Scott, Crist duel over past, future of economy

By Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Long before the flare-up over Charlie Crist's fan earlier this month, Republican Gov. Rick Scott's campaign had been dogged by an earlier debate moment -- one from four years ago, when he was asked to elaborate on his promise to create 700,000 jobs in seven years.

The moderator at the debate used the first question for Scott to point out that economists already expected Florida to add more than 700,000 jobs over the next seven years. After the usual opening greetings, Scott made it clear what his promise meant.

"So, our plan is seven steps to 700,000 jobs," Scott said. "And that plan is on top of what normal growth would be."

The moderator, Antonio Mora, pushed Scott a bit. Economists expected the state to add about a million jobs, so another 700,000 jobs would mean that Florida would have an additional 1.7 million openings over the next seven years, Mora noted, in a state where 1 million people were unemployed at the time.

Scott didn't correct Mora. "We're going to grow the state," he responded, then began ticking off the virtues of doing business in Florida.

Even before this year's campaign, when Scott's biggest talking-point is his record of job creation, the exchange with Mora was repeatedly walked back after the governor settled into office. In a statement issued in October 2011, Scott said his promise was "the creation of 700,000 jobs over seven years regardless of what the economy might otherwise gain or lose" -- a slight change in phrasing that altered the meaning of the promise.

 That is largely the definition his campaign is sticking by now --- while adding in a dig at Crist, the former governor and Scott's Democratic opponent, who oversaw a job market hammered by the economic downturn.

 "Normal growth under Charlie Crist, when Governor Scott was running, was negative. ... The fact is, over the last 3.5 years, we have created over 640,000 private sector jobs. Normal growth under Charlie Crist was losing 832,000 jobs, so under that scenario, if Charlie hadn?t run away from his job as governor, we could have lost 2 million jobs," spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said recently in an email.

 Scott's focus on private sector jobs also omits a drop of about 29,000 government jobs from January 2011 to August 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

 The economy might not be the dominant issue in this election that it was in 2010, when the state's unemployment rate ballooned into double-digits and Scott ran almost exclusively on a promise of more jobs. Nowhere is that more clear than in Scott's "Florida 2020 Plan," released Monday, which packages the promises the governor has made over the last several months into what his campaign describers as a vision.

 That plan includes pledges on education funding, early learning and the environment in addition to economic items like $1 billion in tax reductions and investment in Florida's infrastructure. In something that would have been almost unthinkable four years ago, Scott's statement announcing the vision includes increasing employment as just one of the things the plan would promote.

 "I get to travel the state every day and talk to people all over Florida about what they want --- they want to move our state forward," Scott said. "The Florida 2020 plan is just that --- a clear vision to move Florida forward, to continue building our state to be the best place in the country to find a great job, start a family, and give our kids a world-class education."

 But the economy is still an issue, and the achievements Florida has seen under the 7-7-7 plan --- or at least the parts of it that Scott has been able to push through the Legislature --- are still likely to be on voters' minds as they cast their ballots, either during the current early-voting period or on Nov. 4.

 Crist's campaign, of course, tries to hold Scott to the higher numbers of 1.7 million jobs --- and argues that, by that metric, Scott is on pace to fall short of his goal.

 "Rick Scott didn't just move the goalpost to cheat Floridians, he pretended it was never there," Kevin Cate, a spokesman for Crist, said in an email.

 In fact, the number of jobs in Florida is right around what a University of Central Florida center projected for Florida four years ago, if not a tick below. The July 2010 forecast called for the state to have 7.9 million non-farm jobs in 2014. According to the latest numbers from the state Department of Economic Opportunity, Florida had about 7.8 million non-farm jobs in September.

 In reality, said Sean Snaith --- the director of the University of Central Florida's Institute for Economic Competitiveness who is a high-profile forecaster and an economist frequently cited by the Scott campaign --- it's very difficult to tease out the effects of any governor's policies on the state's recovery.

 "The outcomes we observe in Florida's economy are a combination of factors that mix together sort of like the ingredients in (an) omelet," he said.

 Whether that matters to voters or not is another matter. In a poll in late August by the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida, the school's Bureau of Economic and Business Research, the Tampa Bay Times and Bay News 9, 71 percent of the people polled said they believe the governor has a "great deal of control" over the economy.

 Further complicating the question of whether Scott is on track to add as many jobs as he promised is that many of the promises he made as part of the 7-7-7 plan are incomplete or seemingly dead. Scott said he would try to get a biennial budget through the Legislature instead of an annual spending plan, but lawmakers never went along and Schutz suggested it wouldn't be a priority in a second term.

 "Governor Scott did propose a biennial budget during his first year, but the Legislature did not go along with it," she said.

 Another goal of Scott's appears far from reality. The governor had promised to phase out the corporate income tax over seven years, something that was estimated to be a $1.8 billion hit to the state budget, by reducing the rate. Instead, lawmakers have whittled away at the tax, increasing the exemption and costing the state tens of millions of dollars at a time.

 "The governor is committed to phasing (out) the corporate income tax and has made it a priority every year to get it reduced," Schutz said. "And we have made great progress --- more than 70% do not have to pay it now."

 In the meantime, Crist has focused on his "Fair Shot Florida" plan, which Cate said "promises to refocus the state on growing the middle class. That includes lowering the cost of living, raising the minimum wage, and investing in local small businesses."

 Crist has focused on increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour --- something polls show is politically popular --- but his plans also include a list of other ideas, from funding for business incubators to recreating an Office of Small Business Advocacy to expanding eligibility for the state's Medicaid program.

 "People like Rick Scott are fine --- it?s the middle class that is hurting because of low-wages and the high cost of living," Cate said.

 But Crist has his own record to deal with. When he was governor, the state shed hundreds of thousands of jobs and saw unemployment jump from 3.5 percent in January 2007 to a high of 11.4 percent in 2010; it declined slightly and was at 11.1 percent in December 2010, Crist's last full month in office.

 Crist has downplayed that, most recently at the third and final debate between himself and Scott. In response to a question from CNN anchor Jake Tapper, Crist said he doesn't believe he was to blame for those job losses.

 "And what Rick Scott doesn't get is the fact that, even though he talks about creating more than 600,000 jobs, I was not responsible for the global economic meltdown any more than Rick was responsible for the national economic recovery," Crist said.

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