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Dealing with the deal-makers: Rick Scott becomes an insider

TALLAHASSEE -- Rick Scott, the tea-party government-cutting conservative, stormed into office as an outsider and once boasted the "deal-makers are crying in their cocktails."

Now the insiders are toasting Scott in the halls of the state Capitol at the close of the second lawmaking session of his first term.

Scott racked up a string of wins with a modest poll-tested agenda and an approach that meshed with the Capitol culture instead of antagonizing it. He glad-handed lawmakers more. He gave lobbyists more access. And he chose a consummate insider to be his staff chief.

Delivering relatively small tax and budget cuts, Scott successfully pushed the Legislature to revamp personal-injury protection to the liking of the auto-insurance industry, where one player cut his political committee a $100,000 check just days before session ended.

The governor’s relatively low-key approach was a clear indicator that the political newcomer and former hospital-chain CEO is retooling his approach to government, which doesn’t always run like a business.

“It’s not so much change as just the people you meet and then you figure out how to work through a system,” he said. “Because it’s a system up here.”

It’s a system of colliding political and business interests shaped by prickly legislators who refuse to be ignored. And there’s another player: The courts, which have tied up some of the governor’s initiatives passed last year.

The legislative system also resists big and sudden change, such as Scott’s call his freshman year to deeply cut the budget and taxes in a time of shortfalls. At the time, he and his office staff also had an at-times tense relationship with the fellow Republicans who control the Legislature.

“The governor is growing into his job,” said Republican Rep. Scott Plakon of Longwood, who praised Scott. “He’s learning it’s not like being a CEO. He has to work with the Legislature. It’s not like dealing with a corporate board or employees.”

So this year, Scott sought to undo the damage to his reputation and to the K-12 schools budget, which he insisted the Legislature cut deeply last year. Partly as a result of those reductions, Scott’s poll numbers plummeted — even among rank-and-file Republicans. About a third of voters have a favorable view of him and his job performance, while more than half have an unfavorable view.

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