BRANDON — Bringing his campaign kickoff to a Brandon auto dealership Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott showed a political style sharply different from the smaller-government, tough-on-illegal-immigration, tea party champion who won the governorship in 2010.
Scott celebrated a new state budget with what he called “record investments” in education and a new law allowing in-state college tuition for children of illegal immigrants.
His political allies, including Tampa area legislators Jack Latvala and Will Weatherford, attended the kickoff to laud the compassion of the Legislature and call for inclusiveness in the Republican Party.
The event was part of a victory lap around the state for the governor following the spring legislative session, informally kicking off his re-election campaign against likely Democratic opponent and former Gov. Charlie Crist.
The session included a prominent role for Scott’s new lieutenant governor, former legislator and Miami-Dade County property appraiser Carlos Lopez-Cantera. Lopez-Cantera has been working on Hispanic outreach in Scott’s campaign.
Most polls, though not all, show Crist leading in the race, and increasing numbers of Democratic-leaning
Hispanic voters are part of the reason.
Scott hasn’t changed in favoring tax cuts, and the hallmark of the kickoff event — the reason he’s holding several tour stops at auto dealerships — was to talk about the budget’s $400 million in cuts in unpopular motor vehicle registration, title and other fees.
To sharpen the point as a campaign issue for Scott, the fees were increased while Crist was governor.
“Charlie Crist passed a 54 percent increase — 54 percent increase — when you went to register your motor vehicle,” he told a group of party activists assembled for the event. “Fifty-four percent. It’s ridiculous. … We cut $400 million to put that money back in your pocket.”
Scott didn’t mention that the fee increase came from a Republican-dominated Legislature. It included Lopez-Cantera, who was then House majority leader.
Scott also didn’t mention that the total $500 million total tax cuts in the new, $77.1 billion budget are nearly balanced by an increase of $400 million in property taxes the state requires local governments to impose for schools.
Scott’s campaign contends the school tax is not a tax increase because the tax rate remains the same. Property values, however, have risen, which will lead to higher tax bills for homeowners.
Asked Tuesday if that constitutes a tax increase, Scott replied, “The value of properties are going up. When that happens our revenues go up. That’s how we can make record investments in K-12 (education), record investments in state colleges, record investments in universities.”
Crist contends that Scott bears equal or greater responsibility for the pain of the motor vehicle fees because they’ve been in effect longer with Scott as governor than they were under Crist, who left office in January 2011.
But bashing Crist was the order of the day at Scott’s event.
Under Crist, “It’s about talking and chasing cameras,” and for Scott, “It’s about action and doing things,” Lopez-Cantera said.
He noted that Crist was campaigning Tuesday with former President Bill Clinton even though Crist, a former Republican, once called for Clinton’s resignation during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Scott drew a laugh referring to Victor Crist — Hillsborough County commissioner and a former state senator who is no relation to Charlie Crist — as “the good Crist.”
Besides talking up tax cuts, Scott and his allies emphasized a bill just passed by the Legislature limiting annual tuition increases at state universities to 6 percent — again reversing Crist-era legislation allowing up to 15 percent — and what the legislators called “tuition equality” for college students from families who are in the U.S. illegally.
“If you grew up in our state, you’re going to get in-state tuition just like your peers,” Scott said. “We want every child who grew up in our state to have the chance to live the American dream.”
Weatherford, outgoing state House speaker, said 2014 was “a historic year … because the governor and the Legislature showed compassion.”
Widely credited with pushing the in-state tuition bill through the Legislature, Weatherford praised Latvala, a state senator from St. Petersburg, who he said “made sure that we not only lowered tuition for everyone and we also brought tuition equality for the kids who need it.”
Latvala, meanwhile, told the crowd, “We need to understand that the success of our party … the secret of our success long-term as a party is by being inclusive, not exclusive.”
Both Scott and Crist have flipped on the in-state tuition — both opposed it in the past.
In 2010, Scott also called for a tough anti-illegal immigration bill modeled on a divisive Arizona law and just last year vetoed a bill that would have allowed children of illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses.
During questioning by reporters, Scott refused to say whether he’ll sign a bill that would allow raising the speed limit on interstate highways to 75 mph.