TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Gov. Rick Scott is handing out an unprecedented number of Great Floridian Awards, with critics saying the list of recipients for this year's class is filled with GOP donors and sports celebrities including Steve Spurrier, Tim Tebow, and Bubba Watson receiving the award.
Headlining the 2013 class is Juan Ponce de Leon, Walt Disney, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, and Dr. James Robert Cade, inventor of "Gatorade" at the University of Florida. The honor traditionally goes to people who have established a lasting impact not only on Florida but also the United States and in many cases the world.
Until this year, the Great Floridian designation has been handed out 66 times since the award was first presented in 1981 by Gov. Bob Graham. Candidates for the award are selected by a committee of elected officials including the governor, speaker of the House, and secretary of state; but it is the governor who presents the award and according to those close to the selection process the governor has the most sway when it comes to the final list.
"It's hard to put Ponce de Leon and Tim Tebow in the same sentence," said Rollins College political science professor Dr. Rick Foglesong. "There are a lot of people from the sports world, people who are current celebrities, and it's not clear that these are people who will have a lasting reputation."
Among the 23 honorees are former Dolphins head coach Don Shula, former University of Florida All-American quarterback and eventual head coach Steve Spurrier, as well as former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Tony Dungy. The list also contains athletes Emmitt Smith, Derrick Brooks, Tebow, and golfer Watson.
"This governor came from the business world, and in business marketing what you try to do is associate your business with a positive image," said Foglesong.
But beyond the sports celebrities, two names on the list also have financial ties to either the governor or to Republican fundraising.
Wayne Huizenga, the south Florida businessman who helped bring the Florida Marlins baseball team and Florida Panthers hockey team to the state, is part of the class of 2013. While he is best known for his businesses, including Blockbuster Video and Auto Nation, he is also a major Republican donor, having given more than $400,000 since 2010.
Betty Sembler is a founding member of Starlight Inc., a nonprofit drug treatment program, her work to prevent drug abuse is listed as the reason for her inclusion on this year's list, however, she and her husband Mel Sembler have given more than $25,000 to Republican campaigns and PACs since 2010 according to state records.
Until 2001, most governors only handed out the award to about five people during their tenure in office, that all changed with Gov. Jeb Bush who presented the award 18 times during his two terms in office. Gov. Charlie Crist presented the award 17 times during his term in office. But, neither man was able to keep up with the pace Scott has set. Scott presented the award 17 times between 2011 and 2012, adding another 23 this year.
While the cost to taxpayers is nominal, critics say by packing in so many celebrities and donors, the governor is diminishing the importance of the award by turning it into a political tool as he prepares for re-election.