Gov. Rick Scott has yet to formally roll out his 2012 legislative agenda, but documents from his office show that the first-term governor is looking at bills to abolish personal injury protection insurance, reform immigration laws, spend a dedicated amount of money in the classroom - and maybe give raises to state employees.
The Legislature, in Tallahassee this week for committee meetings, is just starting to formulate its agenda for the 2012 session that begins in January. But Scott has been working all summer on issues that he wants to see turned into law. Some are campaign promises; others he sought last session. Nearly all are controversial.
In a document obtained by the Sun Sentinel, Scott's legislative staff laid out preliminary priorities in August, with PIP topping the list. It was followed by a statewide energy plan focusing on renewable energy, a bill allowing the sale of health insurance across state lines, Texas-style reforms to higher education that would eliminate tenure for university professors and an immigration bill.
Scott spokeswoman Amy Graham said that the governor would release a more detailed agenda after this weekend's Presidency 5 event in Orlando.
Some of his top priorities will not be easy legislative battles.
Immigration, for one, nearly tore apart the Senate last spring. Scott and the House wanted to require companies to use the federal E-Verify program to check employees' immigration status and require cops to check the legal status of anyone being investigated for a crime.
But the Senate balked at the E-Verify provisions and passed a bill that simply allowed law enforcement to investigate the immigration status of anyone arrested in connection with a crime. Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, who was charged by Senate President Mike Haridopolos with writing the bill, wound up delivering an emotional speech against it before voting "No."
The House dismissed what members viewed as a watered-down bill and didn't even take it up on the floor. State Rep. Will Snyder, R-Stuart, who championed the House version, said he was still not committed to re-filing a measure unless the Senate is willing to go beyond what he called an "inadequate" bill.
"They know where we can be," Snyder said. "They know what I have and what the speaker will let go through the House."
For his part, Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, told reporters Tuesday he wasn't budging. "We passed an immigration bill last year," he said. "The House has talked very tough about immigration, and we'll see if they send us a bill, which they failed to do last year."
On Scott's spreadsheet, his staff calls it a "build consensus bill," noting that it was a "campaign pledge" during Scott's 2010 campaign.
Some of Scott's other proposals may be a little easier to accomplish.
PIP, for example, is being studied by a task force named by CFO Jeff Atwater. The insurance pays medical bills for policyholders injured in auto accidents, regardless of who is at fault. But insurers say fraud is rampant and is driving up costs.
Atwater, Scott and Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty have all called for changes. The task force recommendations may be easier for lawmakers to pass than a package that died this past session.
Scott's priority list called for PIP to be eliminated, replaced or "significantly" modified to curb fraud. Haridopolos told reporters that there's interest in trying to fix the system, but not in killing PIP entirely. "It seems like there's interest on all sides to right this wrong," he said.
Education also makes Scott's top tier of proposals.
But his advocacy of Texas-style higher education reforms that eliminate tenure for professors has already drawn criticism from university presidents and the state Board of Governors. Haridopolos said, "We'll give it the full venue it deserves."
Scott is also looking for legislation that would require school districts to spend a specific percentage of school funds in the classroom as opposed to on administrative expenses, a measure that's died in previous sessions.
One of his secondary priorities is an "education savings account," as proposed by former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future, that would allow parents to use state dollars to send their children to private school or pay for expenses such as textbooks or tutoring. Scott's spreadsheet says that the foundation will "take lead" on it.
"We have parental choice for students with disabilities. We have parental choice for students who are low income," said Bush spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof, noting this would give parents of students who don't fit into those categories more control over their children's education.
Rounding out Scott's list are items that will likely be included in his proposed budget. They include a repeat of this year's failed attempt to roll back $235 million in motor vehicle fee increases that were raised in 2009; unspecified funding for the teacher merit pay system that was created earlier this year; and giving state employees some form of raise for the first time in several years.
Though Republicans have a super-majority in both chambers, Scott found this year that lawmakers could stand up to him. And in an election year, some of his proposals might face even tougher scrutiny.
Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, said the speaker's office has had a few informal "staff-level discussions" with the governor's office, but it has not received any specific legislative requests at this point.
Florida's unemployment rate for August stayed stuck at 10.7 percent, despite a gain of nearly 10,000 jobs statewide, and Gov. Rick Scott said Friday he sees signs that cutting the size of government will spur economic recovery.
State government has shed 4,600 employees since August of last year, the Agency for Workforce Innovation said. Federal and local governments also showed declines in overall employment from this point in 2010.
In its monthly briefing, the agency said the "real" unemployment rate - including people who have given up hope of finding work and working part-time while searching for something permanent - adds another 7.8 percent, on top of the 10.7 percent regular jobless rate. AWI chief economist Rebecca Rust said there were, statistically, 4.6 job-seekers for every available opening.
