After four decades in state government, Julie Jones is retiring as executive director of the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
In an election year, Gov. Rick Scott and the three-member Cabinet will have to agree on a successor to run an agency that has extensive daily contact with everyday Floridians and a fair share of controversy. The issues have ranged from new document requirements for driver license renewals to a now-stalled redesign of the Florida license tag to the case of the state trooper who was fired and rehired for his handling of traffic stops involving legislators.
Jones, 56, will retire April 30 as a member of the DROP retirement program for state employees. She is paid $135,000 a year, and the agency has about 4,500 employees and an annual budget of more than $400 million.
She began her career with the old Game and Freshwater Fish Commission in 1983, rising to the rank of colonel and chief of its law enforcement division. Jones succeeded Electra Bustle as head of the highway safety agency in the fall of 2009 when Charlie Crist was governor and the Cabinet consisted of Republicans Charlie Bronson and Bill McCollum and Democrat Alex Sink.
"I didn't put in for this job," Jones recalled Thursday from Tampa at a Cabinet meeting with a tie-in to the state fair. "I was pleasantly surprised what a challenge it was and how great the people have been."
Jones said she has floated the names of two possible successors to her bosses -- one inside the agency and one outside. She declined to identify them. It will be interesting to see how the field of candidates emerges because the vacancy is so close to a race for governor.
Gov. Rick Scott made national headlines and disappointed his tea party base last year when he expressed support for using federal Medicaid expansion dollars to help uninsured Floridians get coverage. He supported the plan created by Senate Republicans to use the $51 billion in federal funding, but it was blocked by House Republicans at the end of the 2013 session.
At the time, Democrats criticized Scott for not doing more to back the Senate plan. Since then, it's gotten even worse with the governor refusing to say flat out whether he still supports Medicaid expansion and returning to old talking points criticizing the federal health care overhaul.
Recently, Scott's 2014-2015 budget proposal was silent on the Medicaid expansion issue although there are bills filed in the House and Senate to ressurrect last year's failed plan.
The governor's refusal to address Medicaid expansion has angered congressional Democrats who wrote a letter to express "extreme disappointment" that the subject was not discussed during his budget presentation last week.
"Governor, last year you said your conscience wouldn't allow you to stand in the way of an expansion," they wrote. "We hope your conscience now will compel you to at least ask legislators to find a way to get this done."
The letter is signed by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and U.S. representatives Kathy Castor, Patrick Murphy, Joe Garcia, Corrine Brown, Alan Grayson, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Ted Deutch, Alcee Hastings, Frederica Wilson and Lois Frankel.
Gov. Rick Scott today urged House Speaker John Boehner to take up legislation to provide relief to Florida homeowners getting rocked by higher flood insurance rates.
“For too long, Florida has been a donor state to the National Flood Insurance Program by contributing $16 billion over the last three decades, which is nearly four times the amount Florida homeowners have received back in claims," Scott said in a statement. "I also again extended an invitation to Speaker Boehner to join me if the President accepts my invitation to meet on this important topic. The President needs to let Florida families know now how he will undo the outrageous flood insurance hikes he forced on Floridians. Whether a legislative or executive fix, we need immediate action for Florida families.”
The move is a bit of a shift for Scott, who had basically ignored Congress and tried to press President Obama to take executive action. Boehner and other House leaders have indicated they do not like the Senate bill that passed last week, contending it goes to far in reversing 2012 reforms under the Biggert-Waters Act. Today, House Democrats attempted, and failed, to use a procedural tactic to get a vote on the Senate bill.
House Speaker Will Weatherford believes that state universities deserve more funding, pushing for a tuition increase last year over the objections of Gov. Rick Scott who vetoed the measure.
There appears to be a difference in opinion again this year, with Weatherford saying he doesn't think Scott's budget proposal included enough money for the 12 public universities. "I think we can do better than what the governor suggested, but it was a good starting point," the Wesley Chapel Republican told the Times/Herald on Tuesday.
The Board of Governors requested $100 million for performance funding. They wanted half of that, or $50 million, to be in new money. Instead, Scott recommended $80 million for performance pay with half of that being new funding.
"Ideally, I think we can do better than $40 million worth of performance funding, and I think we can do more that what the governor suggested with regard to capital outlay," Weatherford said.
