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Does Highlands back Gov. Scott?

Published:   |   Updated: March 12, 2013 at 05:33 PM

When Chip Boring came back to Florida from last week's RE/MAX Realty convention in Las Vegas, he heard his governor had announced a massive Medicaid expansion.

"I will tell you, that was surprising," said Boring, a former county commissioner and real estate broker. "I think it was a bad decision. You know there are going to be strings attached."

The Republican governor should have kept his promises, Boring felt.

A telephone survey Friday of a dozen prominent Democrat and Republican leaders in Highlands County revealed that Scott, who is preparing for a 2014 re-election campaign, has gained no political support from either party.

"Not with me," said former Democratic chair Cheyenne Morin.

How could Scott receive Morin's vote? "If he was running against Idi Amin …" Morin joked.

"He isn't a very good governor," said John Dyce, a Democrat who thinks Scott chose the teacher pay raise and Obamacare positions "to show his softer side."

"I think he's trying to improve his image," said Dyce, a former human relations manager. "Maybe it was smart to do some of those things, but I just think he's running scared. Obamacare — he had no choice. The school raise? He's just giving the money back he took last year."

Teachers are still angry with him for cutting $1.3 billion to schools from his first budget.

"Tell him to send the money, but no one is fooled by this," Karen Aronowitz, president of the 22,000-member United Teachers of Dade in Miami, told the Tampa Bay Times last week.

"I can't think of anything good he's done, to be honest," Dyce said.

Dyce thought Scott has lost votes in the past two months. "I don't think teachers are naïve, and Republicans are just going to say he's doing too many Democratic things."

Both Democrats and Republicans supported Scott's Jan. 23 decision for teacher pay raises, including dairyman Joe Wright, a former Avon Park city councilman.

"I don't have a problem with that," said Wright, a Scott appointee who was in Tallahassee earlier this year to support South Florida State College board of trustees. "Teachers haven't had a raise through the recession. If the state has the money, and we were told the state does have the money."

But here's the litmus test: If the 2014 election were held today, would Wright vote for Scott?

Wright hesitated. "I don't have a reason to not vote for him."

Scott, who spent more than $70 million of his own money to win the 2010 governor's race with just 49 percent of the vote, may have to front even more in 2014. A Quinnipiac University survey last month showed 53 percent of Republicans hope Scott faces a GOP challenge in 2014.

If former Polk County congressman and current Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam were Scott's opponent?

"That would put me in a tough spot," Wright said. "I have very close ties to Adam."

Similarly, citrus grower John Barben would vote for Scott in 2014: "Yeah, I think so. It depends on who the opponent is."

But if Putnam was in the GOP primary? "I don't think that will happen, but I support Adam 500 percent," Barben said.

Highlands County Commission Chairman Jack Richie makes no secret of liking Putnam or Florida CFO Jeff Atwater, who owns a house in Sebring. "They're both very qualified people. I like Jeff Atwater's financial background."

If Scott were opposed by Putnam in the Republican primary, County Commissioner Don Elwell said, "I'd have to look long and hard. Adam Putnam has been a very big friend to Highlands County."

"I would support Jeff Atwater," said Boring. "I've known him for a number of years. No question about it."

Chuck Oakes, a Highlands County Republican Party state committeeman, was the only Republican to remain solidly with Scott. "I supported him the last time, and I'll support him the next time. He has no ax to grind, he takes no salary, he flies his own airplane at his own expense. I've been with him lots of times and I've never seen him act on his own ego."

Oakes agrees with the teacher pay raise. And Scott has no choice on Obamacare, said Oakes, who owns nursing homes and independent care centers. "He's going to have to do it," he said. "The Democrats are driving it down his throat."

Elwell wasn't sure Scott's decisions were motivated by re-election.

"It sounds like he's trying to get along with what's going on," he said. "He said he wants to try something new with Medicaid, but place a three-year restriction on it and look it later."

Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, said the Legislature will ultimately decide on the short- and long-term fiscal impacts of Medicaid expansion.

"The Senate Select Committee on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act continues to evaluate the option to expand Medicaid," she said, "along with all the new mandates required by the Affordable Care Act. I don't anticipate a decision for another week to 10 days."

As for the teacher pay raise, Grimsley said, "Education funding will ultimately fall to Sen. Galvano's committee in the Senate. However, I will say we are all committed to funding education appropriately."

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, thinks the Legislature will pass both the Medicaid and teacher pay raises, just not in the form the governor envisions.

"That $480 million in his budget is based on revenues still to come in," said Galvano, who chairs the education appropriations subcommittee. "We haven't seen that yet, and we have to be sure we actually have those dollars. And there are issues with the plan itself. People would be excluded, like guidance counselors and lunch personnel."

Conservatives have favored merit increases over across-the-board raises, and lastly, Galvano added, each district must face collective bargaining negotiations with its teacher unions. (863) 386-5828