Facing the end of his term and weighing a U.S. Senate race in turbulent political times, Gov. Rick Scott delivered an upbeat State of the State address to open the annual legislative session Tuesday.
By turns sentimental and self-congratulatory, Scott reflected on his seven years in office and sounded like a candidate, boasting of creating jobs and cutting unemployment and state debt after inheriting a budget deficit of $4 billion.
“The results speak for themselves,” Scott said.
On the first day of the annual 60-day legislative session, the Republican governor pitched his legislative priorities, including $53 million to fight opioid abuse and reductions in driver’s license fees.
He urged legislators to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot to ask voters to require a two-thirds “super-majority” vote by a future Legislature to raise state taxes or eliminate existing sales tax exemptions.
Scott praised the work of first responders and law enforcement officers who helped Floridians recover from Hurricane Irma, and said the state is stronger than ever because of its response to the storm.
The 2018 session opened with two empty desks in the 40-member Senate that had been occupied by Democrat Jeff Clemens of Palm Beach County and Republican Jack Latvala of Clearwater, both of whom resigned.
Accusations of repeated sexual harassment by Latvala, detailed in a scathing report by a retired judge, forced out one of the Legislature’s senior members.
Scott personally took credit for a new law that keeps secret the name of a state employee who files a sexual harassment complaint. When he discovered that complainants didn’t have confidentiality, “that bothered me,” Scott said.
“Things have to change. It has to start here,” Scott said.
In an apparent reference to Latvala’s highly publicized case, he said: “The people of Florida deserve better than what they are reading about in the news.”
Scott’s eighth address had a farewell quality as he paid tribute to his fellow Republicans in statewide office. Recalling his first race for governor, he said to his wife Ann: “When no one else thought I had a shot, you stood by me. I love you.”
Scott, 65, was elected in 2010, re-elected in 2014 and must leave office next January due to term limits. He’s widely believed to be considering challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
Nelson, elected in 2000, has never faced a challenger with Scott’s vast personal wealth, a product of his founding of the nation’s largest for-profit hospital chain.
But Scott is closely aligned with President Donald J. Trump, who polls show remains unpopular, and Senate Democrats called Scott and Trump “pretty much one and the same.”
An influx of an estimated 300,000 Puerto Ricans who fled Hurricane Maria will improve Democratic Party voter registration in the nation’s third most populous state, where Scott twice won the governorship with victory margins of 1 percent.
As the session gets underway, Scott’s priorities are getting a hostile reception from House members in both parties.
Republicans say Scott’s $87.4 billion budget is much too high and that it relies on higher property tax payments to boost K-12 school spending.
Democrats fault Scott for luring low-wage jobs to Florida, and they say it’s wrong for him to advocate sweeping $92 million from an affordable housing program at a time when the state is facing a housing crisis made worse by Hurricane Irma.
“If the governor really cared about the Puerto Rican evacuees, he wouldn’t be stealing $92 million from the affordable housing trust fund while Puerto Ricans are sleeping in cars in Central Florida,” said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who’s also a Republican candidate for governor, said the Legislature should “back off” from its annual raid on the housing fund.
Tuesday’s pomp and ceremony quickly gave way to the familiar partisanship that will be more intense than usual because it’s an election year.
Most Democratic criticism was directed not at Scott, but at House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, whose ambitious agenda in the first week includes bills dealing with ethics, deregulation of the healthcare industry, eliminating public subsidies for sports teams and a ban on so-called “sanctuary cities” for immigrants.
Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, the House Democratic leader, accused Corcoran, a possible Republican candidate for governor, of politicizing the legislative session to attract support from the hard-right wing of the Republican Party.
“This campaign-style political theater is disgraceful,” Cruz said. She said that Corcoran’s motive is “only to drum up headlines and support from a political base.”
As the session began, the House paused in memory of Rep. Don Hahnfeldt, R-The Villages, who died of cancer last month at age 73.
The House also swore in three new members recently chosen by voters in special elections: Republicans Lawrence McClure of Plant City, Robert “Bobby O” Olszewski of Orlando, and Daniel Perez of Miami.
Republicans said Scott’s State of the State speech showed a confident leader.
“I think we’ve got a very happy governor who set a course back in 2010 on where he wanted to go and where he wanted the state to be. By and large, he has accomplished those goals, especially in terms of job creation,” said Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa.
Scott alluded to his remaining days in an afternoon speech to a friendly group, the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
“You’ve got 363 days left of me,” Scott told the group.
Herald/Times staff writers Elizabeth Koh, Emily L. Mahoney and Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.
Contact Steve Bousquet at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @stevebousquet.