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National Politics

Scott: Legislative session set state in the 'right direction'

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Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 02:34 PM
TAMPA -

With the help of a politically friendly Legislature, Gov. Rick Scott is claiming success in implementing his agenda during his first legislative session, which ended early Saturday.

On some top-priority issues – tax cuts, the size of government, state pensions and immigration – Scott got only a little of what he asked from legislators worried about political backlash.

But on other issues, including changes in education, health care and economic growth policy, Scott and the Legislature were in sync, and it showed.

In an interview with The Tampa Tribune on Saturday, he called it "a really good session."

On the budget and taxes, he said, "The positive is we're heading in the right direction.

"Half the business owners that have been paying the business tax won't pay it any more, almost half. We reduced the size of government. It's a process and the positive is the economy, unemployment's coming down. The negative is we still have a million people out of work."

There were signs during the session of behind-the-scenes conflicts between Scott and the Legislature, including his veiled threats to veto the budget if it didn't include tax cuts.

Scott had made it clear he would appeal to his Tea Party constituency to get what he wanted from the session: He broke tradition by unveiling his budget request at a Tea Party rally in Eustis in February, instead of in Tallahassee.

Nonetheless, he said he got along fine with Senate President Mike Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon.

Cannon and Haridopolos "believe as I do that the biggest issue we have in our state right now is jobs. … We worked together."

But Scott also said he's likely to use his line-item veto to eliminate some of the scores of millions of dollars in "member projects," or "turkeys" in the budget – some of them dear to the hearts of important legislators.

"I'm going to look at every line and whether it helps build jobs. If it doesn't, that's my test, I'll veto it," he said.

Scott made his first post-session speech Saturday night at a Hillsborough County Republican Party fundraising, after a series of press interviews to put out his message about the session.

At the dinner, a crowd of party activists including top state GOP leaders applauded Scott heartily.

It was a dramatic reversal from just a year ago, when Scott was running against the party establishment's favored candidate, Bill McCollum, for the nomination for governor. Some of those same GOP leaders paid for political ads that, in effect, called Scott a crook.

Here are some of the issues Scott pushed in the session and the results:

•Budget and Tax Cuts

Scott proposed cutting the budget to $65.9 billion; the Legislature adopted a budget of about $69.7 billion, only slightly less than this year's.

He sought about $2.4 billion in tax cuts, including $459 million in corporate tax cuts as a first step toward eliminating the tax.

Legislators initially balked, but after he threatened to veto the budget, they tossed him a bone -- a corporate income tax cut of about $30 million the first year, worth about $1,100 per business taxpayer; about $210 million in cuts in water management district property taxes, and a three-day back-to-school sales tax holiday.

•Pensions

Scott got much less than he asked, but enough to allow him to claim victory.

He sought to end to the "defined benefit" pension system, in which retirees get a certain benefit for life, for all new employees, and replace it with a "defined contribution" or 401k-style system. Scott wanted employees to put 5 percent of their pay into the system; they would get back only what they contributed.

The Legislature kept the defined benefit system, with a 3 percent employee contribution. They also kept the DROP program, which allows employees to keep working after their retirement dates while banking the benefits, but cut the interest those benefits earn from 6.4 percent to 1.3 percent for all new participants.

Scott called it "a great first step … I'm pleased that we're moving in the right direction."

•Immigration

Scott and the Tea Party forces struck out.

The state House passed a tough bill making it a second-degree misdemeanor to be in Florida without legal residency, with broad use of E-Verify and immigration checks by police.

But a strong Senate bill was defeated, largely at the instigation of Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, a grower and top Senate leadership figure.

Scott said the crucial issue is not immigration, but jobs. "Everything we ought to be doing right now we ought to be thinking about jobs," he said.

•Drug Testing

The Legislature passed a controversial bill Scott favored requiring that applicants for welfare benefits, known as Temporary Assistance for Needy families, be required to take and pay for drug tests. They'll be reimbursed if they qualify for benefits.

•Medicaid Reform

The Legislature's plan would privatize Medicaid, moving it into a managed care model, as Scott had advocated. Questions remain, however, about whether the federal government, which pays half the cost of the program, will agree to it.

•Education

Scott advocated a merit pay plan for teachers, expanding charter schools and private school tuition vouchers, all of which the Legislature did.

•Economic Development and Growth Management

Scott sought and got consolidation of several government agencies involved in economic development and labor into two new agencies under his control.

The Department of Economic Opportunity will govern economic development and workforce policy, including the Agency for Workforce Innovation, which handles unemployment compensation.

A reorganized Enterprise Florida Inc. will be the state's main business recruiting agency, incorporating agencies that promote sports, black business expansion and tourism.

But the Legislature reduced a proposed $400 million fund for business incentives to $50 million, and said Scott must submit a business plan for its approval to use the money.

The Legislature also virtually ended the state's role in controlling growth, implemented in the 1980's in response to rapid, uncontrolled development; made it harder for citizens to challenge development decisions; and eliminated the state mandate for "concurrency" – forcing developers to pay for the road and school and other improvements their developments will require.

That fits Scott's stated desire for less regulation on business.

Despite Scott's emphasis on job creation, some legislators didn't see the session that way.

"Sadly, I have yet to see a piece of legislation come before the House or Senate and go to the governor that will actually stimulate the economy and create jobs," Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said Friday.

"I came to Tallahassee this year thinking that's what we were going to do," he said. "Instead, I was playing defense" on property insurance premiums, electric and phone rates, he said. "Just as in the past, the special interests seem to win out."

He and others said Scott faced "a learning curve" on dealing with the Legislature, a body with more power compared to the governor than in many states.

Haridopolos praised Scott's insistence on avoiding new taxes.

Alexander said Scott can "take a victory lap," but added, "Just as Jeb [Bush]'s first year was a little wobbly, there's a learning curve, particularly for … a governor who hadn't been in government."

Tea Party leaders who backed Scott are happy with his performance despite the session's shortcomings, some said – in part because Scott killed the high-speed rail project.

"We wanted a significantly reduced budget, public employee pensions to be fundamentally changed," said Tom Gaitens, co-founder of a Tampa Tea Party group.

That didn't happen, he said, because, "the political class in Tallahassee is still deferential to the money coming in from the lobbyists … We give Rick a great deal of credit."

wmarch@tampatrib.com

813 259 7761

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