Charlie Crist, Florida’s feckless and lazy ex-governor, has fetched up on the payroll of mega personal injury law firm, Morgan & Morgan. Good place for him, as the ideologically nimble Crist caused countless cases of political whiplash across Florida over the four years of his quirky and accomplishment-free governorship.
Rick Scott, Florida’s new chief executive, entered office last week with a top-to-bottom conservative agenda. The Naples businessman, a wealthy former hospital entrepreneur and political novice who financed his own campaign, says his main missions are to create private sector jobs and make Florida’s government more efficient, svelte, and less expensive.
To accomplish these goals Scott has promised to right-size the state work force, use vouchers to improve education by lowering government school enrollment, and do away with unnecessary state regulations, perhaps even unnecessary state agencies. He wants to cut Florida’s corporate income tax and property taxes.
Liberals, Democrats, union officials, incompetent school teachers, environmentalists (please excuse some unavoidable redundancy here), government supernumeraries, and many of the state’s newspaper editorial writers are worried. They should be.
“Taxation, regulation, and litigation” together make up “the axis of unemployment,” Scott said in his inaugural address. Just so. And there was this: “It requires magical thinking to expect government to create prosperity. Government has no resources of its own. Government can only give to us what it has previously taken from us, minus a huge cut for the government middleman.” In case some still didn’t get the message, he added that government is “the enemy of prosperity.” Clear enough.
No wonder Democrats and their media apologists are stressed. Scott is going after all three legs of their policy stool.
Suiting the action to the word, Scott has instituted a freeze on all new state rule-making until the good regs can be parsed from the bad ones, which will be eliminated. He will create an Office of Fiscal Accountability and Regulatory Reform to do the sorting.
A successful private sector executive before seeking public office for the first time this year, Scott is turning out career politicians and bureaucrats from Florida executive positions and going to the world of business and the military for talent. He appointed a former developer to head the state’s growth management agency and put a shipyard executive in charge of Florida’s environmental protection agency. His chief of staff is a savvy retired Army colonel. This has put a real chill in the trail mix at Florida Sierra Club meetings.
For many Republican office holders it has been little more than a tic to say that they plan to bring more business-like practices to government. Their resolve in this area often hasn’t lasted much longer than the inaugural hors de oeuvres. This guy may actually mean it.
Scott won’t find it easy. The recession hit Florida harder than most states. Along with the sunshine, Florida still has 12 percent unemployment, more than two percentage points above the national average. The state is looking at a $3.5 billion shortfall in next year’s budget. So Scott may well have to back up his pledge to make state agencies justify “every penny they spend” just to break even this year. He says he wants to cut Florida’s state budget back to 2004 level spending.
Scott is even considering turning back federal grant money for high-speed passenger rail projects in Florida, which has put those who would profit from rail in a swivet. Rail is many times more expensive per passenger mile than any other form of transportation, and is famous for large cost overruns everywhere it has been instituted. The grants wouldn’t pay for all of the construction, let alone the huge maintenance and operating expense that will be forever with these costly train sets.
Rail foe David Hurley, Tampa businessman and political seer who served on Hillsborough County transportation committees, calls rail “the gift that keeps on taking.” But much of the corporate and commercial real estate communities are on the other side on this one. If Scott turns thumbs down on rail he will get plenty of blow-back.
If Scott sticks to his guns, things will only get more difficult as he attempts to cut popular state programs. It’s not clear yet just how much stomach for serious government reform and downsizing Florida’s 2-1 Republican majority legislature has.
As well as from a heavily Republican legislature, Scott will get at least some help from an all Republican cabinet. In addition to Scott and Lt. Governor Jennifer Carol, Florida’s governing board includes three newly-elected Republicans: Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam, and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, all conservatives. If Florida can’t advance a conservative agenda with this lineup, it’s hard to imagine what it would take.
One area Scott will not get any help from is Florida’s major media. Perhaps recognizing that the media, especially newspapers, have far less clout than they’ve enjoyed in the past, Scott bypassed them during the election. He genuinely doesn’t seem to care what the media think of him.
Scott didn’t meet with a single editorial board during the campaign. The media returned the favor, with not a single major newspaper endorsing Scott, who went on narrowly to defeat the favorite of editorial boards across the peninsula, Democrat Alex Sink of Tampa. Since he’s been elected, major media coverage of Scott could best be described as carping.
Florida’s major dailies, and even national newsies, have indulged a veritable snit about the $3 million or so of private money spent for a series of inaugural balls and parties. The money was “mostly raised by lobbyists and special interests,” NPR sniffed. I can’t remember NPR gigging Crist for the $2.3 million he raised for his 2007 ceremonies. Without doubt, if a Democrat had been installed as governor with the same amount of hoopla, the three mill would have been considered stimulus spending.
As it was not paid for by tax money, I’m agnostic about the balls. But it is curious how my invitation got lost in the mail.
If Scott fails in making Florida’s government less costly and more effective, he’ll just be another successful businessman who finds how resistant to private sector skills government can be. If he succeeds, he will earn the gratitude of Floridians, and will add to the Republican Party’s national bench strength.