Fourteen months from the next election, Gov. Rick Scott’s sales pitch is clear. He portrays himself as the education governor, the defender of the environment and the advocate for open records. He’s the jobs governor, and he has empathy for Floridians without health coverage. Don’t be fooled by the packaging. It’s a facade that hides reality, and Florida deserves better.
Scott organized a three-day summit last week to tackle controversies over the coming Common Core State Standards and the discredited school accountability system now in place. He promotes the $1 billion in new money public schools received this year and his effort to give teachers raises.
The reality is Scott failed to show up at his own summit to listen to the concerns of school superintendents and others. Instead he ate dinner privately with former Gov. Jeb Bush, whose passion for education is unquestioned even if some of his views are controversial.
This year’s per student funding is the highest of Scott’s three years as governor. But it is still lower than each of the five previous years under his predecessors, Charlie Crist and Bush. Scott also signed into law the legislation that siphons off school construction money to privately run charter schools. And the governor’s last two hand-picked education commissioners have shown more interest in advocating for charter schools and expanding voucher programs than in creating successful public schools.
Now there is another interim education commissioner, and the revolving door in Tallahassee leaves local school districts without clear direction from the state. Will Scott fold on Common Core and the student assessments needed to make them work?
The governor staged another media show last week to promote a worthy project to improve water flow into Everglades National Park. That is a drop in the bucket compared to the damage he has done to the environment.
The governor decimated growth management and eliminated the agency that enforced it. He fought the federal government over clean-water standards, neutered the water management districts by slashing their tax base and manipulated the regulatory process to put politics above science. His money for Florida’s springs is hardly meaningful. The deal he cut with the federal government on restoring the Everglades put the deadline off again. And to raise money to buy sensitive lands, the state’s solution is to sell land it already owns.
Scott is still looking at toll roads to nowhere across the middle of Florida. The state still has no cohesive energy policy. And the governor’s environmental agency is more focused on quickly approving the requests of developers than on protecting wetlands. A news conference on one worthy project cannot mask years of bad policy.
Scott inaccurately claims he is more than halfway toward meeting his pledge of creating 700,000 jobs, and he keeps cranking out the news releases. Last week: 100 jobs at Boeing in Miami; 105 new air cargo jobs in Orlando; 200 jobs at technology company Citrix in Fort Lauderdale. The week before that: 40 jobs at the moving and storage company PODS in Clearwater.
Many of the jobs Scott counts won’t be created for years, if ever, and the bigger picture is darker. The state’s unemployment rate has been stuck at 7.1 percent for three months, better than the national average of 7.4 percent. A report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics says the labor force expanded in the Tampa Bay area, Jacksonville and Orlando in the past year but in other areas — South Florida, the Panhandle, Bradenton, Sarasota and Lakeland — the labor force contracted. And the jobless rate in Pasco and Hernando counties is still 8 percent or higher.
Scott’s heavy-handed attempt to lure companies from other states is a public relations nightmare, and it isn’t working. While Florida now has roughly as many jobs as before the recession, people earn less and there are more part-time jobs. Jobs in the low-paying leisure and hospitality sectors are up. Better paying jobs in construction, manufacturing and professional/business services are still down.
The bottom line: The job situation is not nearly as rosy as Scott projects.
After Florida failed to persuade the courts to block health care reform, Scott called for the state to accept billions in federal dollars and expand Medicaid to 1 million uninsured residents. “I cannot, in good conscience, deny Floridians the needed access to health care,” he declared in February.
Then he stopped listening to his conscience. Scott sat by as House Speaker Will Weatherford blocked expansion, and he has dropped the issue. What the governor has done is reject millions in federal dollars to implement health care reform and left the creation of an insurance exchange to the federal government. He also foolishly signed into law a ban on state regulation of health insurance rates for two years.
New U.S. Census figures show nearly 1 in 4 Floridians lack health insurance, the second highest rate in the nation. Hospitals in Orlando, Vero Beach and elsewhere are laying off workers and reducing pay in part because the new Medicaid dollars aren’t coming.
Scott isn’t expanding access to health care. He is working against it. He is making it harder for hospitals to make ends meet, harder for the uninsured to get coverage and harder for businesses to comply with the federal law.
Scott promised an unprecedented effort toward government transparency: Regular releases on the Internet of nearly all emails received or written by the governor and his top staff. The goal was to eventually extend the service, known as Project Sunburst, to Scott’s 11 agencies as well.
Sunburst has been a bust. Efforts to meet a seven-day window in posting emails to the site routinely goes unmet and are incomplete. Agencies were never added to the project and Scott and his aides avoid creating public records when they can. Scott’s chief of staff isn’t shy about reminding subordinates that anything they send to him by email is a public record. Contrast that with the first e-governor, Jeb Bush, who was such a believer in efficient communication his state portrait includes his Blackberry in the background.
It’s not just Sunburst. The governor also helped kill one of the most promising efforts for open government. He refused to take ownership of a software project, Transparency 2.0, that would have allowed the public to easily track how state government allocates and spends taxpayer money. The project died from neglect.