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Gov. Rick Scott rolls out his job agenda

TALLAHASSEE — Fewer business taxes, new toll roads and more science graduates are among the goals Gov. Rick Scott set Wednesday for his second year in office.

Scott, who made job creation his central campaign promise, said his legislative agenda would help make Florida "the nation's premier environment to start, relocate or expand a business."

"This plan focuses on removing the barriers to beginning, relocating and growing a business in our state," Scott said.

Scott unveiled his blueprint inside a warehouse at Metal Essence, a small metal and plastics fabricator in Longwood, where he later met with workers. The company is 17 miles north of the Orlando bar where President Barack Obama met unemployed construction workers on Tuesday.

Republicans leaders in the House and Senate applauded the broad strokes Scott used to describe his agenda. The details, however, will spark debate among lawmakers, who open their annual legislative session in January.

One of Scott's most ambitious goals is to boost the number of science, technology, engineering and math degrees produced by Florida colleges and universities.

In recent days, Scott has implied that the state should give bigger subsidies to students who study one of the so-called "STEM" subjects and less to others. Currently, state taxes follow the student no matter the major.

Such a proposal could face opposition from university officials.

"We don't want to rob Peter to pay Paul," said Kelly Layman, State University System spokeswoman.

Layman said a "significant number" of degrees have been eliminated due to lack of demand while the university system has absorbed a 27 percent cut to its base budget in the past five years.

In 2009, about 14 percent of the 51,433 bachelor degrees in Florida were in STEM subjects. That compared to 27 percent in California, the best percentage in the nation, according to a report from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

"How many more jobs you think there is for anthropology in this state?" Scott asked a group of Tallahassee business leaders Tuesday. "You want to use your tax dollars to educate more people that can't get jobs in anthropology? I don't."

The jab at anthropology was the second in two days from Scott, whose youngest daughter, Jordan Kandah, has a degree in the subject. She is now pursuing an MBA.

Brent Weisman, chair of the University of South Florida's anthropology department called Scott's remarks "unprovoked, ill-informed and insulting."

"People with degrees in anthropology do good work," Weisman said. "They have the very kinds of skills that are necessary to confront the problems that exist in Florida."

On Wednesday, Scott left out the quip and instead highlighted a state report that shows Florida companies will need 120,000 new workers in STEM-related fields by 2018.

Scott also demanded no new taxes or fees, but backed a Department of Transportation plan that would increase the use of toll roads to pay for road-building projects.

On a radio talk show Monday, Scott pointed to tolled express lanes that reduced rush-hour traffic on Interstate 95 in Broward County.

"We're going to start doing that across the state," he said.

With the state already facing a projected $1.5 billion shortfall, Scott's agenda would cut state revenues more.

He wants to eliminate the profit tax for 25 percent of Florida businesses, erase taxes on computers, machinery and other property for half of the companies that pay it now, and expand a sales tax exemption for manufacturing equipment.

Those changes could cost up to $33.4 million in the next budget year and, if voters approved a constitutional amendment for a new property tax cut, $107.6 million the following year.

"As businesses struggle with when and where to open," Scott said, "their decisions largely depend on the tax structure of the locations under consideration."

But many states with less favorable business climates according to a Tax Foundation report, such as Massachusetts and Maryland, have lower unemployment rates than Florida.

Scott's push for lower business taxes could face trouble in the Senate, where Republican leaders say CEOs are more concerned about cutting regulations and the quality of the workforce.

"I'm still waiting to meet the first Fortune 500 CEO who decided not to come to Florida because of our tax structure," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Nice­ville.

Times staff writer Kim Wilmath contributed to this report. Michael C. Bender can be reached at mbender@sptimes.com or at (850) 224-7263. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelCBender.

Gov. Rick Scott rolls out his job agenda 10/12/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 14, 2011 5:51pm]
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