Gov. Rick Scott gives upbeat State of the State address, avoids pressing issues

Florida Gov. Rick Scott delivers his state of the state speech on the opening day to a joint session of the legislature on Tuesday, March 3, 2015, in Tallahassee, Fla.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott delivers his state of the state speech on the opening day to a joint session of the legislature on Tuesday, March 3, 2015, in Tallahassee, Fla. Miami

The 2015 session of the Legislature began Tuesday with two starkly different visions of Florida, as Republicans and Democrats used the opening day to mark their political territory and set contrasting priorities for the next two months.

In his fifth State of the State address to the Legislature, Republican Gov. Rick Scott described a thriving land of opportunity with low unemployment, low taxes, low state debt and a shrinking state work force, using the term “Florida exceptionalism” to describe the state’s vast potential.

Democrats defined Florida as a state with a disappearing middle class where too many people have to work two low-wage jobs to make ends meet, lack health insurance and have no access to a doctor.

Addressing a Republican-dominated Legislature, Scott pitched his goals of cutting taxes, spending more for schools and job training and capping graduate school tuition at state universities. His remarks were repeatedly interrupted by applause as lawmakers sat at desks adorned with flower baskets that traditionally mark Day One.

“We agree on more than we disagree on,” Scott said. “We want to give families back more of the money they earn, and reduce the burden of government.”

Scott’s brisk, 20-minute speech was also notable for what he did not talk about. He said nothing about the raging controversy over high-stakes student testing, pervasive violence that has overwhelmed the prison system and two big healthcare issues: an expansion of Medicaid to help the uninsured and a loss of $1 billion in federal low-income pool money to treat poor patients at Florida hospitals.

Immediately after his speech, Scott darted down a side hallway to a waiting elevator, avoiding reporters’ questions.

Democrats were quick to respond.

“We still don’t hear anything about working class families that struggle and work two jobs and don’t have healthcare coverage,” said Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa.

Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, said Scott’s policies favor the rich at the expense of the poor and middle class.

“The middle class has been sinking while the lifeboats sailed off with the well-off and the well-connected,” Joyner said.

Scott reiterated his goal of raising school spending to $7,176 per student, the highest in state history, while cutting taxes by $500 million. But even in a year with a projected $1 billion surplus, legislative leaders are voicing doubts that Scott will be able to keep all his promises, especially with the $1 billion shortfall in low-income pool money for hospitals.

“This session is particularly challenging,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon. “We have an aggressive agenda to cut taxes and increase education funding against the backdrop of a very uncertain resolution of a $1 billion challenge for Florida hospitals.”

Some Republican lawmakers are uneasy with Scott’s education budget, which relies on $400 million in higher property tax collections.

Scott repeatedly stressed education in his address. The governor who championed a cap on college tuition in his first term wants to extend it to graduate schools.

“I want to work with you this year to pass a college affordability bill that will hold the line on graduate school tuition,” Scott said. “Just like any business, we should expect education to become more affordable each year, not more expensive.”

The Senate is not in sync with Scott on a grad-school cap.

“There will be a pretty strong argument made by universities that graduate school costs are different than for undergraduates,” said Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.

Scott’s only reference to his grueling re-election victory over Democrat Charlie Crist was a request to lawmakers to help fulfill his campaign promise on school funding.

“Let’s not squander our budget surplus on special interests,” Scott said. “Our budget should reflect the principles we campaigned on. … We should do exactly what we told voters we would do.”

Both legislative leaders emphasized issues that Scott ignored. The Senate supports expansion of Medicaid to provide health insurance to an additional 1 million Floridians, but the House is still opposed.

“We will have a discussion about Medicaid expansion,” said Gardiner, an executive at one of Orlando’s largest hospitals.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said he and Senate leaders want more programs to help people with disabilities and that changes to state and local pension plans are necessary to avert a financial “catastrophe.”

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said he was not surprised that Scott avoided the prison crisis, which has prompted senators to call for an independent oversight board.

“I’m sure any proposals like we are advancing in the Senate, which tend to chip away the authority of the executive branch, are not going to be received with open arms by the executive,” Bradley said.

Legislators observed a moment of silence in memory of Ken Plante, a former senator and long-time lobbyist who died Sunday after a three-year battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease. The likeable Plante, 75, represented the Orlando area from 1967 to 1978 and worked on the staff of former Gov. Jeb Bush in between two stretches as a lobbyist for Florida businesses.

The session began on the 170th anniversary of statehood. Florida became the nation’s 27th state on March 3, 1845.

Herald/Times staff writers Michael Auslen and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Read Gov. Rick Scott’s State of the State speech

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Good morning President Gardiner, Speaker Crisafulli and distinguished members of the Florida Legislature. Welcome Lt. Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, Chief Justice Labarga and members of the Florida Supreme Court. And I would like to recognize my wonderful wife Ann. We have been married for almost 43 years. I love you Ann. We have been blessed.

