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 he’s 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 “It’s working.” That sounded like an echo of “Let’s 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 we’re not stopping here. It’s working.”
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Scott put the greatest importance on paying teachers more money — a goal intended to recast him as public education’s 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 Scott’s 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 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.”
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 state’s former two-term Democratic governor and three-term U.S. senator.
Scott’s 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.
Scott’s 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.
“I cannot, in good conscience, deny the uninsured access to care,” Scott said.
The chamber erupted in cheers, mostly by Democrats. Republicans sat in silence.
Shortly before Scott’s speech, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, spoke firmly in opposition to Medicaid expansion, calling it a “social experiment” that is doomed to fail.
“I believe it crossed the line of the proper role of government,” Weatherford said. “Florida should not buy it.”
The Republican-dominated chamber erupted in loud cheers, a day after a House committee voted 10-5 along party lines to oppose Medicaid expansion.
Democrats criticized Scott for past cuts to education, for making it harder to vote and for favoring tax breaks for corporations at the expense of the middle class.
“It ain’t working. It’s the same old stuff,” said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, mocking Scott’s catch phrase. “It’s still take care of my friends and give them the tax breaks, while the people suffer.”
She said Scott is right to favor Medicaid expansion, but that he should fight hard to make it happen. “He should have set the house on fire about it and pleaded his case,” she said.
“Medicaid has been debated, deliberated, litigated and procrastinated,” said Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale. “Now the House is poised to abdicate our role in keeping Floridians healthy.”
Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, praised Scott’s speech for its analysis of the economy but cast doubt on the across-the-board pay raise for teachers.
“Is the methodology that the governor is proposing going to be the outcome? Probably not,” said Fresen, who chairs the House educating funding subcommittee.
Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said times aren’t as good as Scott made them sound.
“I respectfully disagree with him,” Fasano said. “People are still struggling back home.”
Outside the House chamber, dozens of college students, calling themselves the Dream Defenders, peacefully demonstrated against racial injustice and economic inequality. Senators had to walk past them to attend the joint session in the House chamber.
First Lady Ann Scott attended the speech, as did the couple’s two daughters, Allison and Jordan, who are both pregnant, their son-in-law, Jeremy, and 15-month-old grandson Auguste.
“I love being a grandpa,” Scott said.
Herald/Times staff writers Mary Ellen Klas, Rochelle Koff, Tia Mitchell and Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.