"When you look at, just over the month, for every job lost in the (public) sector, Florida has gained two jobs in the private sector," Rust said.
August was the third straight month with 10.7 percent unemployment. Rust said that's down from 11.6 percent a year ago, and from 12 percent last December. The rate since May is the lowest since August of 2009, but still reflects 987,000 unemployed Floridians.
The national rate for July and August stayed at 9.1 percent. Rust said Florida's unemployment rate has been above the national average since February of 2008.
"The August job numbers prove that when you reduce the size, scope and cost of government, it allows the private sector jobs to grow," Scott said in a prepared statement. "There is still a long road ahead, but by removing the red tape that restricts economic development, we are on the right path to getting Florida back to work."
AWI said the state has gained 71,000 jobs since the start of the year. Scott said that means "by making tough choices, we are doing the right things to turn the economy around."
Leon County's unemployment rate fell to 8.5 percent, from 8.9 percent in July and 8.7 percent a year ago. That represents 12,677 people looking for work in Leon County.Gadsden County's 10.6 percent rate was unchanged from July but an improvement from 11 percent a year ago. It represents 2,258 jobless people in Gadsden.
In Wakulla County, AWI counted 1,384 job seekers, or 8.2 percent unemployment. That's down just one-tenth of a percent from a year ago.
Mark Wilson, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, echoed Scott's long-term optimism. He said the state is on pace to add more than 100,000 jobs by the end of 2011.
"Gov. Scott and the Florida Legislature have already taken significant steps in the right direction by lowering taxes, balancing the state's budget, streamlining regulations and reorganizing Florida's economic-development functions," said Wilson. "With additional education and legal reforms, Florida can and will once again lead the nation in private-sector job growth."
Scott, who ran on a "Let's get to work" platform that promised 700,000 jobs in seven years, won approval in the 2011 legislative session for creation of a Department of Economic Opportunity. The new agency on Oct. 1 will take over duties of AWI, the Department of Community Affairs and the governor's Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development.
Rust said six industries showed job growth over the year in Florida, led by the leisure and hospitality business with 46,400 new jobs over the year and a gain of 22,200 in private education and health care. Although the professional business services sector posted a net gain of 200 jobs, she said Brevard County recorded a big loss of 1,300 in facilities management due to the end of the Space Shuttle program.
"Of the industries that are reflecting the downturn, still losing jobs over the year, we have four sectors," said Rust. "Government leads that list ... we lost jobs both at the federal, state and local level."
She said cuts in the census agency contributed to the loss of about 8,000 federal jobs. Layoffs caused by Scott's budget cuts were a big factor in the 4,600 state jobs lost, Rust said, and local governments shed 7,700 since August of last year.
Construction jobs fell by 17,600 over the year, information services like telecommunications were off 5,700 and manufacturing fell by 800 jobs.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Rick Perry's statements about Social Security will not hurt his chances among Sunshine State voters in the 2012 presidential campaign.
"I don't think it's a problem," Scott said on MSNBC Wednesday. "I think everybody realizes it's an issue we have to deal with."
Texas Gov. Perry previously characterized the entitlement program as "unconstitutional" and a "Ponzi scheme," but Scott said his comments will not decide the next election.
The first term Republican governor predicted Perry and fellow Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney could win Florida in the general election.
"Both of them would be good candidates," Scott said. "I think both of them will do well."
Ultimately, Scott said the candidate with the better jobs plan will succeed in his state, which hosts an early primary.
"Both of them have had success building jobs, one as a governor, one more in business," Scott said referencing Perry and the former businessman. "It's going to come down to jobs, whoever has the right blueprint for jobs."
The head of Florida's oil lobby applauded Gov. Rick Scott's statement that further oil drilling around the Florida Everglades should be done with extreme caution.
However, David Mica of the Florida Petroleum Council said Wednesday he wished Scott had called for more drilling to lessen the country's dependence on foreign oil.
"I wasn't in the governor's office prior to his speech ... but I am strongly advocating we expand our domestic drilling, including in different areas of Florida," Mica said.
On Tuesday, Scott told members of the Economic Club of Florida -- with Mica in attendance -- the state needs to be "very cautious" about expanding oil drilling in the Everglades or anywhere else in or near the state.
Scott noted that oil drilling has been taking place since 1943 in the 729,000-acre Big Cypress federal wildlife preserve adjacent to the Everglades National Park in eastern Collier County.
After Scott's speech, his press secretary, Amy Graham, stressed that the governor was not calling for an expansion of drilling in the Everglades.
"That discussion is not on the table," Graham said.
Scott's comments came on the heels of GOP presidential contender Michele Bachmann's Aug. 28 call for additional oil drilling in the Everglades and elsewhere to expand America's energy production.
Everglades Foundation CEO Kirk Fordham, in a statement released Tuesday, stated that while there are currently no efforts to drill in the Everglades, such effort would face widespread opposition.
