Is Florida Ready For Governor Rick Scott?

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Florida Governor-elect Rick Scott speaks to the media during a press conference while visiting the Port of Miami on December 8, 2010 in Miami, Florida.

Florida has some of the broadest open-government laws in the country. So when Governor-elect Rick Scott held a number of behind-closed-doors meetings with business leaders earlier this month during a five-day jobs tour, many political observers fretted that he might not fully appreciate the Sunshine State's sunshine rules. "It would have been a nice gesture on his part to hold those meetings more in the open," says Ben Wilcox, Florida director of the government watchdog group Common Cause. "But Florida's sunshine laws are going to take some getting used to on his part, since just about all he's known is the corporate world."

Scott, a multi-millionaire and longtime CEO in the health care sector, believes that his corporate experience is what got him elected in the first place: a pledge to lavish his boardroom skills on a bellwether state where this year the recession pushed unemployment above 12%, its worst ever. As Scott, 58, a conservative Republican, approaches his Jan. 4 inauguration, he's trumpeting his "Let's Get To Work" campaign slogan by tapping mavericks like former Washington D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee for his transition team. Rhee, says Scott transition spokesman Brian Burgess, "is a lot like him — they're both impatient with bureaucracy and [with] waiting and waiting for things to happen."

In his Nov. 2 victory speech, Scott declared that "today is the end of politics as usual in Tallahassee," Florida's capital, and he insists that Florida will be "open for business" under his administration. But if Floridians are hoping Scott's corporate acumen can generate jobs for the 1.1 million of them out of work, they're also wary of his corporate past. Scott, after all, had to resign in disgrace in 1997 as CEO of the Columbia/HCA hospital corporation, the world's biggest private health care facility operator (today called just HCA), after it was slapped with $1.7 billion in federal fines for Medicare fraud, the largest such case in U.S. history. Scott himself was never charged with a crime — but the scandal is a big reason people get a tad nervous now whenever the Governor-elect, who refused to talk with any Florida newspaper editorial board during his campaign, ducks out of sight to huddle with executives. In a state facing a projected $3.5 billion budget deficit, some of Scott's pro-business proposals, such as eliminating Florida's corporate tax, can sound almost recklessly dogmatic.

Scott supporters insist that was the mandate of the voters, who swept in so many conservative, Tea Party-backed candidates like him in the November election. But Florida voters hardly handed Scott a mandate. A slew of Florida conservatives did bury their opponents in November, including former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, who thumped current Governor Charlie Crist in the U.S. Senate race. But even after spending an eye-popping $73 million of his own money on his campaign — a layout that prompted even some Republican leaders to complain that he was buying the statehouse — Scott scored less than 50% of the vote and defeated a fairly weak Democratic candidate, Florida CFO Alex Sink, by just a percentage point.

As a result, Scott stands to wield less clout in Tallahassee than the establishment Republicans he belittled during his primary campaign, but who happen to control both Florida's House and Senate. "Scott is one of those people who always thinks he's the smartest one in the room," novelist and Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen wrote recently, "but he will soon be educated otherwise."

Still, those Republicans — whose state party is embroiled in an embarrassing finance scandal of its own — know that Floridians expect them to help Scott make good on his "7-step" pledge to create 700,000 new jobs in seven years (even though the gubernatorial term is only four years). They may wave off some of Scott's less viable ideas — this month he revived the push for a school voucher-like plan for all of Florida's 2.6 million schoolchildren, even though Florida's Supreme Court in 2006 ruled the scheme a violation of the state constitution's public education provisions. But they'll have to be engaged for a change in efforts to shake Florida out of its complacently low-tech, low-wage economic model, which depends inordinately on beaches and oranges.

During the jobs tour, which took Scott from the military bases of Florida's Panhandle to the port of Miami, he sounded some strong notes, especially the need to make Florida's universities more globally competitive "entrepreneurship incubators" in areas like biotech, green energy and aerospace (where NASA cuts are setting a lot of top talent adrift). Whatever you think of Scott's politics, "he has a very analytical mind," says Burgess, who's also been a spokesman for Scott's non-profit Conservatives for Patients' Rights, which opposes President Obama's health care reforms. "He sucks up information and has incredible problem-solving skills." Janet Watermeier, executive director of the Panhandle's non-partisan Bay County Economic Development Alliance and part of Scott's economic transition team, agrees: "He's definitely asking the right questions and looking for the right tools to get us into a new economy." Still, while most Floridians favor using $2.39 billion in federal funds to start a new high-speed rail system, Scott may yet reject the money, as new conservative Governors in Wisconsin and Ohio recently did.

Palm Beach County's conservative GOP boss, Sid Dinerstein, even predicts that Scott "is going to be within six months of taking office one of the most extraordinary national figures we've seen in years." Dinerstein admittedly has reasons for sweet-talking Scott, since he's among a handful of Florida Republicans hoping the Governor-elect will endorse them next month to be the state party's new chairman. But Dinerstein has long been a genuine proponent of what he calls the "pro-taxpayer" measures he believes Scott will champion, such as tort, education, Medicare and pension reforms. "It could be a breathtaking agenda," says Dinerstein. There's no denying that it's open for business. But given Scott's record, a lot of Floridians hope he just conducts that business out in the open.