(Recap and analysis of the week in state government)
By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Jan. 21, 2011……….After being maligned for his first two weeks in office for not being accessible enough, Gov. Rick Scott opened up this week – to the press and the World Wide Web.
Scott addressed the annual Associated Press Florida Legislative Planning Session this week, meeting a press corps with whom he has had a rocky start. Later in the week, Scott tested the waters of non-traditional media, by holding an online town hall on Twitter.
In his appearance before media executives, editors and reporters, Scott covered topics ranging from a state budget he called “bloated” to tax cuts to plans from his transition team to merge three state agencies. On each, the new governor basically said it would be his way or the highway.
“First off, I’m the governor,” Scott said when reporters asked him about the new Department of Children Family Secretary’s position on gay adoption. “So whatever my position would be would be the position that would be enforced.”
So it was in plenty of other ways during Scott’s roughly 40 minute availability this week. He tackled the issue of whether his administration was too inaccessible to reporters with some humor, saying his wife has argued that he has spoken with reporters more than her during his first weeks in office.
He then announced Vision Airlines would expand its air service with several new routes from Fort Walton Beach/Destin, calling it a “big deal.” The flights will begin in April and most of the flights would only take off on certain days of the week. Scott said the deal with translate into 4,000 jobs.
“If I could do about 150 of those, then I get to my 700,000 jobs,” Scott said in reference to his campaign promise. “The oil spill had a big impact on the Panhandle last year, but it’s going to come back.”
Scott also said he has yet to make up his mind on proposals to merge the Department of Community Affairs with the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Transportation, though the suggestion came from his transition team. Scott has appointed heads of two of those three agencies, though he continued his critiqued of DCA.
“We clearly need growth management but we’ve got to do growth management in a way that is not merely slowing things down and killing jobs,” he said.
On tax cuts, two of the other AP Day speakers, House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, and Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, both suggested that with a $3.6 billion budget hole looming, lawmakers might be doing their best just to not raise taxes. Cutting taxes further may be a reach.
But Scott, who campaigned vigorously on a$1.4 billion property tax cut and a first-year rollback of more than $800 million in the state’s business tax, promised they would happen.
“I’m going through every line item in the budget,” Scott said. “But I don’t think we should be spending this much money. I don’t think we do a good enough job of how we buy things.”
During a Twitter town hall meeting, a new milestone for a Florida governor, Scott’s message was largely the same, though the questioners were definitely different. The first question he took was from @BOILING_SKIES: “What are your core policies to attract EMPLOYERS to Florida? #FL.”
@FLGOVSCOTT replied: “call ceos each day and talk to them about moving fl #flgov”
The give-and-take on Twitter was not without tension. Some tweeters accused the governor of taking soft questions, including one observer who poked fun at Scott for taking a question on what he liked about living in Tallahassee. The tone of some of the tweets also reflected the more boisterous nature of the emerging social media. Scott, for example, retweeted (apparently by accident) and then deleted a comment from @PrettyTwister, who said, “So what, are you gunna fire everyone and hire Walmart (sic) employees? Yeah, that’s great… you jackass.”
Kathy Burstein, a Delray Beach resident who works for the Palm Beach County Clerk and Comptroller, tweeted that 140 characters simply weren’t enough for serious answers.
PARTY LIKE ITS 2012
Elsewhere this week, the first two candidates to announce they’re running for U.S. Senate next year appeared at the same event for the first, giving Sen. Bill Nelson and Senate President Mike Haridopolos to talk about a race that could see them face each other next fall.
Each avoided criticizing the other much, saying instead that voters would judge them on their records. But while Democrat Nelson said he “didn’t know anything about” Haridopolos forming a committee to allow him to begin raising money for the race, the Republican Senate President criticized Nelson for focusing too much on high speed rail and not responding to a letter he sent him last summer asking for his position on controversial national issues like health care.
For the most part, however, Nelson used his Associated Press Florida Legislative Planning Session speech to tout his record in the Senate.
“In the Senate, I have had the privilege of accepting the mantle from Bob Graham to help restore one of the state’s great treasures….the Florida Everglades,” he said. “After decades of delay, we have now gotten the first meaningful chunk of federal money and it is happening as we speak. And then as many of you have reported, we’ve been able to get more than $2.4 billion on the table for a high speed rail system.”
