When Gov.-elect Rick Scott said during his run for governor that he would save $1 billion in prison spending, everyone seemed to believe that he wanted to save that much every year. His transition team has recently set the record straight, saying it expects to achieve $1 billion in savings over seven years. So why didn’t the Scott team push back against attacks on its proposal?
The $1 billion-per-year claim became ammunition for critics and was included in an ad from the Police Benevolent Association, a union that represents state prison workers and endorsed Scott’s Democratic rival, Alex Sink.
Union spokesman Matt Puckett says the association first saw the $1 billion figure in Scott’s “7-7-7″ plan for cutting government spending and creating jobs. Members found the number alarming, and started calling attention to it, culminating in an ad which, in the words of FactCheck.org, “takes a half-baked proposal to an illogical conclusion.”
Ever since the number has been scrutinized and editorialized against. Here’s how Brian Burgess, Scott’s communications director, responded this week, in an effort to “clear the air on this prison thing once and for all”:
The union can say whatever it wants about the Gov.-elect’s plan, but that doesn’t make it true. They have an agenda and that agenda is to defend the status quo – that’s why they make fantastic claims and use words like “impossible” when they attack the plan. Unfortunately for them, in the union’s zeal to protect the status quo, they neglected to gather pertinent facts.
Those facts are simple – by making specific line items in Florida’s corrections budget comparable to other states, it is estimated that we can find $1 billion in savings within seven years. Nobody associated with Governor-elect Rick Scott has ever said we’re going to “slash the corrections budget in half in 2011.” Any claims to the contrary are being made by people who (a) don’t know what they’re talking about and/or (b) hope to protect their turf and defend the status quo by spreading misinformation and falsehoods in order to scare people. [Emphasis added.]
Puckett wonders why the campaign wasn’t saying that before the election: “Certainly he had the money and the resources to set the record straight.”
One of the editorials slamming Scott’s prison plan summed up its critique of Scott’s supposed plan to cut $1 billion a year in prison spending:
Being governor is serious job, and by his own staff’s admission, this is a half-baked plan that is just “the beginning.” The beginning of what, we must ask.
Part of Scott’s campaign strategy was to keep them asking. He was never interested in winning over editorial boards, or in muddying his talking points by providing too many details.
Perhaps, Puckett says, he was looking to “say something radical” to create headlines that burnished his image as an ambitious outsider eager to shake things up in Tallahassee.
In the latest chapter of this story, Scott’s fellow Republicans in the legislature have been giving him a talking-to, explaining that perhaps his agenda is a little too bold:
State Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, said that he has had to pull Scott aside to warn him that cutting the state prison budget by 40 percent will not be as easy as Scott made it sound on the campaign trail.
But according to Bennett, that’s not what happened. He says that during the campaign, he had some concerns about whether Scott wanted to eliminate the DCA (the Department of Community Affairs, the state’s growth-management agency), which somehow morphed into DOC (as in the Department of Corrections) in that Sarasota Herald-Tribune article.
Part of the confusion may stem from how Scott’s team throws out numbers but offers few specifics, leaving the media to work out the math problems in an effort to divine his policy plans. For example, the same “7-7-7″ plan that calls for $1 billion in cost-cutting in the prison system also calls for $1.4 billion in savings on state employee pensions, more than twice what the state currently pays each year.
What could the governor-elect possibly have up his sleeve? Scott’s team seems content to keep us guessing.