Marco Rubio's supporters have an awful hard time thinking of a major accomplishment in their candidate's career.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), who endorsed Rubio after ending his own presidential bid, was asked to name something Rubio achieved in office. He fumbled at length before conceding, "The bottom line is there isn’t a whole lot of accomplishments."
Then there was Rep. Cresent Hardy (R-NV), who failed to name a single thing Rubio has done over the past year that demonstrates "presidential character." Rubio himself responded to his surrogates' blunders over the weekend, explaining, "Well, in fairness, they're signing up at the last second. … We haven't provided them all the information."
But this is kind of unfair to Rubio. He does have accomplishments. While scrutiny of his candidacy has mostly focused on his time in the US Senate, by far his most important role to date was that of Florida House speaker, a position he held from 2006 to 2008.
The speaker is a very powerful position, not least because he gets to assign newly introduced bills to committees — "an authority that amounted to a de facto veto power," National Review's Jim Geraghty explains, "as a bill assigned to several committees was much less likely to pass than a bill assigned to just one, particularly in an abbreviated 60-day session. "
It's worth looking at Rubio's time running the Florida House, in both his successes and his losses there.
Rubio lost a number of fights as speaker. He attempted to pass a hugely ambitious tax cut package, failing due to the opposition of then-moderate Republican Gov. Charlie Crist. Crist, who later became a Democrat, beat him on insurance reform and gambling as well. But Rubio did get a number of other initiatives through.
Rubio certainly could have accomplished more as speaker, but he certainly had some achievements that his surrogates could and should be citing. And his overall record is similar in scope to that other state legislator turned freshman senator to run for president recently: Barack Obama.
The great Rubio-Crist tax cut fight
Any discussion of Rubio's speakership must begin with 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future.
Rubio was selected as the next speaker on September 13, 2005, more than a year before he'd officially take over the role. During a speech after his selection, Rubio told fellow House members to look in their desks. Each found a hardcover book titled 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future — which was entirely blank.
"Rubio then told his visibly perplexed colleagues that they would fill in the pages together during the run-up to his speakership," National Journal's Michael Mishak writes. "The ideas would come from ordinary Floridians, he said, and members would collect them at town hall-style meetings called 'idearaisers.'"
The idearaisers were held, and the book was gradually filled; its most notable item (No. 96) was a bold plan to totally eliminate property taxes for first homes and sharply cut taxes for commercial and rental properties and vacation homes. Geraghty explains:
Rubio’s initial solution was bold: Roll back property tax rates to their 2001 level and replace the portion of property taxes used to fund schools with a 1 percent increase in the sales tax. Counties could chose to eliminate the rest of the taxes on primary-residence properties in exchange for another sales tax increase of 1.5 percent. The move amounted to trading the elimination of all property taxes for a 2.5 percent increase in the sales tax. It would have meant a $40 to $50 billion reduction in property taxes.
But the idea got immediate pushback from then-state Senate Majority Leader Daniel Webster, who has since become an influential Tea Party Congress member. "The sales tax is a regressive tax. And the more you raise it, the more regressive it becomes," Webster said. "The poor are going to get poorer, and the rich are going to get richer.''
The Florida Senate countered with a proposal to double the property tax exemption to $50,000 and roll back rates to 2005-'06 levels; then-Gov. Crist was more sympathetic to this approach.
The latter is closer to what actually happened. Originally, the legislature reached a compromise with a rollback to 2006 tax rates and a referendum for a "supersize" exemption, but when the referendum was struck down by a court, the original plan of just adding another $25,000 exemption passed instead, on top of the rate rollback.
"The press hailed it as a big win for Charlie Crist, and a big loss for me and the house," Rubio writes in his memoir. "I suppose it was, but it was a bigger loss for the people of Florida."
At the same time, though, the cuts that did pass were very large indeed. Of the original deal, before the first referendum was struck down, Florida teachers union chief Andy Ford told the New York Times, "They are huge cuts, the largest we’ve ever seen." The scale wound up being smaller than anticipated when property values fell during the financial crisis, but Rubio can certainly take credit for pushing through a big tax cut.
Rubio's other accomplishments
Rubio once claimed that he successfully enacted 57 of the 100 ideas in his book. That's way too high — by PolitiFact's counting, the real number is more like 24, with 10 partially enacted. But 24 initiatives passed isn't anything to scoff at. PolitiFact's Aaron Sharockman explains:
The legislation created a uniform, statewide building code, allowed policyholders to increase or decrease hurricane deductibles depending on the circumstances, and created a "Truth in Premium Billing" statement for policyholders…
Florida's presidential primary came earlier in 2008 as Rubio promised. Floridians seeking health care coverage now have an online database to check. Drivers can purchase multiple-year vehicle registrations. And the state created an investment money pool for businesses and infrastructure projects…
One of Rubio's ideas led to a requirement that school districts create career academies -- where students can be training in high-demand/high-need vocations. Another pushed the FCAT to later in the school year. A third increased tax credits for companies that contribute to education scholarships.
