TALLAHASSEE — For Gov. Rick Scott, it's now about teachers, not the tea party.
Cutting spending is out. "Investing" is in.
The governor who once showed indifference to state workers now wants to give them cash bonuses, in addition to his $480 million plan to give every teacher a $2,500 raise.
Scott's messaging is completely different, too.
When he unwrapped his first budget two years ago, he did it at a rally of flag-waving tea partiers under a stylized sign that said "Reducing Spending and Holding Government Accountable."
His new budget is Florida's biggest ever in sheer dollars at $74.2 billion. Scott unveiled his latest spending plan Thursday with a supporting cast of grateful educators and a sign that read "Florida Families First."
As Scott seeks a second term, he's embracing education as never before and seeking $4 billion more in spending — and some Republicans don't like what they see.
"It's perplexing," said Henry Kelley of the Tea Party Network in Fort Walton Beach. "To say we're going to give $480 million more to teachers from someone who ran on accountability and changing things? Three years later, and it's 'Let's make government bigger in Tallahassee.' "
Kelley said paying teachers more is a great idea, but it shouldn't be dictated by Tallahassee.
At the same time, some Democrats, who say Florida schools are chronically underfunded, praise Scott's budget for seeking $1.2 billion more for schools.
"(It) clearly responds to the unprecedented challenges facing school districts," said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee.
In an interview with the Times/Herald Friday, Scott insisted his pro-education philosophy is the same as when he became governor two years ago.
"It has not changed," Scott said. "Look at my life. Any success I've had in my life is tied to the fact that I was able to get an education." What has changed, he said, is that times are better and more money is available. "Our biggest resource is our teachers," Scott said, a year after he reduced their salaries by 3 percent.
One of those who stood alongside Scott at his budget-unveiling event was Mary Beth Perkins, an elementary school art teacher from Orlando, who noted that a $2,500 raise only makes up for last year's pay cut.
"But I'm glad he's listening," Perkins said. "We at least feel like we're part of the solution."
To those who accuse him of wanting to grow government, Scott says he wants to keep shrinking it. His new budget plan would eliminate another 3,600 jobs.
His messengers are pushing back against a perception that Scott is a big spender, saying that when population growth is factored in, Scott's budget increase isn't as large as any of Jeb Bush's. To make such a comparison requires making Bush look like the big spender, not Scott.
The governor's office also highlights a figure that repeated cuts to the state work force have left Florida with 5.2 state workers per 1,000 residents, lowest in state history.
In the coming weeks, Scott will hit the road for a campaign-style promotion of his budget, including highlighting money for road projects, increased services to disabled adults and performance-based incentives for state universities.
With Scott's low job-approval ratings, his standing has nowhere to go but up. Some say he has never received sufficient credit for progress such as a 3 percentage point drop in the state's jobless rate.
"He gets a really bum rap in terms of popularity," said business lobbyist Rick McAllister of the Florida Retail Federation, citing the tough stands Scott took in his first two years, when the state was losing tax revenue.
McAllister also says Scott is still learning. "Since he's been governor, I think he has a broader appreciation of the role of education in Florida," he said. "Not that he didn't before, but I think he's learned a lot about what the education system requires."
Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, criticizes Scott for refusing to expand Medicaid under the federal health care law to expand the number of people with health insurance.
Even though Scott has not definitively said no to Obamacare, Fasano called it a "cop-out" for Scott to delay. Fasano said Scott's actions reveal a governor desperate to shore up his popularity for a re-election bid.
"With his poll numbers, no other politician would even consider running for re-election," Fasano said. "He's doing this because his political life is hanging by a thread. This is more politics than it is policy."