Gov. Rick Scott pitches Florida’s post-recession recovery as nothing short of an economic miracle. His detractors say the state’s labor market remains a low-wage nightmare.
With the two-term governor expected to vie for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Bill Nelson, Scott’s economic legacy is attracting both praise and criticism.
How much credit does Scott deserve for job creation that has far outpaced the nation’s since the Great Recession? And how much blame should he shoulder for a state economy saddled with below-average wages and above-average poverty rates?
Scott takes every opportunity to tout the remarkable turnaround in Florida’s labor market since he took office in January 2011 — and there’s much to crow about.
“Our unemployment rate has gone from over 10 percent to now just 3.6 percent, which is a 10-year low and lower than the national average,” Scott said Tuesday in his final State of the State speech.
Florida employers have created nearly 1.5 million jobs since Scott took office seven years ago, and Florida routinely outpaces California, New York and other large states in the pace of job growth. Only Texas has been close.
For a governor whose main campaign issue was job creation, Scott’s timing was nearly impeccable. Elected as part of the anti-Obama Tea Party wave of 2010, he took office just as Florida’s economy hit bottom. Since then, Florida’s employment has grown 20.3 percent, compared to the nation’s 12.5 percent growth.
“It would be hard to characterize Scott’s tenure as anything other than successful,” said Mark Vitner, an economist at Wells Fargo. “He’s done very well. And it just didn’t happen — when he came into office, the future of the state was very much in doubt. He deserves a good bit of credit.”
However, Scott doesn’t mention the old worries about economic security in Florida’s low-wage labor market. Those concerns remain as real as ever.
Florida’s household income trails the nation’s, and the gap is widening, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Florida’s median household income in 2016 was $51,176, well below the national median of $59,039.
Poverty also remains an outsized problem in Florida. The state’s poverty rate was 15.8 percent in 2015, compared to a national rate of 14.7 percent, according to the Census.
After Scott’s speech Tuesday, Democrats derided the wisdom of the governor’s economic platform, with its emphasis on cutting taxes, slashing regulation and paying incentives to employers who create jobs. Democrats fault Scott for spending too little on public schools, which they argue is a more important part of economic development than further tax cuts.
“You heard a picture of a fantasy Florida that exists only in the heads of Gov. Scott and his wealthy and well-connected friends,” said Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa and the House minority leader.
Late last year, Democratic groups created RicksRecession.com, a website that highlights the weaknesses in Florida’s economy. While Scott takes issue with the statistics on the site, there are plenty of morbid metrics that illustrate Florida’s challenges in creating upward mobility.
“In his narrative, Gov. Scott is cherrypicking the most favorable stats to paint a rosier picture than most Floridians are experiencing,” said Rich Templin, political and legislative director of the Florida AFL-CIO. “We have a massive problem of the working poor in Florida.”
Of course, Scott inherited an economy that long has been skewed toward low-wage jobs. It’s a decades-old challenge, one Gov. Jeb Bush attempted to address during his second term by spearheading a billion-dollar bet on biotech labs such as Scripps Florida and Max Planck Florida.
However, much of the job growth during Scott’s tenure has come in low-paying corners of the economy. Florida’s tourism numbers have hit record numbers, and that means more low-paying jobs at restaurants, hotels and theme parks.
“Tourism has had a phenomenal run,” said Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida. “The 600-pound gorilla is now the 700-pound gorilla, because of the strength of its growth.”
Meanwhile, Florida’s rural counties have struggled, with the Florida citrus industry’s woes just one of the headwinds faced by those parts of the state.
“It’s the same story everywhere,” Vitner said. “A lot of the growth we’re seeing in the economy is at the high end and the low end, but not in the middle. It’s not just in Florida.”
Scott came into office during the depths of the Great Recession, but no matter who won the 2010 gubernatorial race, the foundations of Florida’s low-tax economy already were in place. For instance, Florida’s ban on a personal income tax is ensconced in the state constitution, and Bush killed an intangibles tax on investment portfolios.
Scott, for his part, has pushed to lower the corporate income tax. And he has positioned himself as cheerleader-in-chief for job creation, tirelessly crossing the state for the past seven years to host announcements about employers adding positions.
Behind the scenes, Scott often personally phones CEOs to pitch them on the virtues of moving their companies to Florida.
“The personal phone calls mean a lot,” Vitner said.
Even so, economists say a governor wields only limited influence over job creation.
“No governor controls the monetary policy by the Federal Reserve, or federal fiscal policies, or other regulatory changes,” Snaith said. “The economy is sort of like an omelette that has a lot of ingredients. The state level is one ingredient.”