TALLAHASSEE — Underscoring priorities his administration already is working on, Gov. Rick Scott today opened the 2014 legislative session with his annual State of the State address.
Scott’s speech differed in tone from opening-remarks given by legislative leaders who said the final session before the 2014 mid-term elections should focus on “policy, not politics.”
The governor often sounded like a man giving a stump speech, not a policy address. And his slogan, “Let’s get to work,” has evolved into “Let’s keep working.”
During his 30-minute speech, Scott took thinly veiled shots at Democrat Charlie Crist, who is Scott’s top challenger.
Scott, a former health care executive, is eager to frame the election around the state’s recovering economy and he’s using the fact that 825,000 jobs were lost under Crist’s administration to make the case.
“They say it doesn’t matter who was running our state – that anyone would have been just a victim of the times,” Scott said during the address. “I disagree.”
In reply, Crist blames a larger global economic collapse and says Scott hasn’t done enough to help the recovery.
In a statement released after the speech, Crist said Florida “deserves a governor with bold ideas.”
“Rick Scott has only delivered campaign talking points and pay to play politics,” the statement read.
Underscoring the speech’s political undercurrents, Melissa Sellers, Scott’s campaign manager, helped prepare the address, which included “let’s keep working” eight times. Scott’s current campaign slogan is “let’s get to work.”
Scott’s top priority going into the legislative session is a package of fee and tax reductions totaling $500 million.
“Together, we have cut taxes 24 times already,” Scott told a joint session of the Legislature. “And my hope is that we are about to cut them again ... by another $500 million this year.”
That includes roughly $400 million from rolling back vehicle registration fees that were increased in 2009. The move would mean a savings of roughly $25 for the average motorist. The remaining $100 million is from reducing the levy on commercial leases.
Reaction from Tampa Bay area lawmakers differed by party affiliation.
“Everybody’s for jobs, everybody’s for motherhood and apple pie,” said state Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg. “It’s how you get there.”
Dudley disagrees, for example, with handing tax money to large companies in the form of incentives as inducement to locate to the state and create jobs.
“It just makes richer corporations,” Dudley said. “They’re not concerned with the well-being of working people of Florida. If there’s going to be any giveaways, we need accountability.”
Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, said he had a more personal reaction to the governor’s speech.
As Scott has before, he touched on his hardscrabble upbringing, including selling TV Guide magazine door-to-door as a grade-schooler.
“The story of his personal experience explained why he’s passionate about what he’s passionate about,” he said. “When he tells his story, that allows people to understand him.
“This is not a guy who’s uncaring and unfeeling,” Spano added. “This is a guy who had a tough, meager childhood. That part of his story is important for him to share.”
Scott has also made tuition cuts one of his top priorities. This year he has called for doing away with the so-called “differential tuition,” which allows university boards of trustees to raise tuition up to 15 percent a year without approval from the Legislature.
“My commitment to every family dreaming to send their children to college is simple: We will hold the line on tuition,” said Scott, who vetoed a tuition increase last session.
His position marks one of the few early gaps between his agenda and the goals of legislative leaders, who have proposed capping the increase at 6 percent but keeping the differential program in place.
House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, said in prepared remarks that he did not want to focus on the “shortcomings” of Scott’s speech, but did call for “new leadership” in the Legislature and governor’s mansion.
The Florida Democratic Party took a tougher approach.
“Rick Scott’s priorities have consistently put the wealthy special interests and biggest corporations first,” the party said.
Specifically, Democrats hit Scott for failing to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act, for his aggressive campaign to purge ineligible voters from the state’s voter rolls, and for failing to push in-state tuition for college students who are children of illegal immigrants.
On the in-state tuition issue, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, stands at odds with other top Republicans by supporting the move.
“Let’s exercise our state’s rights and open and open the door of opportunity for all of Florida’s children,” Weatherford said during his opening-remarks to the House today.
Scott has promised to consider the issue, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Destin, has said he opposes it but will give it a hearing in the Senate.
During his address, Scott also touted what he calls a record $18.8 billion in public education spending included in his proposed budget.
“This record investment builds on our previous budgets, which invested an additional $1 billion in K-12 education,” Scott said.
Opponents of Scott’s point out that per-student funding level trails the 2007-2008 levels by $177 per-pupil.
“His budget proposal is totally inadequate to meet the needs of our state, particularly in bolstering all aspects of public education,” said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Teachers Association.