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Governor swings campaign through Highlands County

SEBRING - Gov. Rick Scott made quickly scheduled campaign stops at Olympic Restaurant, Highlands Regional Medical Center and Starbucks on his way to Okeechobee on Wednesday afternoon. "His office called this morning," said Highlands County GOP Chair Kathy Rapp at the Olympic Restaurant. The campaign wanted suggestions on where to stop. She suggested Dee's Place in downtown Sebring, but it would have been closed by 4:20 p.m., when the governor finally stepped inside the restaurant. She also suggested Caddyshack Bar & Grill in south Sebring, but she and the governor's schedulers settled on north Avon Park.
"A representative call this morning and asked," said Dimitrios Tsakalos. He and Maria bought the popular spot 16 years ago. They are also Republican contributors. More than 40 party faithfuls, officeholders and public officials crowded into the west dining room to hear Scott speak, clad in shirtsleeves and slacks. They included all five county commissioners, an Avon Park city councilor, the election supervisor, court clerk, property appraiser, county administrator and Sebring city manager. "Anything you think I ought to be doing that I'm not, please call me," Scott opened his 30-minute address. "Please call me." Then he launched into a stump talk about how "the state was headed in the wrong direction" when he succeeded Charlie Crist on Jan. 4, 2011: 11 percent unemployment, a $3.6 billion deficit, and business-unfriendly stage agencies like the Department of Community Affairs, the Department of Transportation, and the water management districts. His administration has turned that around, Scott claimed; Floridajob.org's June 2013 report showed statewide unemployment at 7.1 percent, and the state has paid off $3 billion in debt. The state still owes $135 billion. On Jan. 31, Scott proposed a $74.2 billion budget for 2014. An increase of $4 billion from the prior year would become the largest budget in state history. However, it would have a $1.2 billion surplus, he said. It would also include $1.2 billion more for K-12 education,including $2,500 raises for teachers; and $393 million for state universities. "We've still got a lot of do," Scott said, "600,000 people are still out of work." "Keep college funding level," suggested County Commissioner Don Elwell, who sat a few feet from former South Florida Community College President Catherine Cornelius and current SFSC President Thomas Leitzel. Scott harkened back to his beginnings. Born in Illinois, Scott's father was a truck driver. Scott is a University of Missouri graduate and took a law degree from Southern Methodist University. Now 60, he co-founded Columbia Hospital Corp. with two business partners at age 34; Columbia/HCA eventually became the largest for-profit health care company in America. He resigned as CEO in 1997 amid a controversy; the company ultimately admitted to 14 felonies and agreed to pay the federal government over $600 million. Scott was not implicated, and he later became a venture capitalist. He spent $75 million of his own money getting elected governor. Although his net worth was estimated at $218 million in 2010, by 2012 the fortune had dwindled to $83 million. Taking questions from the audience, he called on citrus grower Marvin Kahn, who suggested that the media were so unfriendly that Scott should be on television more. "We need to know the real person that you are." Scott's philosophy is to tell voters what he believes. "And then go do it. And then run on your track record." His possible opponents include Crist, running as a Democrat this time, and his general election foe Alex Sink, whom Scott beat by 77,000 votes out of 5.1 million cast, a 1.5 percent victory margin. In the past two years, Scott has led nine foreign trade missions around the world to attract business. "Why would you not want your headquarters in Florida?" he asks companies from Texas or California, which he considers less corporate friendly. Former GOP county chair Andy Tuck couldn't remember a governor who had been to Highlands County four or five times, as Scott has been. When could he expect to see the $10,000 4-year degrees that Scott challenged community colleges to institute in January? Tuck's daughter starts college in the fall. That's already happening, Scott said. When he took office, colleges had been raising tuition for years. "Who does that hurt?" Scott asked rhetorically. "I'll call anybody you want me to," Scott offered to the problem solvers in the audience. "I'll write a letter to anybody." gpinnell@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5828