TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Rick Scott sketched a rosy picture of Florida in an upbeat State of the State address Tuesday, telling the Legislature his policies are working and that the economy is strong enough to award teachers a big pay raise.
In a speech marking the opening of the 2013 session, Scott sounded eager to run for re-election on his record, despite polls showing hes one of the most unpopular governors in the country.
He cited job growth, declines in state debt and unemployment and the first budget surplus in six years, and repeatedly said Its working. That sounded like an echo of Lets get to work, the campaign slogan Scott used in 2010.
Two years ago, we met together facing crippling debt, record-high unemployment and a downward spiral of job losses, Scott said in a not-so-subtle jab at his predecessor and possible future rival, Charlie Crist. Our unemployment rate is nearly down to the national average and were not stopping here. Its working.
Scott put the greatest importance on paying teachers more money a goal intended to recast him as public educations No. 1 ally, not the tea party favorite who wanted a big cut in school spending two years ago.
Teachers change lives, Scott said.
Florida teachers are among the lowest paid in the country, with salaries about $10,000 below the national average. Legislative leaders have been cool to Scotts call for a $2,500 across-the-board teacher pay hike and want pay hikes tied to performance in the classroom. That will force Scott to do some backstage lobbying to win on the raises, which would cost an estimated $480 million.
We dont want a war on teachers. We want a war on failure, Scott said. An investment in Florida teachers is an investment in Floridas future.
In the visitors gallery, he saluted Elizabeth Heli, an engineer and teacher at Greco Middle School in Temple Terrace, who waved to the lawmakers seated below. Also in attendance was Bob Graham, the states former two-term Democratic governor and three-term U.S. senator.
Scotts halting speaking style kept him on the lectern for 37 minutes, but his third State of the State speech was more personal in tone than previous ones. He noted the death last fall of his mother, Esther, who became familiar to TV viewers in 2010 campaign ads. For the first time in a major speech, Scott also revealed that soon after his birth, she got divorced, almost giving me up for adoption, as he put it, but that she persevered.
My mom was an incredible optimist. She was an encourager. She told us to dream big, Scott said.
Scotts speech was narrow in scope, focusing on education, jobs, ending a tax on manufacturing equipment and parts of his budget. Many areas of public policy were not mentioned, such as voting problems, property insurance, pension reform, housing, transportation, the environment or ethics, which is a top issue to key lawmakers.
Near the end of his speech, Scott reiterated his support for a three-year expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, an idea that has encountered opposition in the House.
Our options are either having Floridians pay to fund this program in other states while denying health care to our citizens or using federal funding to help some of the poorest in our state with the Medicaid program as we explore other health care improvements, Scott said. As I wrestled with this decision, I thought about my Mom and her struggles to get my little brother health care with no money.