Scott's budget, which he unveiled last week, also includes $84 million for universities facilities projects: $34 million for maintenance, repair, renovation and remodeling of existing buildings and $50 million for construction projects specifically tied to science, technology, math and engineering.
The Board of Governors is lobbying the state for almost four times that amount: $321 million. The universities say they need that money to address the needs of aging buildings and to finish projects that have already been approved but not fully funded.
Charlie Crist spent about four minutes on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” today and made the most of each second.
Plugging his new book, “The Party’s Over,” Crist gave his standard spiel about how the Republican Party grew more extreme over time and how, culminating with his embrace of President Obama, he eventually became a Democrat who’s now running for his old job as governor. (My take on the book here).
The mere existence of the smooth-talking Crist deranges some Republicans. And Crist knows it. And he knows how to throw salt on the wound: Quote his predecessor, Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, about what’s happening to the GOP.
“Jeb Bush said it better than I can say it,” Crist said. “He said today’s Republican Party is perceived as being anti-women, anti-immigrant, anti-minority, anti-gay couples, anti-environment, anti-education. I mean, pretty soon, there’s nobody left in the room.”
Bush didn’t exactly say that last year at CPAC. But it was close: "We're associated with being anti-everything. Way too many people believe that Republicans are anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker. Many voters are simply unwilling to choose our candidates because those voters feel unloved, unwanted, and unwelcome in our party."
Crist is certainly unwelcome in the party, having left before he lost a GOP Senate primary to Marco Rubio in 2010 despite assurances that he’d remain a Republican.
Asked about his positions on immigration and gay marriage, Crist filibustered to tell the story of how his relatives came to the United States from Greece and Lebanon. He also mentioned that “I like the president supported, in the past, civil unions.”
True, in the past, Crist did support civil unions. But he also cast a vote against a type of civil union by voting in 2008 for Florida’s gay-marriage ban, which targets the “substantial equivalent” of marriage for same-sex couples.
Crist’s past reversals were too good for Gov. Rick Scott to pass up in the first paid TV ad of the cycle that featured past quotes from Democrats criticizing Crist as “an opportunist.”
That 30-second spot from Scott’s political committee, Let’s Get to Work, was featured on “Morning Joe” as an introduction. So it wasn’t the best way to start out of the gate.
Counterpunching Republican attacks, Democrat Charlie Crist is airing a new web ad that says "it was guys like Rick Scott that crashed our economy."
The 30-second spot, narrated by Crist as he looks into the camera, is a response to last week's Republican Party of Florida web ad that says Crist "ran away" and did too little as the economy crashed while he was governor from 2007-2011.
"Which governor took Florida to the bottom?" an announcer asks. "Charlie Crist. What's worse, he didn't stay to fix the mess. He ran away, tried to go to Washington instead. Charlie Crist: slick politician, lousy governor."
In denying blame and counter-accusing, Crist is using the issue to point out that Scott was a mergers-and-acquisitions guru in the 1990s and founded the country's largest hospital chain, Columbia/HCA, which was fined a record $1.7 billion for healthcare fraud that largely occurred on Scott's watch.
Scott was haunted by the fine when, as a political newcomer, he ran for office in 2010. But Scott prevailed in the Republican primary and the general election, in part because he said he "took responsibility." Scott, who was forced to resign from Columbia/HCA in 1997, never admitted guilt and was never charged or interviewed by the FBI in the fraud case.
For months, Scott and the state GOP have tried to hang the economic meltdown on Crist's neck. In September, Scott said "we never should have had that downturn" and suggested Crist was the cause. But he wouldn't elaborate.
The criticism of Crist hasn't appeared to have much success.
A Quinnipiac University Poll released last week indicated Crist was beating Scott by 8 percentage points and that by 47-42 percent Florida voters believed Crist would do a better job handling the economy than Scott.
Here's the text of Crist's ad:
Rick Scott is blaming me for the financial crisis? That’s ridiculous.
Here’s the truth: The recession wasn’t caused by me, or by you. You know who caused it? Greedy Wall Street bankers and corporate takeover artists.
In other words: Guys like Rick Scott. His company committed outright fraud. So when you see his ads, remember it was guys like Rick Scott that crashed our economy.
I’m Charlie Crist. I work for you, the people. Always have. And always will
So much for Scott-mentum.