While new technologies featuring horizontal and directional drilling could expand exploration without limited impact on the environment, Mica couldn't say if any oil company is on the verge of expanding plans to drill in Florida.
"When it comes to the actual decision-making process, those are held in pretty confidential terms by the competitors in the industry," Mica said. "They don't like to talk about where they are going to go next because of competitive pressures and economic pressures."
As for the oil that is currently being pumped in Southwest Florida, Mica said it is heavier than the West Texas intermediate grade of crude oil, also known as Texas light sweet, which is considered the benchmark for oil.
Still, the Big Cypress oil "can be refined, whether it is shipped to a refinery or used for a road base, but that's really secondary when crude is selling for $85 a barrel," Mica said.
Since 1943, the state has producuced 596 million barrels of oil.
The United States consumes about 18.7 million barrels of oil a day, according to the CIA World Factbook.
Mica noted that political wills were different when oil was first discovered in Florida.
"The governor and Cabinet in 1938 or '39 created a prize of $50,000 to whoever discovered oil in Florida," Mica said.
The company that found the oil would donate the prize money evenly between the University of Florida and the Florida State College for Women in Tallahassee, later Florida State University.
We're told that Texas Gov. Rick Perry joked about the C3 news to some Floridians at a recent book signing in San Antonio, where the National Conference of State Legislatures is holding its annual meeting. "Just got off the phone with your governor who's angry because Texas stole some jobs from Florida," Perry said, according to one of the attendees.
It's not been a great month so far for Scott on the job-creation front. Vision Airlines, a company that helped usher in Scott's term with expansion plans in Panama City, said Monday that it would cancel service from Northwest Florida Regional Airport to more than half of its current destinations.
Scott is hoping for good news on Aug. 19, when the state's new unemployment report is scheduled to be released. "We've got a lot of companies that we're talking to about moving jobs down here," Scott said this morning WCOA-AM in Pensacola. "People want to live here. People want to work here."
Scott's promotion of the popular money-saving event included a stop at the retail chain to buy school supplies and donate them to three area schools.
From Friday through Sunday, Florida shoppers won't pay sales tax on clothing items costing $75 or less and school supplies costing $15 or less.
"It's great that we have this sales tax holiday," Scott said. "It helps our families be able to afford school supplies. It's always a tough time, especially in a time when people are struggling ... The negative is we still have 900,000 people struggling for work."
During the visit, protesters wearing PinkSlipRick.com T-shirts walked near the governor as he browsed the aisles purchasing items. The group was created by Florida Watch, a progressive advocacy organization that has criticized the governor.
One member of the group flashed a leaflet in front of Scott as he walked by. They also handed out pink sheets of paper, representing termination slips, to several other spectators. The leaflet claimed that more than 300,000 jobs had been lost under Scott and asked voters to "Give Rick his pink slip."
Two members of the group were later asked to leave by store officials and escorted out.
Susannah Randolph, executive director of Florida Watch, said their presence was simply to have their voice heard.
"It's about reminding the governor of the fact that there are 982,000 Floridians still out of work in the state," Randolph said. "And despite that fact, he continues to cut jobs left and right."
Later, Scott didn't respond when Janna Johnston, a local kindergarten teacher, shouted a question asking him if it was true that he'd never visited a public school.
"I'm not sure if that's true, I heard somebody else say that," said Johnston, who teaches at Rolling Hills Elementary School.
"But we'd certainly welcome him (to visit)...I love the kids and I love teaching, but education needs some help."
Linda Smith, a second-grade teacher at Lockhart Middle School, was at the store shopping before Scott's arrival.
"In general, I'm probably spending as much as I always have," said Smith, who has been teaching for 34 years. "But on a weekend like this it always helps when the stores put on specials ... There are bigger concerns than what the tax-free holiday is gonna do. But, sure, every little bit helps."
Though Scott didn't respond to Johnston's original question, he did when asked about it later by a reporter.
"I deal with teachers all the time," Scott said. "What we did on education this year is going to be great for our kids. We started a process of allowing our principals to keep the best teachers, by allowing them to get rid of bad teachers.
"We started the process of merit pay, expansion of successful charter schools and giving students at poor-performing schools the opportunity to go to other schools. So we did the right thing for education this year."
A statement from Governor Scott's office reads: "The purpose of the Governor's visit to Walmart today was to encourage Floridians to save some of their hard-earned money and prepare their children for success by taking advantage of this weekend's back-to-school sales tax holiday. The school supplies Governor Scott purchased today are being donated to Hope Now International Inc., the organization WFTV is partnering with for the Back-to-School Bash tomorrow at the Amway Center. Governor Scott talked to shoppers who approached him the entire time he was at Walmart today. He spoke with members of the media for about five minutes after the event ended and continued to talk to Walmart staff and shoppers as he was departing the event. One family with a daughter who was in a wheelchair approached the Governor as he was leaving and they spoke for five minutes about a variety of issues, including the challenges of caring for a daughter with disabilities."
