session

By: Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida; Whitney Ray Email
By: Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida; Whitney Ray Email

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, May 10, 2011 -

After a conference committee meeting about a week and a half before the end of the legislative session, Sen. Don Gaetz was asked about Gov. Rick Scott’s continuing insistence that he believed the Republican-dominated Legislature would produce a corporate tax cut.

“I continue to express confidence that I will lose 20 pounds,” said Gaetz, R-Niceville and chairman of the committee weighing tax cuts.

It was a much-quoted line that summed up what a lot of observers and even lawmakers thought: Scott would get little of what he wanted from the Legislature on his signature issue and might have little to show for the session as a whole.

Two weeks later, Scott is touting the success of a session that included victories on several of his campaign promises and legislative proposals, from pension reform to drug testing for welfare recipients and education reform -- and a deal on the corporate tax cut.

“For a novice, he did remarkably well pushing through an agenda,” said Dan Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida.

In his post-session radio address, Scott nodded toward some of his successes, including beefing up school choice programs and reorganization of the state’s economic-development agencies that he pushed.

“I applaud the Senate and the House for taking these great first steps to move our state in the right direction,” he said. “In the coming months, I’ll begin putting these first pieces of my 7-7-7 plan into action.”

The hallmark of many of Scott’s successes, though, lies in the phrase “first steps.” Many of the details of Scott’s proposals were pared down or completely altered by the Legislature, which balked at the idea of forcing new state employees into a 401(k)-style defined-contribution retirement plan and increased the exemption for corporate taxpayers rather than the rate cut Scott favored.

“He laid out some bold goals, as other governors have done, and where we could accommodate, I think we have,” said Senate Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander, who had a sometimes-testy relationship with Scott. “And on many issues we have in fact moved down the policy that he had suggested, maybe not as far as he wanted to go, but as far as we felt like we could go.”

“I think that was a strategy of setting the bar very high and having the Legislature try to meet it,” Smith said.

Not everyone is willing to give Scott as much credit. House Minority Leader Ron Saunders, D-Key West, did say Scott grew in his appreciation for lawmakers’ role in the process.

“I think it was a learning curve for him,” Saunders said. “I think he recognized that legislators aren’t his employees, they’re his partners.”

Saunders pointed out that the corporate tax cut, amounting to about $1,100 for most businesses, is far from the kind of relief Scott promised in the fall elections or even during the session.

“He can claim credit, I guess, if he wants to,” Saunders said. “But I would say that’s a relatively minor victory.”

And on the issue that helped Scott vault past former Attorney General Bill McCollum in the 2010 Republican primary -- an Arizona-style crackdown on illegal immigration -- efforts foundered. A watered-down version of the immigration measure was dead almost as soon as the Senate approved it, with House leaders saying the upper chamber dragged its feet for a lukewarm proposal.

“In that regard, Governor Scott is going to feel some heat from his tea-party, extreme-right backers,” Smith said.

But Alexander, asked if Republican favorite and former Gov. Jeb Bush would have considered the 2011 session a success, answered succinctly: “I think he would.”

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Tallahassee, FL - Just minutes after releasing his first budget plan in early February, Governor Rick Scott began to hear from the critics.

Karen Woodall says, "The notion that somehow we can cut five billion dollars out of this budget is just very unreasonable."

Meanwhile, Lawmakers told Scott they couldn't cut property taxes or corporate income taxes, but in the end he got some of what he asked for: a 30 million dollar break for corporations and two-hundred million dollars for property owners.

After session ended, Scott gloated on an online political talk show.

Scott said, "We're on the path to 700-thousand jobs and we are on the path to turning the economy around."

Lawmakers also sent him bills to end teacher tenure, expand school vouchers, drug test welfare recipients and force state workers to contribute to their retirement.

Scott had asked for a five percent contribution he got three. He also asked lawmakers to eliminate 85-hundred state jobs, lawmakers settled on 45-hundred.

Still, Scott's mark on the 2011 legislative session is undeniable.

Senator John Thrasher says, "He's been incredible. He's quietly, but very effectively, moved a number of pieces of legislation through the process, but I think the biggest thing he's done is the budget."

The real proof of the Governor's success will be determined over the next year, as everyone watches to see if his legislative victories create jobs.


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