As Governor Rick Scott steps to the podium today for his third State of the State address — a sort of unofficial midpoint in his term — he is embarking on a very different path than the ultraconservative businessman who spent his first two years trying to shake up Tallahassee.
With diminished Republican majorities and an approval rating that has been well below 50 percent for virtually his entire term, Scott has undertaken a second act that in some ways marks a breathtaking break from his first two years. And it could alter the relationships between Scott, once a tea party hero and bête noire of Florida Democrats, and members of the Legislature in ways that aren’t entirely predictable.
Since the sweeping Democratic victories in November, powered in large part by the re-election campaign of President Barack Obama, Scott has pushed a $2,500 a year pay raise for Florida teachers; boosted the state budget to a record high; and backed the Medicaid expansion contained in the federal health-care bill that Scott launched his political career by opposing.
Those moves have confounded expectations from lawmakers who have praised and attacked Scott over the last two years, and make his State of the State address something of a mystery.
“What I expect to hear, the way he’s been acting lately, I don’t know,” said Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale.
Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said the former health-care executive’s transformation was in part one of management style as Scott faces a legislative process where he needs others to work with him.
“I think we all learn, and we learn how this process works,” Thrasher said. “And the governor came in with a CEO mentality, clearly, and I think has understood that, you know, there are 160 folks in this process that have views too.”
Thrasher, a former chairman of the state GOP, also scoffed at the idea that Scott could have to court Democrats to replace Republican defections in the coming session.
“There will be enough Republican support to advance his agenda,” Thrasher said.
To be sure, Scott has not fully abandoned his conservative profile. His administration was quick to point out that the budget was actually one of the lowest in recent years when adjusted for population and inflation. Scott is still pushing to eliminate the sales tax on manufacturing equipment. And the excerpts of his State of the State released by his office contained both the teacher pay raises and some conservative red meat.
“Now is not the time to turn back to the legacy of taxing and borrowing that crippled the economy we inherited two years ago,” Scott is expected to say. “We must stay the course for economic growth and job creation.”
And despite their differences with him — House Republicans said Monday that the chamber opposes Medicaid expansion — Florida Republicans say they still back Scott on most issues.
“I think we agree on a whole lot more than we disagree on,” said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
Some of the differences are also on the details of policy instead of the broad strokes. Scott’s teacher pay raise, a key portion of a $1.2 billion boost to education spending, is not controversial on the merits. But Republicans who pushed a controversial bill tying teacher pay more closely to performance are hesitant about the across-the-board nature of Scott’s plan.
“You will see an increase in funding for education in the state of Florida coming out of the House,” Weatherford said. “But how we do it is just as important as what we do.”
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, put it in slightly sharper terms in a recent interview.
“I want Rick Scott to be re-elected as governor. I like Rick Scott as governor,” Gaetz said.
But moments later, he added: “I am an acolyte of Jeb Bush, and I cannot renounce my political baptism and assume that the best and the worst should all be treated the same.”
Democrats, meanwhile, find themselves enjoying the governor’s recent conversions.
“We may invite him to come and join the party — maybe,” quipped House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, at a recent press conference.
But the opposition party is not prepared to give Scott too much credit. Democrats held an event Monday outside Scott’s office to highlight the evolution, pointing out, for example, that his first budget contained deep cuts to education.
“Now, Gov. Scott thinks he can just flip a switch, a magic switch, and undo all the harm he’s done by talking the talk,” said Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami. “Well, governor, we simply ask you to walk the walk.”
Via Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.