Asked why he held the bill-signing ceremony a month after the laws went into effect, Scott said: "A lot of people put a lot of effort into these things. I think they want to have an event to memorialize it. For these bills, a lot of these people have worked on these bills for years and years, and it's a way for them to celebrate the accomplishments."
Lawmakers passed five abortion-related bills in the 2011 session. One requires women to receive an ultrasound before undergoing an abortion and be offered the opportunity to have it described to her. Another tightens requiremens for parental notification when a minor seeks an abortion. A third prohibits insurance policies created through the federal health care law from covering abortions, and the fourth redirects proceeds from Choose Life license plates from counties to Choose Life, Inc., which counsels pregnant women. Lawmakers also passed a bill proposing a Constitutional amendment, which doesn't require the governor's signature, that would prohibit using tax dollars to pay for abortions.
"It would be hard to top this session for the pro-life cause. We had great success," Gaetz said.
Asked what his response it to those who say the laws limit choice for women, Gov. Scott referred to the ultrasound bill, passed by a previous Legislature but vetoed by then Gov. Charlie Crist. "You should have the opportunity to see see an ultrasound of your child," Scott said. "It's your choice. You don't have to. This creates choice. I think it's very positive."
As part of an image-rehabilitation program for the beleaguered novice politician, Scott's handlers revived a practice by one of his (Democratic) predecessors, Bob Graham: getting out and doing the jobs of regular Floridians for a day.
Scott's first day didn't go so well. There he was, just trying to make some donuts at Nicola's in Tampa, when he was inundated by (surprisingly respectful) protesters from Pink Slip Rick, a group that's angered by the guv's pro-privatization, anti-public schools agenda (which Stephanie Mencimer wrote about for MJ). Check out the video below.
Wait for the fireworks at 46 seconds, when the senior mother of a schoolteacher gives Scott a pink slip and a timeout:
Mother: "You should be ashamed that I have to go out and buy things for my daughter's classroom because of a shortage of funds."
Scott: (pause) "Thanks for coming."
Just as the first-term Republican begins a new effort to show a kinder and gentler image to Floridians, the Quinnipiac University poll indicated Friday that Scott's job-approval rating has improved slightly in the past two months - but he remains "upside-down" in both performance and likability ratings.
The poll said 35 percent of those surveyed approved of the job Scott is doing, while 52 percent disapproved. That's better than his May numbers, when Quinnipiac reported a negative rating of 57 percent and a positive ranking of 29 percent for Scott. Peter Brown, assistant director of the poll, said the improvement generally came among Republicans and men - the two demographic niches most likely to be favorable toward Scott.
"More important than poll numbers, Gov. Scott is focused on helping the hundreds of thousands of Floridians who are out of a job get back to work," said Lane Wright, his press secretary. "By cutting taxes for businesses and residents, getting rid of job-killing regulations and improving education, we're making our state irresistible to businesses."
Brown said part of Scott's problem is a mistaken belief that taxes were increased by the state budget he signed on May 26, as well as a general personal distaste for him. The poll showed that most Floridians favor balancing the budget by cutting spending, which is what Scott and the Republican-run Legislature did last spring, rather than passing a mix of new revenues and spending cuts.
"The governor needs to convince voters that his budget was fair to average folks and make sure they know it didn't raise taxes," said Brown.
The poll, conducted July 27-Aug. 2 among 1,417 voters, has an error margin of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.
It found that 24 percent of those surveyed thought there were new taxes in the budget, while only 19 percent knew there weren't. The other 57 percent didn't know, Brown said.
Brown said 45 percent of survey respondents did not like Scott as a person, compared to 34 percent who did, the highest "dislike" factor recorded in any state surveyed by Quinnipiac. He said that's significant because even when voters disapprove an official's job performance, they tend to personally like him or her. In a Quinnipiac poll released on Thursday, 51 percent disapproved of President Obama's job performance but 69 percent said they like him as a person.
"When 45 percent of the voters don't like you personally, and the number of voters growing increasingly dissatisfied with your agenda is at an all-time high, you know you're in trouble," said Rod Smith, chairman of the state Democratic Party. "Bottom line: Rick Scott's name, and his party, are proving to be toxic in Florida."
After some earlier speculation that he would participate in the event, Gov. Rick Scott issued a proclamation (.pdf) encouraging "all citizens to pray" on Saturday, and submitted a video message:
Join me in praying for job opportunities for those who need work, for the economic well-being of our nation, and for the safety and security of our communities and our men and women in uniform. #
On a personal note, my wife and I are praying for our first grandchild, who is on the way in a few months.