On the eve of President Barack Obama's visit to PortMiami, where he's expected to talk about the improving economy, Gov. Scott accused Obama of "being late to the party" and failing to pay the federal government's share of the costs of improvements at Florida ports.
The White House denied Scott’s accusation, saying Obama’s administration has provided hundreds of millions of dollars for port improvements in Florida.
The back-and-forth was a clear harbinger of the 2014 governor's race, in which Scott will contend that he, not the Obama administration or the improving national economy, is responsible for Florida's brightening economic picture.
Obama, meanwhile, is closely tied to former Gov. Charlie Crist, a likely Democratic candidate against Scott – and the person Scott seeks to blame for causing the state’s economic problems.
In a conference call with reporters Thursday, Scott demanded that Obama pay back Florida taxpayers for state money spent on port improvements in Miami and Jacksonville.
“We’re certainly glad President Obama is coming to PortMiami tomorrow, but he’s late to the party,” Scott said. “Florida taxpayers have stepped up time and time again to pay for the federal share” of improvements at the Miami and Jacksonville ports. “I hope he will reimburse us for the money Florida taxpayers have spent.”
According to the White House and port officials, the question of who’s responsible and who has paid for port improvements is more complicated than portrayed by the governor.
At the same time, Scott denied there’s any contradiction between his call for more federal spending on Florida ports and his repeated criticism of the Obama administration’s economic stimulus spending, including Scott’s refusal to accept stimulus money for a high-speed rail project.
Asked about the seeming contradiction, he replied, “What they need to be doing is do what we did in Florida. I had to balance my budget, but we made strategic investments.”
As he does often, Scott cited job losses in Florida “during the four years before I took office” – Crist’s tenure as governor – and the job gains in the last two years.
Scott’s office said under the 2007 Water Resources Development Act, the federal government was supposed to pay for half the cost of a $77 million dredging project at PortMiami, which the state paid for instead.
He also cited $38 million in state funding for a project to alter current flows that have impeded ship traffic at JaxPort, which he said should have been on the federal tab.
White House spokeswoman Joanna Rosholm responded in an email that the Obama administration “has taken a number of steps to fund and facilitate improvements at (PortMiami),” including a $340 million loan for a tunnel project to connect the port to local expressways, and a $23 million grant for freight rail service to the port.
She said the administration completed the permitting for the dredging project “on an expedited timeline last August as part of the Administration’s push to cut red tape around infrastructure construction.”
A JaxPort spokeswoman, meanwhile, said its project is being done by the Army Corps of Engineers, and the problem is getting Congress to fund Corps projects in the era of bans on earmarks.
JaxPort spokeswoman Nancy Rubin said the port has benefitted substantially from the Obama administration’s “We Can’t Wait” economic stimulus initiative, a $30 million project to bring rail service to the port, and a study of a project to deepen the port.
Scott and Obama both clearly have political goals in the spat, and for Scott, the most important is to try to make sure that he, and not Obama, get credit for the state’s improving economy, said University of Central Florida political scientist Aubrey Jewett.
Obama’s goal, he said, is to connect with voters to buck up his sagging approval numbers, hurt by the gridlock in Washington.
Democratic political strategist Screven Watson said Scott has raised doubts among his conservative base by moderating some of his conservative positions, including proposing teacher raises and expanding Medicaid under Obamacare.
He said Scott’s goal now is, “To prove I’m still the conservative tea party Rick Scott you elected, so I’m going to pick a fight with Obama in Florida.”
“The 2014 race has started,” Watson said.