Haridopolos, the first declared candidate to challenge Nelson in what figures to be a hotly-contested election, similarly spoke highly of his own work in the Florida Senate.
“I think when people look at my track record and how we’ve transformed the Florida Senate, and I think they’d like us to go that way in the United States Senate,” he said. “As you know, I’m a candidate, but the way I’m going to be judged is not how much money I raise, it’s how I perform as Senate president, and that’s why I’m keeping my focus on the Senate presidency.”
Because they won practically every race last year, and because of the middling approval ratings in Florida for President Barack Obama, Republicans feel pretty confident they’ll be able to knock off Nelson. But the two-term senator told reporters this week that he has won elections despite a national political pendulum that has swung both ways since he first won a state legislative seat in 1972, the year Richard Nixon trounced Democrat George McGovern.
“Richard Nixon won my legislative district by 75 percent,” he said. “I carried in my race 75 percent. So I run my own races.”
Despite all the 2012 talk, Haridopolos actually sought to downplay talk of the burgeoning Senate race, turning repeated questions about his candidacy back to state legislative issues.
“I hope that you will all show up after session for my press conference about the U.S. Senate,” he said in exasperation at one point. “I hope that you focus on what I’m focused on, which is the budget. I know the politics part of it is more exciting to write about, but I think you’ll see from our already-hard work in the Senate that we’re focused on doing the job that I have right now.”
It was clear this week however that there will also be focus on the job he is seeking.
HOUSE SALES WERE UP, UNEMPLOYMENT WAS NOT (BUT IT WASN’T DOWN EITHER)
There was some good news in the numbers this week, but there was also some not-so-good news. Existing home sales in 2010 were up 5 percent in Florida from the dismal year before, still a welcome sign that bodes well for homebuyers and sellers in 2011, Florida Realtors said this week.
But Florida’s unemployment rate in December remained unchanged from November at 12 percent and remained 0.2 percentage points higher than the year before, the Agency for Workforce Innovation reported Friday.
On the home front, existing sales rose 4 percent in December from a year ago with 12 of 19 metropolitan areas showing gains, the statewide association said. Condominium sales were even stronger, with sales rising 12 percent in year-to-year figures.
Median home prices remained soft in December, falling to $133,000 from $139,800 a year earlier, a drop of 5 percent. Condo prices experienced a 17 percent reduction in median price to $88,100 in December. Median price means that half of homes sold above that price and half below.
For the year, existing home sales totaled 170,848 homes compared to 162,873 homes sold in 2009. Statewide existing home sales in 2010 also were 37.5 percent higher than 2008.
But unemployment remained stubbornly high, closing the year where it began at 12 percent. The number of Floridians employed in non-agricultural jobs approached 7.2 million in December, up 0.2 percent from December 2009. For the year, the state’s economy added about 45,000 jobs, a glimmer of hope that state officials hope will continue in 2011.
“Although 12 percent unemployment is too high, a sixth straight month of job gains over the year is a positive sign, and with Gov. Scott’s emphasis on strategies to spark and support job creation, we anticipate continued improvement in our economy,” Agency for Workforce Innovation Director Cynthia R. Lorenzo said.
That optimistic wasn’t necessarily shared by the get to work governor though. Scott, in a statement, called the 12 percent rate “unacceptable.”
“The numbers reaffirm my commitment to getting Florida back to work, and prove that we must put job creation first by making Florida the best place to do business,” Scott said.
There are more than 1.1 million jobless Floridians who probably really hope so.
Elsewhere this week, Gov. Scott named CIGNA senior director Jack Miles as the new secretary of the Department of Management Services and Attorney General Pam Bondi named Richard Lawson as her economic crimes director.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Rick Scott opened up a bit this week, speaking to the traditional media and the very new media in equal parts.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “I know some of you think it’s always hard to get enough access with me. I can just tell you the other side, my wife thinks I talk to you guys more than I talk to her,” Scott, acknowledging complaints from the Tallahassee press corps that he does not talk to them enough.