TALLAHASSEE – On the campaign trail, Rick Scott made it sound like such common sense: career politicians had driven the train in Tallahassee, and it was headed off a cliff because of spiraling government growth.
Scott pledged to implement an "accountability budget" that would take a bow-to-stern approach to looking for government waste, and cut $5 billion from a roughly $68 billion budget.
Scott's message was music to recession-racked voters in his 2010 campaign – along with his tax cuts, budget savings were to generate some 364,000 of Scott's 700,000-jobs-in-seven-years pledge – but it never flew in Tallahassee.
Today, Florida's budget is bigger than when Scott took office, at about $70 billion. And the governor just proposed a $74.2 billion budget – the biggest in state history. But Scott sees the spending increases as the result of his policies since taking office in 2011.
"What I ran on was economic growth and job creation," Scott said recently to the Orlando Sentinel editorial board. "I made the tough choices to get our economy back. We cut taxes and controlled the size of government. We made a lot of tough choices."
But the distance between Scott's actual budget policies and what he pledged on the campaign trail is a wide one.
His "accountability budgeting" called for implementing a biennial budgeting process instead of an annual one; transforming traditional line-item budgets into "outcome-based" ones where managers in state agencies would have more flexibility to achieve public benefits; returning government spending to the same level it was relative to the economy in 2004; and "refus[ing] temporary funding from the federal government."
With the exception of rejecting federal dollars for a high-speed train between Orlando and Tampa, none of those goals have been met. The $5 billion budget cut Scott called for on the campaign trail was scaled back to $4 billion in his first budget, and lawmakers largely ignored it.
Still, as the state's economy moves out of recession, Scott has been quick to take credit. Last week, his office announced January unemployment had fallen to 7.8 percent – below the national average for the first time in five years.
"He has done well in terms of keeping taxes relatively low," said Tony Villamil, dean of the School of Business at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens. "The fiscal situation of the state is stable."
And the improving economy means Florida budget-writers have a roughly $1 billion budget surplus to play with this spring – which has prompted a fiscal turnaround by the governor.
Instead of using that windfall to lobby for the deep tax cuts he ran on, Scott is pushing to spend it. He's backing a $1.2-billion increase in education spending – including $480 million in across-the-board raises for teachers – as well as bonuses for state employees and more money for everything from environmental protection and universities to roads and the developmentally disabled.
And he is insisting lawmakers do something to expand health-care to the poor and draw down some $51 billion in federal Medicaid funding over the next decade. This week, the Senate unveiled its first stab at developing a new program to do that through private insurers in order to draw down that federal money.
Scott says his emphasis on growing government spending now is not in conflict with his 2010 campaign message that Florida was on a path of "unaffordable government spending."
"No one can foresee the future," he said. "But if we continue down the path we're on where more people move to our state, more people have jobs and we spend tax dollars well, we'll be able to continue to invest as our state grows."
Lawmakers say Scott has learned his lesson, not changed the system. They note that his approval ratings plummeted because of budget cuts – especially to public schools – that he advocated in 2011.
"As he himself has said, this has been a learning process," said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs. "He was new to the process. He understands now how important teachers are."
Lawmakers largely shrugged off his "accountability" ideas, refusing to even allow a pilot project last year.
"There just was not a lot of interest," said Scott budget director Jerry McDaniel.
Scott has attempted to force his reform ideas onto state agencies through other means, like threatening draconian cuts to Florida's agency for the disabled, running off other department heads, trying to drug-test welfare recipients, and implementing plans to measure and rank everything from school districts to county election supervisors. Thus far, though, little of that has taken hold, in part because judges have rejected his drug-testing and some privatization efforts.