Rubio also led the Florida House in apologizing for the state's role in slavery, put together a package expanding mentoring programs for teen boys, and helped create a program modeled on the Harlem Children's Zone in Miami. Geraghty notes that Rubio put together a bill limiting government use of eminent domain in the wake of Kelo v. New London, a Supreme Court decision ruling that municipalities could use eminent domain to benefit private actors.
There were definitely some areas where Rubio should've taken further action. "Rubio was speaker from 2006 to 2008, the beginning of the recognition in Florida of a problem in terms of subprime mortgages," Alice Vickers, who worked on foreclosure issues at Florida Legal Services at the time, tells me. "I guess the best you can say is the legislature was kind of asleep at the wheel on the depth and reach of the issue, but so were lots of states. As a whole, they certainly could have done better at this crucial juncture."
And it might be fair to say, as Mishak does, that "few of his achievements are the kinds of legacy items that defined previous speakers." But he did have some small accomplishments. He got about a quarter of his 100 ideas through. That's significant.
Crist and Rubio fought constantly, and Crist almost always won
But while Rubio did claim some wins, he had some major losses — most of them when he went head to head with Gov. Crist.
The governor entered office intent on expanding state-sponsored reinsurance for private home insurance companies. That may sound dry, but it amounts to socializing the costs of natural disasters. After the brutal hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005, insurance premiums spiked, and Crist wanted to use government guarantees to lower them again, even if that meant the state would have to pay in the event of similar disasters in the future. Geraghty calls Crist's insurance reform "the second-biggest piece of legislation passed on Rubio’s watch."
But Rubio wasn't particularly happy about it, nor were most free market types. It was, in essence, an attempt to subvert market pricing by unloading risk onto taxpayers. All the same, taking the side of the insurance companies was too politically costly.
"We tried to modify the bill with some small successes," Rubio recalls in his book. "We limited the public carrier's ability to expand, and got everyone to agree that the measure would be temporary. … But other than these small changes, the legislation gave the governor most of what he wanted. The house leadership team decided to take the small concessions we had gotten, pass the bill, and live to fight another day."
Crist also bested Rubio in a highly public standoff over gambling on Seminole land. Crist signed an agreement in 2007 that gave the Seminoles the right to add games like slot machines, blackjack, and baccarat, in exchange for a slice of the tribal casino profits. Rubio sued Crist for bypassing the legislature, and won. But the victory was short-lived, as in 2010 Crist and the legislature (which Rubio had left by this point) reached a deal allowing the games at Seminole casinos.
The Seminole gambling fight also came on the heels of legislation signed by Crist in 2007 expanding gambling in the state generally — for instance, allowing slot machines at racetracks. While his House backed the move, Rubio vociferously opposed it. That led to criticism, given that Rubio arguably could have done more with his power as Speaker to block the legislation.
Rubio wasn't defeated every time he went head to head with Crist. He had the temporary win on Seminole gambling, and he scuttled a Crist initiative to tackle climate change, as Mishak explains in National Journal:
Climate change was one of Crist's signature issues, and he wanted the Legislature to pass a bill that would lay the groundwork for a California-style cap-and-trade system to cut carbon emissions. Rubio and House conservatives opposed the idea, but public sentiment was with Crist. The House ultimately passed the bill, but Rubio's team inserted a poison pill that prevented the plan from going into effect. "I fully credit him with the gutting of the bill," Gelber says.
But he sure did rack up a lot of losses.
Rubio versus Obama
Comparing Rubio's state legislative record with Barack Obama's is tricky, not least because Obama was never the leader of a chamber. Obama was not in charge of the Illinois state Senate and did not wield the kind of control that Rubio did.
Keeping that in mind, Obama has been credited with a number of accomplishments:
- Spearheaded legislation requiring homicide interrogations be taped, to prevent coerced confessions
- Worked on a successful campaign finance disclosure bill
- Played a key role in establishing Illinois's earned income tax credit
- Pushed for a law that requires cops to list the race of people they stop, meant to prevent racial profiling.
Stack that up against Rubio's accomplishments — eminent domain reform, expanded vocational education, uniform building code, and slavery apology, among others — and Obama's record appears a bit weightier, but not dramatically so. And Obama was necessarily working in concert with legislative allies, not running through a platform he personally had committed to like Rubio.
The point isn't that Rubio is as experienced or qualified or smart as Obama. But the idea that Rubio has no accomplishments seems to depend on heavily discounting what he did in the legislature. It's true that he lost a lot, and Crist humiliated him at times. But he did get some little stuff done.