Gov. Rick Scott appears to no longer be narrowing the gap with Democratic rival Charlie Crist who leads the Republican 46-38 percent, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll that shows the challenger's 8-point margin is essentially unchanged since the firm's last survey in late November.
Two months ago, Crist led Scott by 7 points. Before then, Crist led Scott by 10 in June and by 16 in March.
Still, expect the numbers to change and the race to tighten. If past elections are any gauge, this race will likely be decided by a point or two.
Perhaps most-troubling for Scott: Only 38 percent of respondents said he should be re-elected; a clear majority of 54 percent said the Republican shouldn't get another term.
And Scott only leads Democrat Nan Rich 41-37 percent, even though 86 percent said they don't know enough about her. Also expect Libertarian backers of candidate Adrian Wyllie to complain his name wasn't included in the survey (although it did give people a "someone else" option if they didn't want to pick Scott or Crist).
Expect the aerial bombardment of Crist to begin soon from the Scott juggernaut, which has the money and the know-how to move poll numbers, especially by way of negative ads.
Meantime, this Quinnipiac poll shows Scott earns his worst job-approval rating in a year, 41-49 percent.
Almost as troubling for the Republican: Crist narrowly edges Scott on the question of who would handle the economy best; 47 percent say Crist and 42 percent say Scott. Remember that Scott and the state Republican Party have long been raising awareness of the fact that Crist took office with a 3.5 percent unemployment rate and left with an 11.1 percent rate in December 2010. Scott then took over and now the unemployment rate has fallen back to 6.2 percent.
Many voters, like economists, are likely to cut Crist some slack for what happened on his watch, considering the national and global financial meltdown. There's only so much a governor might be blamed, or credited, for the state's economy. But time, and campaigning, will tell.
What hasn't changed: Scott still isn't well liked. Only 38 percent view him favorably, 45 percent view him favorably. That's a negative index of -7. Crist's index is a positive +9 (44-35 percent).
Other polls show different results. PPP had Crist up just 43-41, with Scott narrowing the gap by 10 points since September. But another poll from a Democratic-leaning firm, Hamilton Campaigns, showed Crist up 49-44 over Scott, an increase of about 5 for Crist. An internal Rick Scott poll late last year of likely voters showed Crist up 49-45 over Scott (Note: PPP uses robo-polling technology, Quinnipiac, Hamilton and Fabrizio, McLaughlin don't.)
Here's the Q poll and crosstabs: Download JanQPoll
Florida’s race for governor hit full throttle Wednesday as Gov. Rick Scott seeded his budget announcement with attacks on his opponent and predecessor Charlie Crist, while the former governor used the event to bash Scott’s policies and ethics.
Speaking to reporters and editors at the annual legislative planning meeting sponsored by the Associated Press, Crist lashed into Scott’s past at a fraud-riddled hospital chain, blasted his previous budgets for cutting education spending and accused him of reversing course because an election is approaching.
“He’s trying to make up for it in an election year transformation, but the people of Florida are smart,” Crist said. “I don’t believe Florida is going to get fooled a second time.”
It was an unusual ending to what is a traditionally tame budget rollout as the two men compete in what is expected to be one of the most bitterly fought races for governor in decades.
Scott was the first to start swinging. The Republican governor announced his $74.2 billion budget plan early Wednesday, then declared that his fiscal record “represents a sharp contrast to the four budgets before we took office.” Story here.
Calling it an effort to reduce the burden on the state's prepaid tuition program, House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz have proposed limits on future tuition increases.
They would accomplish this by capping the tuition differential that state universities are allowed to request from the Florida Board of Governors. Under current law, the universities can requested additional tuition increases beyond whatever is approved by the Legislature as long as the total net increase does not exceed 15 percent.
During the economic downturn, many universities requested and were approved for tuition differential up to the 15-percent cap.
With Gov. Rick Scott's opposition to tuition increases well known, that has become less of an issue in recent years. Last year, tuition was held flat and no universities asked for any differential. A few also went so far as to reject a 1.7 percent tuition increase tied to inflation per state law, but most did not.
This morning, Scott also outlined his higher education budget proposal for 2014-2015. It reflect far less money than what the Board of Governors requested, and state universities are likely to continue lobbying the Legislature for more money.