Neither is a declared candidate for 2018, but the next election cycle looms large for Gov. Rick Scott and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.
Scott is expected to challenge U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, while Putnam is seen as a leading candidate to replace Scott.
In appearances Tuesday before reporters and editors gathered at an Associated Press event, both Republican leaders laid out familiar legislative agendas, while declining to speculate on their political futures.
Scott and Putnam said they are focused on their current jobs. “We’ve got a lot to do and there will be plenty of time to focus on ’18 after the session,” Putnam said.
Scott talked about his proposed $83.5 billion state budget, which includes more than $600 million in tax cuts, higher education spending and more economic incentives. Putnam talked about his oversight role in the state’s agriculture industry, including dealing with the threats of citrus greening, a plant disease ravaging the citrus industry, and the screwworm, a parasite that threatens Florida livestock and the endangered Keys deer.
Yet as formidable as both experienced candidates would be in statewide races, they face uncertainty, particularly with the election of President Donald Trump and a new state House speaker, who are bent on shaking up the political hierarchies in Washington, D.C., and Tallahassee.
Scott was an early Trump supporter and ran a political committee that supported Trump’s presidential campaign. He attended the inauguration and remains close to the new president.
Putnam was a staunch Jeb Bush supporter during the Republican presidential primaries and came to Trump’s camp more reluctantly after the New York businessman won the GOP nomination.
With Trump off to a tumultuous start, Scott and Putnam on Tuesday voiced support for his early efforts, including his controversial executive order on immigration, with some slight criticism on how some of the initiatives have been handled.
“President Trump is working hard. … He is doing what he said he was going to do in the campaign,” Scott said. “I’m glad he is focused on the safety of Americans.”
While saying “the left is going to accuse him (Trump) of all sorts of things,” Scott said “there is always a better way to roll something out.”
But Scott said he expects more cooperation from Trump’s administration, than he got from former President Barack Obama on issues like Syrian refugees coming to Florida.
Putnam concurred that Trump is delivering on his campaign promises. “I would have preferred to have seen some of them executed or implemented more efficiently and more smoothly than they have been,” he said.
Putnam, a former top Republican congressional leader, said he agreed that Trump’s travel ban was not “a religious test,” while questioning why the president’s Cabinet members were not more involved in the decision.
“Why would you hire such a talented Cabinet and not use them in making sure that implementing that plan is as efficient and seamless as possible?” he asked.
Trump is already becoming a dividing line between Nelson, the only Florida Democrat to hold a statewide office, and Scott, with Nelson declaring Trump’s travel ban was “a hastily issued policy” and “is not the answer.”
State Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, said he expects the reverberations from Trump’s actions to help Democrats in the 2018 elections, including Nelson’s race as well as governor’s contest.
Braynon said Trump’s early moves are violating “American principles.”
“I think what is going to happen is that people are going to see that these are the things that many of the Republicans close their eyes to and allow to happen,” Braynon said. “People are going to be tired of that, and this could be one of those bounce-back elections.”
While Trump will likely influence 2018, Scott’s political future is also complicated by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican who has been a harsh opponent of Scott’s economic-incentive programs. Also, Scott’s proposed budget would not roll back school property-tax rates to account for increases in property values — a move Corcoran said would amount to a tax increase.
Corcoran, who was once a Bush acolyte but now gives Trump an “A-plus” for his early presidential moves, said he will urge House members to stand behind their “philosophy.”
“What we tell members all the time, know your philosophy and then have the courage to fight for that philosophy regardless of the consequences,” Corcoran said.
Scott has not wavered in his support of economic incentives, which he argues are a viable way of attracting major companies to Florida in order to broaden the state’s economic base.
Scott also defended his school finance plan, saying Floridians are benefiting if the property values of their homes and businesses are rising. He also likened it to the rising price of a commodity, like a boat, but the state not changing its sales tax rate.
“Anybody that doesn’t understand that is not a tax increase I’m surprised,” Scott said.