TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott welcomed back the Legislature to an election-year session Tuesday with an upbeat State of the State speech that centered on creating jobs, holding the line on taxes and spending more on schools.
Addressing a packed House chamber and live TV audience in a halting delivery, Scott struck a cooperative tone and mostly played it safe with his priorities. The Republican governor demanded that lawmakers spend $1 billion more for schools after a $1.3 billion school budget cut last year, an about-face Democrats later mocked as shallow and poll-driven.
"On this point, I just can't budge," Scott told lawmakers, whose desks were covered with colorful flower baskets. "I ask you again today to send me a budget that significantly increases state funding for education. This is the single most important decision we can make today for Florida's future."
The call for additional education funding was one of the few policy specifics in Scott's 33-minute talk. A key Republican, Senate Budget Committee Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said legislators will find the money.
"I think it's an important priority and one that I believe the Senate supports," Alexander said.
House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, raised a different issue on Opening Day. Cannon, a former University of Florida student body president, wants to "start a dialogue" about reducing parochialism and political game-playing that he says undermines the quality of the state university system.
"We spend a lot of dollars on higher education," Cannon said. "They should be spent as wisely as possible."
Last spring, Scott signed a budget that cut school spending by $1.3 billion after initially proposing even deeper cuts. But in a series of meetings with parents across the state, he said, they resoundingly favored more money for schools, a goal likely to play well with voters in an election year for legislators.
Scott's path to boosting school spending without raising taxes is to reduce the rates the state pays hospitals in the Medicaid program. The idea is controversial and has run into resistance with Republican lawmakers and a cohesive hospital lobby in Florida's Capitol.
Democrats also roundly criticized the plan, saying that it pitted schoolchildren versus poorer Floridians and that of the $1 billion, some is only backfilling losses or paying to support new students in the K-12 system. "This is not an answer to the problems we have with education," said Senate Democratic leader Nan Rich of Weston.
Scott said his three biggest goals as governor are to ensure that people have jobs, access to a quality education and low-cost living. He called for reforms to reduce fraud in the state's no-fault car insurance system, and he spoke in personal terms of his own work history, including operating two doughnut shops in Missouri.
In his speech to the Republican-dominated Legislature, Scott claimed that in the past year, the state saw 135,000 new private sector jobs and the second largest unemployment drop among states (2 percentage points). He celebrated census figures showing that Florida grew by more than 250,000 people over a 15-month period.
About 50 Occupy the Capitol protesters chanted and waved signs in the Capitol's Rotunda, but they were blocked by security personnel from sitting in the visitors' gallery. Scott, escorted by law enforcement agents, was able to enter the House without directly coming into contact with them. The group also was denied entry to the Florida Senate and complained that Senate deputies had kept them out of the public gallery because of how they looked and dressed.
"I'm here mostly for economic issues," said Brian Foster, 21, of Orlando, who wore jeans and a blue bandana around his neck. "A lot of our elected officials still don't believe they will take us seriously. That's kind of disheartening." He said his parents are losing their home to foreclosure.
Similar protests took place in Tampa and 18 other cities by Progress Florida, Florida Public Interest Research Group and other grass roots organizations that said the policies of Scott and Republican lawmakers hurt the middle class.
Scott's speech came on a day when a new Quinnipiac University poll showed him still unpopular with a majority of Floridians. The poll showed 50 percent of the people disapprove of his job as governor and 38 percent approve. But Scott can take some comfort in the fact that the Legislature ranked lower in the Quinnipiac poll, with 49 percent disapproving of its performance and 33 percent approving.
Scott won high marks from leading Republicans such as Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine. "Incredibly relaxed, focused," he said. "I think the governor's hitting his stride."
Scott, who by his own admission is not a gifted orator, won style points with some lawmakers. "He put a little humor in," said Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole. "I think a nice touch is, he brought in people in the audience."
In the visitors' gallery, Scott singled out three Floridians: Penny Mecklenburg, whose husband, John, a sheriffs' deputy in Hernando County, was killed in the line of duty; business owner Rachel Waatti, owner of Nicola's Donuts in Tampa; and Heather Viniar, a first-year teacher in Immokalee High School near Naples.
The annual lawmaking session opened two months sooner than usual because it's the one year in 10 when the Legislature must redraw all congressional and legislative districts to reflect population and demographic changes.
The political marketing of Scott's agenda began in earnest Tuesday afternoon in the House Appropriations Committee.
During the session, Scott's budget chief, Jerry McDaniel, said cuts in rates to hospitals are long overdue because the current system rewards inefficiency and has wide variations for the same medical procedures from city to city.
"There's no incentive for them to become more efficient," McDaniel said of hospitals. "It needs to have a new look taken at it."
Times/Herald staff writers David DeCamp, Mary Ellen Klas, Kathleen McGrory, Tia Mitchell, Toluse Olorunnipa and Katie Sanders contributed to this report.