Hurricane Rick

For nearly a century, a lot of people have flocked to Florida in search of a semi-tropical paradise, while others have viewed it as a hot, swampy nightmare full of guns and drugs, tourists, real estate developers and other hungry pests (e.g., the state’s new menace, Burmese pythons). In truth you can’t really typecast a place as large and diverse as the Sunshine State, but Floridians from every corner of the state have suffered alike during the last two years from an unusually virulent strain of Tea Party Government led by a governor as scary as any this side of The Walking Dead, Rick Scott.

In a cover article for Mother Jones, Stephanie Mencimer profiles the enduring damage Scott and company have deliberately inflicted on Florida’s public sector, in areas ranging from health care to transportation to the environment to mosquito control. But one pattern of misgovernment she notes that is especially appalling is the state’s refusal to accept even the most generous and badly needed federal funds on the purely political grounds of not wanting any truck with the evil socialist Obama administration.

Florida’s refusal of high-speed rail funds for an abundantly eligible and long-awaited corridor from Tampa to Orlando was the first and most obvious self-inflicted wound of this nature. And an impending decision (on which Scott is now being cagey after many months of suggesting he would join the other Deep South Republican refuseniks) could lead to rejection of a vastly generous federal match for a Medicaid expansion that Florida with its massive uninsured population could definitely use.

But what Mencimer is most effective in showing is a broader practice in Florida of rejecting federal funds for purely symbolic reasons:

In early 2011, the federal government awarded Florida a $37.5 million grant to help get patients out of nursing home care. The grant was part of a Bush-era program, but the latest round of funding ended up in a rider attached to Obamacare. And so, in June 2011, the state Legislature voted to reject the money.

Republicans said they were making a political point: “The legislature didn’t feel it was appropriate to take money from a bill that is unconstitutional,” then-state Rep. Mike Horner told the Orlando Sentinel. “It seemed that we were being inconsistent.”

The nursing home transition funding was just a portion of the millions in federal money that Florida has refused because it’s perceived as part of Obamacare. In 2011, Florida declined about $2 million for a Medicaid pilot project to give hospice care to very sick kids. It sought to prevent the Osceola County health department from accessing an $8.3 million federal grant to help expand two health clinics and build a new one and rejected $50 million worth of disease prevention funding. (The state did accept a $2.6 million abstinence-only sex ed grant provided through Obamacare.)

“Everything they thought was remotely connected to the Affordable Care Act was rejected,” says former state Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, who is planning a run against Scott in 2014. “Somehow this governor had in his mind that if we reject the money, it reduces the deficit. Nothing could be further from the truth. It just goes to other states.”

Florida provides an excellent example of a state governed by ideologues who may talk about fiscal responsibility and unfunded mandates, but whose most powerful motive seems to be to make sure their own people–mostly those people, to be sure–do not get public-sector help, on the apparent theory that it will simply enslave them and/or empower the enemies of “liberty.” Debate over whether this or that federal program makes sense becomes kind of irrelevant given this mindset.

Scott’s in political trouble now, and there are signs he’s reining in his ideological friends a bit in hopes of being re-elected in 2014 (with the help of a planned $100 million campaign budget). But as Mencimer says, the damage is already done:

Even if Scott ends up a one-term governor, his legacy won’t easily be reversed. When he rejected the high-speed rail money, the state passed up an opportunity to upgrade its underfunded transit system that it may not soon see again. Florida’s internationally renowned mosquito control system took a half century to build, but only three years to decimate. Likewise with public health, says Nan Rich, who fought the cuts in the state Senate: “The infrastructure is being destroyed and responding to public health crises becomes more difficult,” she says. “I shudder to think if what happened with Hurricane Sandy had happened here.”

This is why “constitutional conservatives” would by and large prefer to lose the occasional election in exchange for the opportunity to impose their full and uninhibited agenda even briefly. Mencimer compares what Florida is going through to waking up after a binge. A perhaps even more apt comparison is to the period after a major natural disaster, like one of Florida’s devastating hurricanes: the damage happens very rapidly, while the recovery may never be complete.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.