Divide Growing Between Gov. Scott, Republicans
Since charging into office some five years ago, Florida Gov. Rick Scott has routinely had an awkward relationship with the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature and other GOP officials.
Now, Scott is being handed a string of defeats that could render his final 2 ½ years in office nearly irrelevant. They could also serve as a reminder that there are limits to how much sway a multi-millionaire businessman used to his own way can have over politicians used to compromise and deal-making.
GOP legislators have already rejected Scott's pitch for steep tax cuts and $250 million for business incentives. They have also scuttled a major gambling deal he negotiated with the Seminole Tribe of Florida and may reject his hand-picked leader for the state's health department. And there is growing talk that if Scott vetoes parts of this year's budget, lawmakers will override him.
The blame for the breakdown has been cast on a multitude of factors, including Scott's seeming refusal to scale back his promises amid signs of the economy softening and revisions to Florida's long-term financial forecast.
But other political factors could be at play as well. Scott last year angered lawmakers with extensive budget vetoes of hometown projects. He stopped raising money for the GOP after party activists last year rejected his choice to run the party. More recently, Scott's flirtation with a possible endorsement of presidential candidate Donald Trump has drawn the ire of other Republicans.
Most Florida legislators aligned themselves with either former Gov. Jeb Bush or U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, and once Bush dropped out they shifted support to Rubio. Scott said in a Facebook post this week that he would not endorse anyone ahead of Florida's March 15 primary. But he still noted how "the political class opposed me" when he first ran back in 2010 — an apparent nod to Trump, whose unorthodox candidacy has drawn rebukes from establishment Republicans like Mitt Romney.
"I think this is a relationship business, and I just wonder if we have spent the time necessary to build relationships," said Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican. "It's a trust business. With some of the actions over the last two years, that trust has been frayed, and that's led to some of the challenges."
Whatever the ultimate source of the tension, Scott is already bracing for disappointments. An unrepentant Scott said that if lawmakers forgo the deal with the Seminole Tribe and reject his tax cuts, they are walking away from proposals that could bring jobs to the state.
"My responsibility as governor is to do exactly what I ran on in 2010 and 2014," said Scott. "There's no question what I ran on, turn this economy around, make sure people get a job."
Scott has made job creation one of his top priorities. When he first came into office as part of a tea party wave in 2010, he tried to collide head-on with the Legislature by demanding large tax cuts and budget cuts. After seeing his poll numbers sink and resistance from legislators, Scott changed direction and at one point even came out in favor of Medicaid expansion despite staunch opposition among many Republicans.
GOP legislators rallied around Scott's re-election in 2014, when he was challenged by former Gov. Charlie Crist, who once was a Republican and ran as a Democrat. But there has been a growing isolation in the past year. Some legislators have complained they rarely hear from Scott unless he wants something and have faulted some of his top aides.
Republican legislative leaders have been careful to avoid direct criticisms of Scott in the last few weeks, but as the session winds down they have started to be more open about the divide that exists. House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, for example, has noted on several occasions that Scott's budget wish list wasn't based on "reality" and that the governor wanted to spend more money on tax cuts than was available.
When pressed to name something that Scott accomplished this year, Sen. Tom Lee bluntly said the governor helped convince the House and Senate to work more closely together. Last year, the House and Senate were at odds over everything from Medicaid expansion to redrawing new congressional and state Senate districts.
Rep. Richard Corcoran, a Land O' Lakes Republican in line to become the next House speaker, tried to downplay questions about Scott's agenda foundering in the Legislature.
"He has to get 100 percent of a 100 percent request to have a good year?" Corcoran said. "When has he ever gotten that year? He's never gotten that year."