TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Confronting a tough re-election fight Gov. Rick Scott came into his fourth legislative session as governor with a focused, but yet limited agenda that dealt primarily on tax cuts and spending priorities.
By the time the Florida Legislature ended its 60-day session, Scott also had waded into a Republican fight over immigration and even tried to gauge support from legislators over a possible gambling deal with The Seminole Tribe of Florida.
During his first three years in office Scott’s relationship with GOP legislative leaders was often tentative and even a bit combative. But Republican legislative leaders intent on helping the first-term governor gave Scott much of what he wanted as he prepares for an expensive and lengthy re-election fight against likely Democratic nominee and former Gov. Charlie Crist.
“We are cognizant it’s an election year,” said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. “We are the same party. We want him to win. We wanted to help jump start him coming in to the campaign season and I think we have done that.”
Polls have consistently shown Scott’s job approval rating under 50 percent and some have even shown that a majority of Florida voters don’t want him to be re-elected.
When Scott opened up this year’s session in March, he bypassed contentious issues such as expanding Medicaid or opening the door to Las Vegas casinos.
Instead he asked he them to cut taxes and rollback auto registration fees and to increase spending in key areas such as hiring more child protection workers.
But midway through the session Scott decided to back away from his previous strong stance on immigration. He threw his weight behind a contentious bill to let students living in the country illegally to qualify for in-state tuition. Many Republicans were opposed to the legislation but Scott’s push helped get the measure passed.
Shortly before midnight on Friday, a beaming Scott proclaimed that “we’ve had a great session.” But he stepped aside any talk that his decision to pursue a smaller agenda this year was key to his success.
“All four years I’ve tried to focus on what’s most important for Florida families, how do we change the direction of this state,” Scott said.
Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, said the major issue of the 2014 session was “propping up a governor seeking re-election whose poll numbers are flagging.” Smith said that the decision of Scott and other Republicans to support the in-state tuition measure as well as Scott’s announcement he will sign a bill authorizing a specific strain of marijuana for medical purposes showed that it “took dimming re-election prospects to bring him around.”
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, denied that election year politics were at work.
“None of this was done in just the Republican cloakroom or the majority office,” Gaetz said. “Everything initiative that we passed through the legislative process was bipartisan in nature. These policies are not just for Republicans. If they are good for Republicans and good for Democrats then they are good for Florida. We’re more worried about the next generation. We think if we do that the next election will take care of itself.”
Florida legislators did not give everything Scott wanted. They politely ignored some of his budget requests, including a push to boost the amount of state tax dollars to Visit Florida up to $100 million.
Legislators also rejected Scott’s request to keep alive his push to eliminate the corporate income tax. Scott at one time vowed to get rid of the tax in seven years, but has been forced to scale it back due to legislative resistance.
Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne and the House member in charge of pushing tax cut bills, said the “governor was pushing hard” but he said there was no way to go along with that request after going along with the size of the auto registration fee rollback sought by the governor.
“It kind of got squeezed out,” Workman said.
The Scott administration also appeared to miscalculate how legislators would respond to a potential deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida to extend the state’s current gambling compact.
With days winding down in the session, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera approached legislative leaders to tell them a deal was close. There were even discussions about a possible special session in May to consider the revised deal. Key parts of the tribe’s current deal expire next year.
But legislative leaders said they couldn’t make any promises without knowing more details while Democrats said they would not go along unless they were involved in negotiations.
“We have not heard any follow up in terms of a special session or a compact so my guess is that it’s probably fizzled out,” Weatherford said.
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