Scott insists his plan 'is working'
Governor proposes largest state budget in history
Published: Tuesday, March 5, 2013 at 7:35 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 5, 2013 at 7:35 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE — Two years ago, Gov. Rick Scott told lawmakers not to "blink" as he laid out an austere agenda calling for a smaller government, $2 billion in tax cuts, an end to tenure for school teachers and a plan forcing public workers to contribute to their pensions.
On Tuesday, Scott, delivering his third State of the State address to the 2013 Florida Legislature, laid out a much gentler vision wrapped around the largest state budget proposal in history — $74.2 billion.
He focused on a $2,500 pay raise for teachers and continued his call for expanding Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act, which he once vigorously opposed.
Scott did tap two of his old reliables — tax cuts and job creation — which he has promoted since taking office in January 2011. He wants to end the state taxation of equipment purchases by manufacturers and says his policies have put the state on the path to achieve his goal of creating 700,000 jobs in seven years.
"It's working," Scott said repeatedly in his 35-minute speech.
Scott drew the loudest shouts and applause — mainly from the Democratic minority — when he reiterated his support for expanding Medicaid to nearly 1 million poor and disabled Floridians under the federal health care law.
"I cannot, in good conscience, deny the uninsured access to care," Scott said, recalling his mother's struggles in a low-income family trying to get medical treatment for his brother.
But as a sign that Scott's agenda will not be fully embraced by Republican legislative leaders — who share his conservative philosophy — House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, used his opening-day speech to slam the Medicaid expansion as a government program "that grows too big, becomes too intrusive and fosters too much dependency."
"The notion that we're going to receive free money from the federal government is laughable," Weatherford said. "They're trying to buy off states one by one. I am not buying it. Florida should not buy it."
But the Medicaid expansion still remains in play in the 60-day session.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said the opposition from the House makes the expansion less likely. "It sounds to me that the House has shut the lights off," Gaetz said.
But Gaetz also acknowledged that lawmakers were looking at other Medicaid plans, including a proposal being crafted in Arkansas that would allow that state to use Medicaid funding to buy private health care insurance for its poorest residents. "We are looking into what Arkansas has proposed," Gaetz said.
Scott and legislative leaders will also have differences over his plan to give every Florida teacher a $2,500 pay raise.
Scott, who drew fierce opposition from the teachers for education cuts and his support of a bill to end tenure during his first year in office, used a portion of his speech to praise the profession.
"We don't want a war on teachers. We want a war on failure," Scott said. "An investment in Florida teachers is an investment in Florida's future."
Legislative leaders made it clear that while they support higher pay for teachers, they want it linked to a system that rewards teachers based on their performance in the classroom.
Legislators have also questioned how the state can guarantee a set raise since the salaries are negotiated in each county school system through a collective-bargaining process.
"We need to find middle ground with the governor," Gaetz said.
Scott also used a good portion of his speech to highlight and laud business leaders, with the aim of making his case for exempting equipment purchases by manufacturers. Scott said Florida is at a disadvantage to many other states that don't impose the tax. "We need to level the playing field to compete for manufacturing jobs," Scott said.
Lawmakers are supportive of the tax break, although they cautioned that they want to evaluate the cost of the exemption — which could be more than $140 million per year — in the context of the overall state budget.
With Scott's pivot on some issues like Medicaid and teachers' pay, Democrats have had to alter their criticism. But they continued to bring up Scott's previous efforts that led to a $1.3 billion education cut in his first year in office and his push for even larger tax breaks for businesses.
"Gov. Scott has cut more than a billion dollars from education while giving tax breaks to big corporations," House Democratic leader Perry Thurston of Plantation said in his response to Scott's speech. "He has the wrong priorities on education, jobs, land and water usage and voting rights."
And there were some issues that were notably absent from Scott's annual address, including his previous calls for pension reform — highlighted in Weatherford's speech — and any mention of Florida's property insurance problems.
Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, a frequent critic of the governor, said Scott's "it's working" mantra does not reflect his Pasco County home in terms of affordable insurance and a thriving economy.
"I respectfully disagree with him," Fasano said. "Turning the corner on what? People are still struggling. I see it every day."
But Fasano said he supported Scott's call for Medicaid expansion.
"It's one of the few issues that the governor and I totally agree on."