The legislative session is officially underway, and the opening day was filled with the customary pomp and circumstance. Legislators’ desks were filled with flowers, dignitaries were present, prayers were offered, patriotic songs were sung, and the Senate president and speaker of the House presented their visions to their respective chambers.
The governor gets the chance to address all 160 legislators in a joint session. This is a great opportunity for him to set the tone for the 60-day session; to set out lofty and ambitious goals; to urge the Legislature to adopt his agenda; and to make his case to those who control both policy and the purse strings.
So how did Gov. Rick Scott do?
This was Scott’s fifth State of the State address, and I think he’s getting a little better at public speaking. He started with an endearing and self-deprecating line about his “world-renowned oratorical skills.” This not only humanized him but also lowered expectations.
He rattled off all the positive economic indicators, like reducing unemployment from 11.1 percent to 5.6 percent and adding over 700,000 private-sector jobs. He bragged about a 43-year low in the crime rate, reducing debt, becoming the third-largest state and attracting 97 million tourists last year.
There is a lot of good happening in Florida, and everyone loves to hear positive news. Scott stuck to two related and positive themes: Florida “exceptionalism” and making dreams come true. He highlighted several individuals and companies, and focused on those started long ago that have become synonymous with Florida — like Disney World, The Columbia Restaurant and Publix.
For delivery, setting a positive tone and a cohesive theme, Scott fared well. He then ventured into the actual substance of the address, outlining five familiar goals.
As he has done in his previous four addresses, he again expressed a desire to continue cutting taxes with his oft-used phrase “Floridians can spend their money better than government can.” His tax-cutting wishes for this session include taxes on cellphone and TV services, manufacturing equipment and college textbooks.
The Legislature loves to cut taxes and will most likely do so this year, with increasing revenues making that possible. We’ll have to see whether they will cut them in the areas Scott suggested or somewhere else.
Scott’s second goal is a college affordability bill that would prevent increasing tuition — an admirable endeavor. Although we all would like college to be affordable, we have to keep up with changing technology and recruit and maintain quality professors. College costs are paid for by a combination of tuition, scholarships and state investment. If we want to keep tuition low, we need to invest more, or else we risk lowering quality.
Scott’s third goal was to invest in workforce development. He listed $56 million of spending proposals, some of which appear to be ongoing.
His fourth goal is to increase K-12 education funding. On the campaign trail, Scott boasted about historically high funding for education. Fact checkers determined the lump sum was the highest, but since we had more students to teach, the per-pupil funding was not. Scott vowed to increase per-pupil funding to $50 more than the highest level funded under Gov. Charlie Crist.
This is a large-ticket item, but with home values on the rise an increase in property tax revenue will generate more for education without putting the entire fiscal burden on the state.
Lastly, Scott expressed a commitment to environmental and agricultural programs, and rattled off some promising funding numbers. Unfortunately, his proposal does not fully fund Florida Forever, nor does it adequately address the voters’ wishes when they passed Amendment 1 with 75 percent of the vote in November.
The Legislature will consider nearly 1,500 bills in the 60-day session dealing with a plethora of issues. The governor’s limited agenda was anything but bold. Although I applaud his efforts to cut taxes, keep college tuition low, train workers, increase education funding and restore environmental funding, the devil is in the details, and those were lacking in his address.
Also lacking was any mention of expanding Medicaid or dealing with the billion-dollar shortfall in his budget due to the lack of federal dollars for indigent care. He also failed to address the suspicious deaths and corruption reported in our prisons, the crumbling prison buildings and the need for more funding and staff. Other hotbed issues that he ignored were school testing, solar power, gambling, medical marijuana, minimum wage, child deaths under Department of Children and Families’ supervision and criminal justice reform.
What’s remarkable about the governor’s speech is what he didn’t say.
Paula Dockery served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lake land. Contact: PBDockery@gmail.com