Sunday, October 26th, 2014

PolitiFact Florida's new 'Scott-O-Meter' to track campaign promises

Rick Scott launched his campaign for governor in April with a single promise — to remake state government.

Nine months, nearly $75 million and 2.6 million votes later, the enormity of what he meant is coming into focus.

Scott, 58, will be sworn in as Florida's 45th governor Tuesday — the crescendo of an improbable and rapid political ascent. He enters office with big ambitions and dozens of campaign promises, starting with that first one.

PolitiFact Florida unveils its Scott-O-Meter today to keep track. The Scott-O-Meter will analyze each promise — so far we've found 56 — and rate whether it was kept, broken or altered as part of a compromise. Those ratings will be tallied on our website, creating an up-to-the-minute and evolving report card on Scott's administration.

The concept is the same as PolitiFact's Obameter, which is tracking President Barack Obama's campaign promises. But this meter is all about Scott, and state government.

If Scott delivers on his word, Florida is in store for sweeping change -- from how it runs its government, to how it teaches its students, to its relationship with the Obama administration.

And based on the new governor's robust agenda, the Scott-O-Meter plans to be working overtime.

Spending and tax cuts

Scott's agenda is so stocked with consequential and potentially controversial measures, it seems difficult for him deliver on everything, even with a GOP-dominated Legislature. At least 20 of Scott's promises target his biggest priority -- reducing government expenses and growing the state's idling economy.

Combined, Scott's spending promises could amount to the largest reshaping of state fiscal policy in decades.

Scott promised to force government agencies to justify their entire budgets, not just explain away year-over-year changes. He pledged to craft biennial budgets, so the state could plan for two years at a time, and allow the public to participate in the process.

And he promised deep spending cuts -- returning state government spending to 2004 levels, a reduction from 2010 of almost $13 billion or 18 percent.

How does he get there?

For starters, cutting prison costs by $1 billion, reducing the state workforce by 5 percent, making state employees contribute to their retirement, and making changes to Medicaid to save $1.8 billion. He also pledged to veto pet projects of legislators and eliminate or merge unnecessary or repetitive state agencies. Already, his transition teams have floated consolidating health agencies and combining the state's development and environmental agencies into a new Department of Growth Leadership.

The agenda likely will set up a philosophical showdown with many Democrats and possibly even moderate Republicans.

"There are always ways you can reduce spending, but you may not like the result," said Steve Geller, a Broward County Democratic state senator from 1998-2008, and a former minority leader. "Do you want to let more prisoners out of jail? It will save money. Do you want to spend less on education? That will save lots of money."

But that's not all. Along with cuts to spending, Scott committed to slashing taxes. He promised to phase out the state corporate income tax, which generated $1.8 billion last year, and reduce property taxes directed to K-12 school funding by about $1.4 billion. He says he will make up the education funding with spending cuts.

The cuts to spending and taxes are part of the recipe for Scott's biggest and most repeated promise -- to create 700,000 new private-sector jobs in seven years.

"Getting rid of the corporate tax would put Florida high on the list of best states for investment and job creation," said Grover Norquist, a national anti-tax crusader and president of Americans for Tax Reform.

Scott's jobs promise might be easy to measure, but economists say it will be difficult to determine whether Scott deserves credit. National and world economic factors might play a bigger role than Scott's economic policies, said Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida.

"He'll be more than able to deliver on his promise of 700,000 jobs, and it won't take seven years, either. But it'll be tough to say whether or not, or how much, Scott deserves credit for it," Snaith said. "It's tough to separate and say, this caused this and this caused this. Pretty much, he'll be able to claim it, and no one will be able to refute it."

An education revolution

On top of changes to state spending and fiscal policy, Scott promised wholesale changes to the way Florida educates its students.

To boil it down: It's about options and accountability.

Scott promised to revive a version of Senate Bill 6, the controversial teacher tenure bill that passed the Legislature in 2010 but was vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist. Scott has said different considerations must be made for some teachers -- including special education instructors -- but that he supports two of the main planks of the 2010 legislation, ending tenure for new teachers and linking teacher compensation to student performance.