So now it’s time for another state of the state speech, or as I like to call it — a chance for me to show off my world renowned oratorical skills. It’s ok, you can laugh, it was meant to be a joke.

I want to start off today by talking about what unites us: a love for our great state. Like me, I know all of you don’t have to be in these offices. No one forced you to take these jobs. You signed up for service, and you worked hard to get here. And, like me, you wanted to work for the people of Florida because you know we are the best state in the country. Certainly, we all have our own ideas, and we debate with vigor. But I do believe it is important to acknowledge that we all have common goals for the families that live in our great state. We want every person in Florida to have the opportunity to live the dream of America. I believe we are the best place in the country and the world to make dreams come true. I call this Florida exceptionalism.

Let me take just a minute to brag about our great state, which I know you love just as much as I do. These are some of the successes created by the great people in our state…

In the last four years, the unemployment rate in Florida has dropped in half – from 11.1 percent to 5.6 percent – the second biggest drop in unemployment in the United States. We have added over 728,000 new private-sector jobs. We have 279K job openings right now in our state. In the last year, around 250k people moved to our state and we are now the third biggest state in the nation- bigger than New York. From 1992-2011, Florida inherited $100 billion in adjusted gross income from other states. This is more than 1/8 of our annual GDP. Last year, we had our fourth record year of tourism- 97.3 million people visited our state. Clearly our investment in Visit Florida is working, and every 85 tourists create another Florida job.

We have 15 seaports. Our investments in ports are working, with over 150,000 trade jobs added in the last four years. We have also made significant investments in our airports, which has helped bring record numbers of tourists to Florida. Enterprise Florida has won over 400 competitive projects for new jobs, projects like Hertz and Navy Federal Credit Union. We are a right to work state. We are the gateway to Latin America. We are the number two state for trade infrastructure. We are also number two for aerospace and aviation establishments in the U.S. We are the second best state for business by CEO Magazine, and we will soon be number one.

We are home to over 250 languages. We are at a 43-year-low in our crime rate. We are clearly the best melting pot in the world. Housing prices are up. Taxes are down. We have cut taxes more than 40 times in four years. We have no personal income tax. The average person pays about $1,800 in state taxes in Florida – the lowest in the nation. Lowest number of state workers per capita in the country – and we are going to continue to look for productivity gains. Our LLC’s and Subchapter S corporations don't pay a business tax. Over 80% of our C corporations don’t pay the business tax. We have reduced taxes for our small businesses.

For the first time since Governor Martinez was in office, we have reduced state debt. We have paid down $7.5 billion in debt. Our fourth graders are number two in the world in reading. The National Council on Teacher Quality says we have the best equipped teachers in the nation for two surveys in a row. Our state colleges offer $10,000 degrees in areas where our students can get a job. When we held the line on tuition last year, the price of a Florida Prepaid Plan dropped in half.

Florida is an exceptional place. As far back as the 1800’s, people were moving to Florida to make their dreams come true. In 1851, a doctor and researcher in North Florida received a patent for a refrigeration invention he developed after experimenting with ways to cool a room to make his patients more comfortable. Today, we know this man as the “father of air conditioning” and without John Gorrie’s invention, the beauty of Florida wouldn’t be home to almost 20 million people today!

In 1878, Henry Flagler moved to Florida and began dreaming big. He saw beautiful beaches that were warm year-round and when people told him there wasn’t any way people up north would come down here, he was bold enough to build a railway to get them here and hotels for them to stay in. We now have the vibrant cities of Miami and Palm Beach thanks to the dreams of Henry Flagler over 100 years ago.

In the middle of the Great Depression, George Jenkins, Jr. left his job at a grocery store and decided he would open up his own store. I am sure many people thought Mr. Jenkins was crazy, but he had a dream. Today, his chain of stores employs 127,000 Floridians and is the largest employee-owned company in the country. We know it as Publix.

Of course, we all know about the dreams of Walt Disney. He never lived in Florida, but dreamed up Disney World, which opened in 1971 and put Florida on the map to be the worldwide tourist destination we are today.

Florida has long been a place where dreams come true. But, this is not just our past – it is our future. We have to ask ourselves who has the next big dream for Florida? Who are the inventors? The builders? The trailblazers? We want more people to chase their dreams in Florida.

In fact, some of the people whose dreams are changing the world are here with us today. Please help me welcome: Richard Gonzmart, the fourth-generation President of the Columbia Restaurant Group in Tampa – Florida’s oldest restaurant.

Mary Ann Carroll – a world renowned artist from Florida – unfortunately could not be with us this morning. Mary Ann began selling her paintings in the 1950’s along Fort Pierce’s roadsides. As an African American, she said she was not allowed into any galleries at the time. But, with her 60-year career of hard work and many struggles, Mary Ann now promotes the beauty of our state through her artwork hanging in museums and galleries all across the world.

