On schools, it's New Rick vs. Old Rick

HealthMedicaidPoliticsElectionsNan H RichRepublican PartyTallahassee (Leon, Florida)

What a difference a year makes.

Fresh off his first year in office, Gov. Rick Scott is demanding $1 billion in new money for public schools.

Yep, demanding.

During his State of the State speech Tuesday, Scott described the increased spending as "the single most important decision we can make today."

He even warned legislators not to cross him, saying: "On this point, I just cannot budge."

Scott sounded like a pro wrestler, threatening to body slam anyone who cuts school funding.

Of course, the reality is that the first body Scott should slam is his own.

Because it was just last year when he socked Florida schools with the biggest hit they've ever seen.

Not only did he cut the money — costing teachers their jobs and children their classes — he bragged about it, calling it a commitment to leaner and meaner government.

Yet now he's talking just as tough about more money for schools. So what changed?

Voters body-slammed him in the polls, that's what.

He has the kind of approval ratings usually reserved for ingrown toenails. And Scott knew the only way to get out of a voter-initiated headlock was to reverse himself.

Which brings us to the cage match we're now seeing in Tallahassee — not between Democrats and Republicans, but between Old Rick and New Rick.

Old Rick described teachers as part of the problem.

New Rick plucked a teacher out of South Florida to use as a prop during his speech Tuesday.

Old Rick said low taxes were the No. 1 way to improve an economy.

New Rick said: "While lowering taxes and eliminating unnecessary regulations are critical, the bedrock of any sound, sustainable economy is an educated workforce …"

How enlightened New Rick seems. Nothing opens a politician's eyes more than an electoral kick in the pants.

Of course, even if New Rick infuses Florida schools with $1 billion, he still won't undo the damage done by Old Rick, who last year proposed cuts of more than $2 billion.

Per-pupil spending in Florida is still below average — and lower than when either Old or New Rick came to town.

Now, money alone won't solve everything that ails our education system. But when kids are seeing their classes cut, their teachers fired and eating lunch as early as 9:30 a.m. to make crowding issues work, it seems safe to say that funding is an issue.

But, hey, don't take my word for it. Take New Rick's! He's the one now saying school funding is our top priority.

Unfortunately, New Rick hasn't completely left Old Rick behind. Because, instead of looking for new revenue sources, he is talking about taking it from hospitals and Medicaid.

Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich described Scott's newfound passion for schools — at the expense of hospitals and Medicaid programs — as "pitting grandparents against grandchildren."

I actually like the idea of looking at Medicaid fraud and waste. There's a lot of both out there.

But randomly cutting money — without dealing with the fraud — makes little sense. Especially when there are untapped revenues such as tax loopholes for special interests and online taxes that go uncollected.

Still, even if New Rick does decide to gut Medicaid this year — the same way he gutted schools last year — that may not be the last word on the subject.

Because if enough folks complain, then next year Even Newer Rick may again reverse himself and argue that more money for Medicaid is "the single most important decision we can make today."

And on that point, he will not budge.

smaxwell@tribune.com or 407-420-6141

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