New York Times: Florida Republicans at Odds With Their Leader

Mar 7, 2011

The following article was published in the New York Times on March 7, 2011:

Republicans at Odds with Their Leader

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Rick Scott, the conservative Republican billionaire who plucked the governor’s job from the party establishment in November with $73 million of his own money and the backing of the Tea Party, vowed during his campaign to run the troubled state like a corporate chief executive (which he was) and not a politician (which he proudly says he is not).

Governor Rick Scott at the annual Florida Venture Capital Conference last month, where he discussed his plans for the state budget.

And now it has become a problem, some of his fellow Republicans say.

“The governor doesn’t understand there is a State Constitution and that we have three branches of government,” said State Senator Mike Fasano, a Republican from New Port Richey who upset Mr. Scott with rough handling of his staff during a testy committee hearing. “They are talking about the attitude that he is still the C.E.O. of his former health care corporation, and that is not going to work in this state, in Tallahassee, in my district. The people believe in three branches of government.”

Republican lawmakers in Florida were hoping for a smoother transition. Instead, they say, they got top-down management from a political novice.

With the Legislature convening on Tuesday for a potentially arduous two-month session that is bound to usher in major cuts in spending and jobs and radical changes to education, pensions, unemployment benefits and Medicaid, the governor will be tested on a broader, more public scale. Florida faces an estimated $3.6 billion budget shortfall this year and has a stubborn 12 percent unemployment rate.

“I think there have been some understandable growing pains because government doesn’t function like a corporation,” said Speaker Dean Cannon, a Republican from central Florida, taking a more measured tone than Mr. Fasano.

“I like Governor Scott a lot as a person and a leader,” Mr. Cannon said. “I think he’s going through the understandable adjustment of the transition from campaigning to governance.”

In his first two months in office, the governor has irritated the State Senate’s powerful Budget Committee chairman by selling two state jets without legislative permission, a constitutional no-no. The governor wanted the sale done quickly (he uses his own plane), and he succeeded.

He annoyed the ambitious Senate president, as well as a host of leaders in conservative states, by trying to kill off a database to track the fraudulent distribution of addictive prescription drugs before it was up and running. He did so without consulting lawmakers, calling the monitoring system an invasion of privacy.

Most recently, Mr. Scott rejected $2.4 billion in federal stimulus money to build a high-speed rail line from Tampa to Orlando, which he saw as too big a financial drain on state taxpayers in the long term.

His refusal to take the money prompted new bouts of discord; a staunch conservative Republican from central Florida joined forces with a Democrat in filing a lawsuit last month, and 26 lawmakers signed a letter to the federal transportation secretary urging him to basically ignore the governor and send the money anyway. (The State Supreme Court ruled in Mr. Scott’s favor on Friday.)

As State Senator Arthenia L. Joyner, a lawyer and the Democrat who took Mr. Scott to court, put it at a news conference about the suit: “It’s necessary at this time, I think — because our governor’s new — to let him know this is not a monarchy. He’s not a king. This is a democracy.”

Mr. Scott’s go-it-alone style of governing was on display vividly last month when he chose to unveil his two-year budget 200 miles from Tallahassee, in the rural town of Eustis, at a rally jammed with Tea Party supporters. Mr. Scott, who wants to promote business in the state and drastically reduce the government’s reach, proposes slashing $4.1 billion in spending and cutting property and corporate income taxes.

“Let’s start with the obvious: we can’t spend more than we take in,” Mr. Scott told the cheering crowd. “We take in enough from hardworking Floridians. We don’t need to take any more.

“Critics have said you can’t cut taxes now,” he continued. “They are wrong. We will cut taxes now, and they should cut taxes now. Things will not improve until we grow private sector jobs, not government jobs.”

Lawmakers, though, are decidedly less optimistic about Mr. Scott’s budget plan, and even less enthusiastic about his uncongenial approach to Tallahassee. From the start, the relationship between powerful state Republicans and Mr. Scott was strained.

Republican leaders supported Mr. Scott’s primary opponent, Bill McCollum, and poured money into negative advertising that portrayed Mr. Scott as untrustworthy and fraudulent. Mr. Scott resigned in 1997 as the head of Columbia/HCA, the nation’s largest hospital chain, amid an F.B.I. investigation. That inquiry eventually led to $1.7 billion in criminal and civil penalties for Medicare fraud.

Even some of Mr. Scott’s closest allies acknowledge that he will need to downshift. After all, the real power in Florida rests with the Legislature, which now has Republican supermajorities in both chambers that can override the governor’s veto.

“He has created some sore spots that will have to heal,” said State Representative Jimmy Patronis, a Republican from Panama City and one of Mr. Scott’s earliest supporters. “You want to come in and clean house,” he said. “But there is a learning curve.”

Mr. Scott is single-minded in his plans to shake up Florida and create jobs. He wants to create a business-friendly environment, chop up the bureaucracy, peel away regulations and hand out $1.7 billion in tax cuts for corporations and property owners in the first year of his budget. Privatizing Medicaid and prisons is also high on the agenda.

In his budget proposal, Mr. Scott is seeking to eliminate more than 8,500 state jobs, including in the Corrections and Health Departments. His budget for the state’s already lean public schools is $1.75 billion less than this year’s, mostly because federal stimulus money dried up.

And he wants to cut costs in Florida’s pension fund by requiring more than 600,000 government workers, including police officers, teachers, firefighters, judges and retirees, to contribute 5 percent to their retirement. New employees would use plans similar to a 401(k). This has angered state workers, who have gone without a general raise since 2006. They plan large demonstrations around Florida on Tuesday.

Politically, all of this will be difficult. State lawmakers, whose sole job is to pass a budget, have mostly shrugged off Mr. Scott’s proposal. The governor’s plan to slash corporate taxes, a goal his fellow Republicans share, is unlikely to get much traction this year as the state wrestles with layoffs and spending cuts.

The same goes for asking state workers to contribute 5 percent to their retirement plans. Florida has not required workers to contribute to the plan since 1975. Employees are bound to be forced to contribute something, Republican lawmakers say, but 5 percent is probably a bit steep.

“I’m not mad at them; I support them,” State Senator J. D. Alexander, the Budget Committee chairman, said about state workers. “Changing pay and benefits is not something I go to first.”

Cutting education financing by 10 percent also appears unpalatable. “I would tell you the majority of the Senate has serious concerns and would not want to have to go there,” Mr. Alexander said recently.

But there is still plenty Republicans will agree on, perhaps as early as this week. Teachers are likely to see their pay tied to student performance and their tenure rights weakened. A large number of Medicaid recipients may be shuffled into managed care. And unemployment benefits are expected to be reduced.

“This is going to test the mettle of every member of the House and Senate, Republican and Democrat alike, and new governor,” Mike Haridopolos, the president of the State Senate, said Monday. “This is a challenging time.”