Despite outward signs of support, Gov. Rick Scott's administration quietly endangered a top priority of fellow Republicans in the Legislature by delaying a financial analysis needed to help justify a public-worker pension-reform plan.
The issue boiled over late last week when state House Speaker Will Weatherford personally called Scott and his newly minted lieutenant governor, Carlos Lopez-Cantera, and complained that the governor's staff stopped the state Department of Management Services from conducting the analysis.
"There is no question the Governor's staff directed DMS to stop working with the House," House budget chairman Seth McKeel said in a written statement furnished to the Times/Herald.
"The law requires the department to conduct actuary studies on all pension bills, and the hold-up would have resulted in killing pension reform without a single vote of elected officials," McKeel, R-Lakeland, said. "Thankfully Lt. Gov. Lopez-Cantera and Gov. Scott stepped in to correct the problem."
Such direct finger-pointing from legislative leaders to the staff of a same-party governor is unusual. The surprising tension threatens to complicate Scott's ability to steer a limited election-year agenda through the Republican Legislature heading into a lawmaking session that begins next week.
Complicating matters: Scott on Monday denied McKeel's claims about his agency's foot-dragging over the study, which would analyze the costs of changing pensions for most state workers who are hired in the future.
The delay fueled speculation from Republicans that Scott's administration wanted to kill the controversial pension-reform plan to spare the governor an election-year headache — one that would fire up left-leaning unions. However, since pension reform is a top issue for conservatives, the administration's delay could also outrage some of Scott's Republican base.
McKeel said he was surprised the governor's administration would hinder an issue supported by Scott and legislative leaders, who made pension reform a top priority this session.
After the battery of high-level calls last week from Weatherford and others, the Department of Management Services changed course. It issued a letter late Friday saying the pension-reform analysis was back on track.
By crediting Lopez-Cantera with helping to salvage the pension study — and therefore the fate of the proposed overhaul — legislators are sending a subtle signal to Scott that they're increasingly mistrustful of his embattled chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth, who declined to comment.
Lopez-Cantera is well liked by many lawmakers, particularly in the House, where he once served as Republican leader.
Hollingsworth has angered some legislators with his micromanaging of the governor's issues.
The governor's longest-serving chief of staff, Hollingsworth acts as an unofficial campaign consultant, a role that deepens suspicions among Republicans that Scott's chief of staff was playing politics with pension reform — and not the kind that the GOP wants.
Hollingsworth became the center of controversy late last year when he admitted to once lying about his academic credentials in a former job. Last week, the Associated Press pointed out that Scott advocated for a $200 million train-depot deal benefiting a company that previously employed Hollingsworth, who pushed for the lucrative arrangement before assuming his state office.
Scott has stood by Hollingsworth and his administrative staff.
Asked Monday about McKeel's statement — that there was "no question" about the Scott staff's involvement in delaying the pension study — the governor tersely replied: "Absolutely not."
Scott's denials aside, the pension-study delay clearly happened.
In the past few weeks, the Department of Management Services stopped returning phone calls from lawmakers and their staff. DMS officials also skipped some committee hearings, where lawmakers were counting on their attendance.
McKeel and other lawmakers publicly fumed at committee meetings. Yet nothing changed. The agency remained mysteriously silent.
Lawmakers say they're not exactly sure why anyone in Scott's administration would have delayed the pension-reform analysis.
Scott repeatedly has endorsed public-worker pension reform.
Trailing in the polls and preparing for a tough re-election fight, however, Scott wants to push a relatively easy-to-accomplish election-year agenda once the 60-day legislative session starts March 4.
And pension reform is not an easy lift.
The proposal wouldn't affect current state workers. Only those hired after it passes would see a change. The legislation would peg more retirement payouts to the financial condition of workers' pension plans, so state workers would get less in lean times and more in flush times.
Times/Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas, Steve Bousquet and Alex Leary contributed to this report.