Please help me welcome theme park designer Bill Coan - president of ITEC Entertainment Corporation in Orlando. Bill has designed theme parks and attractions around the world, like Daytona USA.

And finally, let’s welcome meteorologist and storm chaser Gladys Rubio. Gladys and her husband, Jose, moved to Miami from Cuba in the early 1990’s for a better life. Today, Gladys tracks giant storms across the world at the National Hurricane Center for Spanish-language audiences in the United States and the Caribbean.

Florida is an exceptional place. Every one of you have dreamed big and helped make our state great. I am now a proud grandfather, and I think a lot about how we can make Florida the place where our children’s and grandchildren’s dreams come true. In order to be a land where dreams come true, I believe we have to out-compete the rest of the world.

There are five ways we can do that. First: Let’s keep cutting taxes! Floridians can spend their money better than government can. I want to say that again: Floridians can spend their money better than government can. I have recommended cutting the tax on cell phones and TVs for every Florida family so they can save around $43 a year for spending as little as $100 a month on cell phone and TV bills combined.

I have also recommended that we permanently end the tax on manufacturing equipment so more companies will make major capital investments in Florida.

Businesses can spend their money and create jobs better than government can.

I have recommended that we get rid of the state sales tax on college textbooks because getting a higher education degree must become more affordable.

Students can spend their money better than government can. It should not require a federal loan and decades of debt for students to get a college degree. Price limits access – plain and simple.

If we are going to out-compete the world, the second thing we must do is make higher education more affordable. I want to work with you this year to pass a college affordability bill that will hold the line on graduate school tuition and bring transparency to university costs. Just like any business, we should expect education to become more affordable each year, not more expensive.

Let us never again say that, “we have to raise tuition because tuition in other states is higher than ours.” We don’t raise taxes when other states have taxes higher than ours, and we shouldn’t raise tuition when other states have higher tuition.

Third, to out-compete the world, we must invest in workforce development. Our recommended investments this year include: $30 million for high-skill workforce training; $20 million for advanced workforce training at our tech centers; $5 million to incentivize $10,000 STEM degrees at our state colleges; and $1 million to create a paid summer program for STEM teachers.

Fourth, if we are going to out-compete the world, we must invest in K-12 education. This year, we are recommending an increase in K-12 funding to $50 above the historic level to $7,176 per student. Four years ago, I stood before you and said we would have to make some hard decisions. And, we did. We made reductions that dipped into education, knowing that when the economy improved we could invest again. Many of these decisions were unpopular, but by living within our means it created an environment for success. Few thought we could add 728,000 jobs, have the highest funding for education, and invest in our environment just four years later. But, we did it together – and we have more work to do.

Now that our economy is thriving, it is time to make major investments in education. Let’s not squander our budget surplus on special interests. Our budget should reflect the principles we campaigned on or in other words, we should do exactly what we told voters we would do.

The final thing we must do to out-compete the world is keep Florida beautiful. Florida is an exceptional place – we have the economy and the opportunity to keep it that way. Our recommended budget includes more than $3 billion for environmental and agriculture programs which includes a total of $150 million in funding to protect the Everglades and another $150 million that will help protect land for the Florida panther. It is important to point out that our recommended environmental investments in land and water programs will be $82 million above what is required by Amendment One.

The goals I just outlined to out-compete the world are bold. I have met with many of you over the last few months and I know we share the exact same vision. We want Florida to be the best place in the world for our children and grandchildren to live their dreams. We agree on more than we disagree on. We want to give families back more of the money they earn, and reduce the burden of government.

In the weeks ahead, I expect some people will try to divide us. They will try to distract us. But, Mr. President, Mr. Speaker - I believe we can come together with our shared desire to improve this greatstate. Many of our shared goals are already outlined in your “Work Plan 2015.” Members of the Senate, Members of the House - I commit to all of you that I will be a tireless partner in your fight to make Florida the best place in the world for all of our children and grandchildren to get a great job and live their dreams.

I believe that our rich history is only a glimpse of what we can do in the future. Everything is possible in Florida. We are now in the lead; and it’s ours to lose. We have to avoid any temptation to stand down or rest on our laurels. And of course, even with our tremendous progress, there are still some Floridians who have not yet found their opportunity. Having grown up in a family that was at times down on our luck, I know the importance of each and every family having an opportunity. Remembering those tough times drives me every day to do all I can to give each and every one of our citizens the chance to realize their dreams. Government cannot guarantee outcomes for everyone, but we should all be united in our desire to guarantee opportunities for everyone who is willing to work hard.

I am looking forward to working side-by-side with you during session to achieve our shared goals, inspire future generations to dream, and keep Florida working.

God bless America and God bless the exceptional state of Florida. Thank You.

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