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Scott's message: mixed signals or lost in translation?

By James Call


Tallahassee, FL – Governor Rick Scott will launch an inquiry into why a sheriff's deputy removed some people from the crowd when he signed the state budget at a retirement community in Central Florida. The event was more than a week ago and the governor said he is not exactly sure what happened. James Call reports the controversy illustrates why some are saying Rick Scott is either having problems communicating with the people of Florida, or folks don't like the job he's doing.

The signing of a state budget is usually a low-key affair witnessed by a variety of bureaucrats and reporters. The year the spending plan contained the ill-fated services tax, then-Governor Bob Martinez signed it behind closed doors, away from the media. A special session of the Legislature repealed that tax and many believe Martinez's initial support for it cost him reelection.

No one seems able to recall protestors being removed from a budget signing ceremony or one held on property leased by a political party. That's what happened when Republican Governor Rick Scott signed the state budget at a retirement community considered a Tea Party stronghold. Florida has some of the strictest open government laws in the country and critics say the ejection violates the spirit of the law and tradition. Here's Governor Scott's response to a reporter's questions.

Scott: "I'm not exactly sure what happened, I know, people said certain things happen before I got there. So, I haven't had time. I've been traveling, and I've got, uh, the trade mission to Canada next week but uh, you know, clearly you know we'll look into it.

Reporter: "That said people were removed are you concerned about that?"

Scott: "No, I would have to understand all the facts; so to give you an answer."

Some of the people removed identified themselves as Democrats and their signs protested the spending cuts and policy changes in the budget. A Quinnipiac Poll finds that 54 percent of voters say the budget is unfair to them. Twenty nine percent favor it, the same number that approves of the Governor's performance.
Scott, elected in November, is one of the least popular governors in the country. Opinions differ on why that is. Pollsters say part of it is because his message isn't getting out. Communication and marketing experts say it's because the message appears inconsistent and incoherent. Andrew Opel is a Florida State University Associate professor in communications. His research interests include political activism and new social movements:

"The message that penetrated was about jobs and jobs creation. Instead what we've seen, he came in and enacted a whole series of policies that eliminated a lot of state-funded jobs that eliminated pieces of our social our economy that are major engines of job creation. Particularly if you want to start with go with education."

Opel talked on the day the governor signed into law dozens of bills that rewrote the state's growth management laws, drastically changed Medicaid and expanded school vouchers. Environmentalists and advocates for education and the poor criticized the plans. Scott said it is all part of a strategy to reduce the size of government to give the private sector room to grow. If that's the case, Opel, whose office is about a mile down the road from the Governor's, said Scott is not doing a good job explaining his plan.

"I don't feel like I hear the governor's media strategy very clearly on a regular basis at all. I've read about repeated instances where he has restricted allowing access to his office, everything from cherry picking reporters about who gets to cover what events, uum, down to public access."

Less than half, 40 percent of respondents, said they know Scott kept a promise not to raise taxes and that he got a tax cut included in a budget despite a four-billion dollar shortfall. Political opponents said the lack of access and an unclear media strategy are not why Scott's poll numbers are low. Rich Templin of the AFL-CIO said Scott's message has always been clear. Templin said the Governor caters to the rich and powerful.

"So I think that is the reason for his low poll numbers. I don't necessarily think it is because people aren't giving him due credit for tax cuts. He did do tax cuts. He did tax cuts on the people who have been getting tax cuts for the last decade."

Former state senator Dan Gelber said Floridians realize they will be paying for those tax cuts for years.

"I don't know what the virtue is in sending thousands of public school teachers into unemployment. I'm not sure why that is a good thing for Florida. For their families are now looking for other jobs outside a profession that is already in serious trouble."

Gelber, a Democrat, was a champion of public education while in the Legislature and last November was a losing candidate for Attorney General. He maintains a political blog.

"I don't know if you have seen the movie Hangover but it is really like Floridians woke up and they are trying to retrace their steps to figure out how they ended up with this guy as governor. And it's really got to be maddening to them because I think now that they are looking at him the next morning they realize they have somebody who has no respect or love for their state."

The Recession came to Florida earlier, was felt more deeply and stayed longer than elsewhere. More than a million Floridians are out of work. Scott campaigned on creating 700 thousand jobs in 7 years. His spokesman Layne Wright said that message has always been clear and that is the plan the Governor is executing.

"Governor Scott is making the tough choices that are getting Florida back to work and this is not something people can expect to happen overnight. But every month since Scott started the unemployment numbers have gone down. Which I think is a good sign we are on the right path to creating jobs here in the state."