The state of the state is improving, Gov. Rick Scott argued Tuesday in his second annual address to lawmakers, a blend of optimism that Florida is already coming back and a plea for support to continue to make it a sunnier place for business.
There were no surprises in Scott’s roughly half hour speech, with the governor sticking to his year-long theme of getting the state back to work, and spelling out, as he has in the past, that he wants lawmakers to help him increase education spending and to reduce the cost of auto insurance.
Scott, a year into his first term, and obviously more familiar with the terrain, was a little less brash –last year he warned lawmakers not to blink because he was going to take bold actions and warned them he wouldn’t stand for the status quo. This year, Scott was more cooperative in his tone, asking lawmakers to look carefully at his agenda rather than promising to blow past them, and he thanked them profusely for helping him so far in trying to create jobs.
Scott noted on his way in for the late morning speech that he’s more comfortable with lawmakers now, and less adversarial than when he won an election as an outsider, in part by bashing legislative business as usual in Tallahassee.
Entering the House chamber from the rear and having to make his way to the podium for the speech through the traditional hand-shaking gauntlet, Scott noted before he started in on his prepared remarks: “It took me longer to walk in this year because I think I know a lot more people.”
Scott’s most forceful line to the Legislature, which is controlled overwhelmingly by his own Republican Party, was on education spending. Scott has proposed spending an extra $1 billion on education, a year after lawmakers cut a bit more than that from the schools budget.
“On this point, I just can’t budge,” Scott said.
Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said the Senate, at least, was likely to go along with Scott’s insistence on the $1 billion figure.
“We’ll make it work,” Alexander said. “We’ll figure it out.”
Democrats, however, downplayed Scott’s new interest in spending on education, noting that it would be offset – $444 million would replace one-time state funding and the loss of local tax income, and another $190 million would pay for enrollment growth. The per-student increase would be about $142, or 2.3 percent. And they noted that it would come largely from cuts to hospital rates under Medicaid, under Scott’s budget proposal.
“The state of the state will improve, but on the backs of whom?” asked Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston.
House Democratic Leader Ron Saunders said his party supports better funding for public schools. But, he said, “we don’t support the Republican strategy of pitting the needs of Florida’s students and school teachers against the needs of pregnant women and sick kids.”
To avoid such a tradeoff, “we need additional revenues,” argued Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa.
Scott said the opposite, arguing that taxes are what prevent businesses from creating jobs. To highlight the plight of the local business owner, Scott invited the owner of a Tampa doughnut shop that he visited last year to sit in the gallery with his family.
Scott called taxes and regulations “the great destroyers of capital and time” to small businesses, which he argues are the backbone of the economy and the key to returning the state to prosperity.
He returned to another familiar theme – his early career peddling doughnuts himself.
“Almost every dollar I earned as a shop owner went toward growing our little doughnut shop. So, every dollar taken in taxes slowed that growth,” Scott said, adding that dealing with regulations also slowed his ability to make more doughnuts, and thus more money.
“When growth slows in small businesses, what happens? New jobs are the first casualties,” Scott said.
But in addition to creating new jobs – which was almost exclusively his focus in his first State of the State speech last year – Scott also hit the education agenda hard. In the audience for his speech was a teacher he met in Immokalee – Scott pointed her out to showcase his new focus on K-12 policy.
But he didn’t come to that focus in a vacuum. Scott tied that to economic development and job creation as well.
“Floridians truly believe that support for education is the most significant thing we can do to ensure both short-term job growth and long-term economic prosperity for our state,” he said. “And you know what? They are absolutely right.”
That’s the case in higher education, too, Scott said, noting his longer term interest in making changes to the state’s colleges and university system.
“Somewhere out there today, there are government officials meeting in Brazil, or India, or China, and they’re not debating about whether they should provide students with the pragmatic knowledge to seize a larger piece of the global economy,” Scott said. “No, the only debate they are having is about how quickly they can become the dominant global players. I look forward to working with you to closely look at our higher education system; to understand how we can ensure that in the future, job creators from around the world will have to look to Florida to find the talented and educated workforce they will need to compete in the 21st century.”Scott’s third priority, he said, would be in lowering the cost of personal injury protection auto insurance. It’s an odd item for a big picture speech about a year-long agenda, but Scott said fraud in the system is costing almost a billion dollars a year and it’s the top thing lawmakers can do, he said, to keep the cost of living low for Florida residents.
Throughout the speech, though, Scott exuded optimism about a turn-around no longer around the corner, but already underway in his estimation. That allows Scott to claim some first year success.
“In the past year, Floridians, not government, created almost 135,000 new private sector jobs,” Scott said. “We netted more than 120,000 total jobs in the first 11 months of 2011; the third most of any state in the nation….
“When I said ‘Let’s get to work’ It wasn’t just a slogan,” Scott continued. “Florida got to work, and each Floridian deserves the credit.”
And Scott assured Floridians, ” the state of our state is improving,”
“I’m here today to tell you that promise and opportunity will return,” Scott said. “In fact they are returning even as we meet here today. While we have many miles to go, and some of them clearly will be painful, our higher journey is already under way. This year and today we see the rebirth of an even greater Florida.”
–David Royce, News Service of Florida