MIAMI (CBS4) – With more than a year and a half to go until the 2014 Florida gubernatorial election, Governor Rick Scott appeared to be in full re-election campaign mode as he dropped in on a senior citizens center Wednesday in Miami’s Little Havana section. Ironically, the center and others like it, was among programs the governor and legislature took the budget axe to in 2011 and 2012.
In June, 2010, then candidate Scott visited the Little Havana Senior Nutrition and Activities Center on Southwest 8th Street bearing gifts, wooing the senior vote. He handed out cologne to the men and tchotchkes to the ladies and was largely swooned over by an adoring crowd.
Eleven months later, however, Scott signed an austere state budget that decreased funding to such programs across Miami-Dade County by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
At the time, Scott said the “special interests” in Tallahassee probably weren’t happy with more than half a billion dollars in additional line-item cuts he added to the already spartan spending plan.
Returning to the Miami seniors’ center Wednesday, a reborn governor stressed the need for taking care of the elderly, in stark contrast to his previous funding decisions.
“In your first term in office, you slashed funding to these centers,” CBS4’s Gary Nelson reminded the governor. “What assurance can you make to these folks that you won’t try to take more lunches away from them?”
Scott’s response was quick and confident.
“As you know, in my first two budgets, we had big budget deficits that we walked into, so we had to make the tough decisions.”
Now, the governor says happier times are here again. He says he has erased the deficits, increased state revenues and created a surplus.
“It’s wonderful to be here and see each and every one of you and your smiling faces!” Scott beamed at a recreation room packed with applauding elders.
Scott has largely taken credit for reversing the state’s fortunes, and proposing not just more funding for the elderly and education, but the biggest budget in the history of the state.
It is in start contrast to his first budget address, delivered less than two years ago before a Tea Party crowd in an evangelical church, where Scott maintained a line that less government is better.
With his approval rating around 40%, ultra-conservatives falling out of favor, and a Democrat re-elected president, Scott is coming across as a kinder, gentler governor heading into what could be a tough re-election campaign.
“We’ve got to invest in education, we’ve got to invest in jobs, make sure our seniors get taken care of, and make sure we invest in our environment,” said Scott, sounding almost more liberal than centrist.
Miami’s Mayor says he takes the governor at his word.
“He’s committed – at least he’s committed to us – that he will work with the legislature to support this funding,” Mayor Tomas Regalado said, gesturing at the gathered seniors preparing to have a midday meal – for some the only meal of the day.
Mayor Regalado and his daughter, Miami-Dade School Board Member Raquel Regalado, said the budget proposed by the Governor would bring funding for senior citizen programs and for education back up to the levels before the deep cuts that were imposed in 2011.
Miami City Commission Chairman Marc Sarnoff said Wednesday that state cuts aide programs have caused the city to reach into its general fund in an effort to maintain the services. Other services, like police and public works projects have suffered as a result, Sarnoff said.
Sarnoff said he doesn’t care about Scott’s motives, whether the governor is attempting to rehabilitate his reputation as a millionaire miser of sorts.
“I don’t care why people do things, I care that they do things,” Sarnoff said. “Their political motivations are personal to them. All I care is that the elderly people in this town have enough to eat.”