Floridians saw a looser, more relaxed Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday when he delivered the first State of the State speech of his second term. He even drew laughter when he called the occasion “a chance for me to show off my world-renowned oratorical skills.”
Good one, governor.
Unfortunately, the welcome change in style was not accompanied by a similar change in substance.
The governor reiterated his goals of cutting taxes, spending more on public education and freezing graduate school tuition, but he offered few hints about how to reach those goals. Also absent was any mention of some tough problems facing the Legislature. Lawmakers would have found guidance from the governor far more useful than repeated praise for Florida’s “exceptionalism.”
The governor’s proposed budget contains prime examples of the issues he failed to address. His call for reduced taxation makes good on a promise to voters, but lawmakers say they still don’t have the money to pay for all of Mr. Scott’s campaign vows, and he offered no clue about how to select priorities.
The governor wants $700 million in tax cuts and, commendably, record per-pupil spending in public schools. As Rep. Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach pointed out in the Democratic reply, though, the education increase is accomplished by raising school-district taxes at the local level, in addition to what the state can pitch in. That’s hard to square with the repeated mantra of lower taxes coming from Mr. Scott.
That surplus that his budget envisions is no sure thing, either. To get there, it ignores a huge hole created by the upcoming end of a federal program for hospitals that treat low-income patients. Without that $1.3 billion, the “surplus” turns into an illusion.
A related and glaringly obvious problem is that Florida has one of the highest rates in the nation for individuals without health insurance — not the kind of “exceptionalism” to brag about.
Accepting federal funding for Medicaid expansion would end that unhappy distinction, a move bravely supported by Senate President Andy Gardiner. Here’s a perfect opportunity for Mr. Scott to expend some of the political capital that comes with a new second term, but he was silent on Tuesday instead of urging reluctant lawmakers to undergo a change of heart.
Likewise, he had nothing to say about the scandal in state prisons. Mr. Scott needs to weigh in on a legislative proposal to wrest control away from the executive office and place it in the hands of an appointed commission, but on that topic, as well, Mr. Scott had nothing to say.
Gov. Scott has shown leadership and good judgment in some areas, such as testing public school students. That makes it all the more baffling that he skirted the issue altogether in his speech, even though the epic statewide failure of the test system one day earlier underlined the urgent nature of the problem.
The governor wisely ordered a partial halt to one series of tests recently, drawing praise from parents and teachers, but he passed up the chance to speak up about the obsession with testing.
None of this augurs well for the upcoming legislative session. The Republican-led Legislature needs guidance on all of the above issues, as well as on others that carry equal urgency. Lawmakers may agree or disagree with the state’s chief executive — as will we — but getting his input and ideas is far preferable to leaving the impression that the state is rudderless.