Scott's theme is cooperation in speech to Fla. lawmakers

Gov. Rick Scott greets legislators as he enters the Florida House during day one of the Florida legislative session in Tallahassee on Jan. 10. Members of the Florida Legislature gathered in the Florida House for a joint meeting which included Gov. Rick Scott's State of the State speech.

Brad McClenny/Staff photographer
Published: Tuesday, January 10, 2012 at 10:52 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 10, 2012 at 10:52 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE — A year after he came to Tallahassee to reform state government as an outsider, Gov. Rick Scott struck a theme of cooperation in his second state of the state address on Tuesday, promising to work with lawmakers and calling for a $1 billion increase in school funding.

The 34-minute address marked a reversal from Scott's speech last year, when he pushed for a 10 percent cut in public school funding. It also reinforced the tactical shift that Scott has taken as he continues to battle low popularity numbers with Florida voters.

Last year, Scott openly courted conservative tea party members who rallied at the Capitol building as the governor opened the annual legislative session. This year, Scott had to dodge Occupy Tallahassee protesters — who shouted at him and carried signs decrying his policies — as he entered the House chamber for a joint session of the Legislature.

Although Scott talked about the achievements of his first year — including job growth, tax cuts, state pension changes and Medicaid reform — his speech centered on his budget request to boost Florida public school funding by $1 billion.

"On this point, I just cannot budge," Scott said, calling for lawmakers to send him a budget "that significantly increases" school funding. "This is the single most important decision we can make today for Florida's future."

Throughout his sometimes halting speech, Scott praised the Republican legislative leaders, crediting them for passing a budget last year without a tax increase and for their work on economic development, education and Medicaid issues.

He also promised to work cooperatively with them, including his opponents.

"No person, profession or party has a monopoly on all the good ideas," he said. "The commitment I make to those here today is to keep open, clear lines of communication."

But Scott's speech also contained plenty of echoes of the former business executive's fundamental philosophy of reducing the size and scope of government as a means of stimulating the state's economy.

"What government gives to one person necessarily had to be taken from the pocket of someone else," Scott said. "There is something arrogant and overreaching in thinking we have the superior wisdom to micromanage the economy."

Taxes and government regulations "are the great destroyers of capital and time for small businesses," Scott said, citing his experience running a donut shop.

Scott also said in addition to creating jobs and improving education, he would work to keep "the cost of living low" in Florida "so that the families and businesses that are in our state can prosper and grow."

Along those lines, Scott said he would back efforts to reform the state's auto insurance laws, seeking to eliminate waste and fraud.

"It is the consumers in our state that we must protect, not trial lawyers or those involved in these schemes," he said.

But how much Scott's revised message is resonating with voters remains uncertain. A poll from Quinnipiac University released Tuesday showed 50 percent of Florida voters disapproved of Scott's job as governor, compared to 38 percent who approved.

On the economy, 34 percent of the Florida voters said it is worse since Scott took office, with 16 percent saying it is better and 45 percent saying it is about the same.

"As Gov. Scott enters his second year in office, he remains in the job approval doghouse," said Peter Brown, a Quinnipiac pollster. "He still has a long way to go to get into the voters' good graces."

The poll also showed voters strongly oppose — 67 to 24 percent — Scott's plan to cut Medicaid spending by more than $2 billion to provide $1 billion to schools.

Republican legislative leaders reacted favorably to Scott's speech.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Destin, who will become Senate president later this year, said he was pleased with Scott's focus on public education.

"I view it as a commitment that we all share," Gaetz said. "The devil will be in the details how the money will be used and, of course, the challenge will be in finding the money.

"We have to make significant additional cuts in spending in order to balance the budget without raising taxes or fees and if we're going to increase funding for education then that means deeper cuts have to be made elsewhere and that's where the debate will be."

Some lawmakers noted the tone of the address.

"I wouldn't call it an aggressive, but certainly a bold portrayal of where this state needs to go," said Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla.

Hays also said the governor, who had never served in public office before his election, was developing a better relationship with lawmakers.

"It's just like the first time you danced with a lady, it wasn't near as good as that fourth or fifth time. You get in step with each other."

Former state Sen. Steve Geller, D-Hallandale, said he was struck by how circumscribed Scott's speech was, contrasting it with more sweeping addresses by former governors.

"I think he was trying harder to reach out a little," Geller said. "It's not the most inspiring speech I ever heard. It was limited."

And some lawmakers objected to Scott's continued criticism of the role of government.

"It's the same old ‘government's the enemy,' " said Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne. "What's important in our state is a partnership between the public and the private sector. Neither one is evil. Both are necessary."

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