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National Politics

Observers say Scott may have some scrapes with GOP legislature

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: July 11, 2013 at 11:48 PM
TALLAHASSEE -

Someone up there must like Rick Scott.

When he succeeds Charlie Crist as governor in January, Scott will serve alongside a wholly Republican Cabinet and GOP supermajorities in the state House and Senate -- where, even by Republican standards, leadership is taking an unusually conservative turn.

What more could a new, tea-party styled Republican governor want?

Despite those advantages, Scott -- a business executive who has never before held public office -- will likely hit some bumps. State Sen. Paula Dockery, a member of Scott's transition team, noted that even Jeb Bush, who had spent most of his career in the private sector, had already served as Florida's commerce secretary before running for governor.

"Rick Scott has two months to take on a learning curve most governors haven't had to, because they served in some way or form in the process," said Dockery, R-Lakeland. "Where he has an advantage is that he's beholden to no one ... he's not going to constrain himself by what pitfalls may arise. He's going to do what he thinks his right."

Incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos and incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon worked against Scott during the GOP primary. But they quickly allied with him afterward and say they share Scott's fiscally conservative philosophy. That's another advantage for Scott as he prepares to push an agenda fraught with heavy cuts to state spending, a core element of his plan to create 700,000 private-sector jobs in seven years.

Lawmakers may well embrace Scott's approach, said Lance deHaven-Smith, political science professor at Florida State University. But even in lean years, most will still look for ways to win jobs, roads and new buildings for their home districts, and that costs money.

The Legislature is always proud of its own prerogatives, said Brian Crowley, an independent political consultant. "They sometimes want to show a governor they are, in fact, the other branch of government."

Much as top lawmakers have fallen over one another to declare their fealty to Scott and his vision for resuscitating Florida's economy, Scott has vilified state leaders as a group for months.

"Today is the end of politics as usual in Tallahassee," Scott said in his victory speech on Wednesday. "We are going to work for the common good ... Some are beginning to wonder if anyone in Tallahassee can turn things around. Today, I have a message for the thousands of Floridians who are hurting: don't give up."

Cannon said Thursday that he didn't take Scott's comments personally. But if conflicts of personality, politics or ambition develop between Scott and lawmakers, the GOP's new veto-proof majority could prove costly for the new governor.

"When you're running the company, you're the one in charge, everyone has to listen," Crowley said. But as governor, "you have to win over a majority of the legislature. It's a lot easier said than done."

One possible area of conflict: high-speed and commuter rail.

After years of debate, the Legislature met in special session last January to approve SunRail, a $1.2-billion commuter rail project in Central Florida. SunRail is part of a larger rail plan for Florida that includes high-speed rail linking Orlando to Tampa and Miami.

The rail projects depend on both state and federal funding. Scott, however, has repeatedly expressed skepticism about spending state money on them.

SunRail was a particular priority for Cannon, who hails from Winter Park. Thursday, Cannon acknowledged Scott's reluctance but said he did not view it as a "potential conflict" yet.

"I think he articulated a very valid concern that, given the state of the economy -- and again, for a guy who wasn't involved in all of the debates and the discussions -- he's got legitimate concerns about the use of state money to further that project," Cannon said. "I look forward to talking with about it ... We'll have to wait and see."

Scott's spokespeople did not respond to a request for comment.

Dockery said she is trying to convince Scott of the benefits of high-speed rail, noting that he recently softened his position somewhat. But Dockery, who fought SunRail in the Legislature, remains convinced that it is a poor deal for taxpayers -- a potential threat for backers of the slow-paced project, now that Dockery is on Scott's advisory team.

It remains unclear to what extent lawmakers will accept some of Scott's more extreme budget proposals, like slashing the prisons budget by more than one-third.

GOP lawmakers pushed earlier this year to shutter state prison facilities to fill a cheaper, private one. But they had to compromise after communities surrounding the state prisons protested, and corrections officials and law enforcement warned of triggering early prisoner release.

Critics of Scott's plan say it hinges on policies that are, to some extent, already in effect, like outsourcing healthcare and using prisoners to raise their own food. Friday, Haridopolos did not respond directly when asked if Scott's target cut is realistic. But the Legislature is looking at all options, he said, like limiting Medicaid coverage of prisoners' health care based on their assets and income. "We've got to do things differently."

Illegal immigration could also spark fireworks. During the primary, Scott frustrated some Hispanic legislators with his ardent support for bringing tough, Arizona-style immigration law enforcement to Florida. Some Hispanic Republicans who supported Scott in the general election did so in spite of their opposition to his immigration stance.

Haridopolos said the Legislature may well tackle the issue in 2011. Intra-party conflicts are nothing new in Florida. Democratic Governor Reuben Askew struggled against his own party during the 1970s to introduce a corporate income tax to pay for education and other needs.

On the GOP side, former House Speaker Johnnie Byrd and Senate President Jim King feuded openly during their 2002-2004 leadership terms, and former Gov. Jeb Bush butted heads with several Senate presidents who tilted more to the political middle.

To Scott's advantage, Haridopolos is, by his own assessment, markedly more conservative than recent predecessors and appears to be in lock-step with Cannon, who has referred to himself and his Senate counterpart as "hard right-wing conservatives." Both claim to get along well with Scott, though they have not known him for long.

Other politicians are not his only concern, deHaven-Smith said, as Scott has raised voters' expectations of his ability to turn the state's dismal economy around relatively quickly.

Likewise, interest groups will rise to defend most functions of state government. "Any time you change anything, you're going to gore somebody's ox," deHaven-Smith said.

Scott received a taste of that during the election, when law enforcement unions -- normally supportive of Republicans -- attacked his pledges to shrink the government workforce and cut spending on pensions and prisons.

"We all saw the ads from the campaign; they clearly didn't want Rick Scott," Haridopolos said. "But Rick Scott won. I'm sure there will be a nice little negotiation there."

Elaine Silvestrini contributed to this report.

cwhittenburg@tampatrib.com(850) 222-8382

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