Scott vowed to add more virtual schooling options, and pledged to ensure that children in the state's voluntary pre-K program can continue to enroll in private and faith-based programs.

But it's increasing voucher programs for K-12 students that may be Scott's most controversial education position. Officially, he promised only to increase students' "options," and has avoided the term vouchers. But most people watching say a voucher discussion is forthcoming.

"His sort of tagline is 'have the money follow the student,' " said Ruth Melton, a lobbyist for the Florida School Boards Association. "But the money already does follow the student. All funding is based on students."

Melton said she is worried about unintended consequences of a voucher program, like adding students currently enrolled in private or home school to the tab of taxpayers -- which she estimates could dilute state education funding by as much as 10 percent.

"That's a huge amount," she said.

In higher education, Scott promised to make the state university system more intertwined with job-creating efforts. State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan, a former education commissioner and lieutenant governor under Jeb Bush, said universities for the first time are beginning to create detailed accountability measures to prove the value of higher education and show where improvement is needed.

Brogan, a member of Scott's education transition team, says the state is failing to produce enough graduates in high-wage, high-skilled professions. Those who graduate with high-tech degrees have to leave the state, Brogan says, because the jobs that match those skills are not in Florida. Brogan and Scott agree -- that must change.

"Every new governor has a long litany of things they want to accomplish. This governor is no different. He is a mover and shaker," Brogan said. "I think we're all starting to have a greater understanding of Florida's future when it comes to economic development. It is about agriculture and tourism. But at the end of the day, it is about creating a powerful knowledge-based economy that will spur ... innovation to make Florida a major player in the 21st century."

Fighting Washington

Scott, like many Republicans running for state office, spent much of 2010 campaigning against the agenda of Obama and Democrats in Washington. So naturally, some of Scott's promises target the Beltway.

He pledged to fight to repeal the federal health care law, calling it "the biggest job killer ever in the history of this country." He also positioned himself to the right on immigration issues, saying he supports an Arizona-style immigration law in Florida and that he opposes measures that reward illegal immigrants with citizenship.

Scott also promised to refuse temporary federal funds that create permanent state spending. One early litmus test may be the high-speed rail line linking Orlando and Tampa. The federal government offered to cover $2.39 billion of the $2.6 billion cost, and the state agreed to pay $280 million in matching money, which would make up the difference.

But Scott said he is waiting to see full details of the project before moving forward. Among the outstanding issues -- will $2.6 billion cover all the costs? And will the state be on the hook for the cost to operate the train?

"One of the big tests in our minds is going to be high-speed rail," said Florida Tea Party Chairman Peg Dunmire. "We're really against all the different projects. I've heard him raise his eyebrow a little when he speaks about rail. I hope he doesn't give in. There isn't a penny coming from the federal government that the federal government has money for."

Sacred cows

And yet, there's more.

Scott promised not to take a salary as governor and to sell the state airplane.

He even pledged to lower the cost of electricity for businesses. But a word of caution: Almost every promise needs the approval of the Legislature. That could prove difficult for the first-time elected official and former health care CEO.

"Coming from the corporate world, you can do a lot of things by just declaring it so," said state Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, who will chair the House Government Operations Appropriations Subcommittee in 2011. "In government, that's a little tougher."

Fifty-six promises? Hooper asked.

"That's one of his items every day we're in session," he said. "That's a tough lift -- I don't care who you are. But he's going to try. He told us that he was elected campaigning on these issues and that he's going to try and accomplish every one."

We reached out to Scott's office several times to see if they had any concerns about our list of promises, or if they wanted to share other promises to be considered for the Scott-O-Meter. We did not hear back.

Make no mistake, people will be watching his progress.

And so will we.

"There's not anything wrong with a guy having a lot of ambitious ideas, putting them out there and seeing what flies," said state Sen. Jack Latvala, a Republican from Clearwater. "He's turning over some sacred cows, and you know what, every now and again we need to do that."

Know of a promise we should be tracking?

Offer your suggestions by e-mailing politifact.florida@gmail.com.