TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott today opens a four-day image-rebuilding "listening tour" to promote his call for cuts of $500 million in taxes and fees by the Legislature next year, when he will be seeking a new term.
In a series of meetings with local chambers of commerce in five important TV markets, Scott will amplify an evolving theme of his re-election campaign: that as the economy improves, taxpayers should get some of their money back.
"It's your money," Scott said, borrowing the tour's title. "My commitment is, I'm going to find a way to reduce taxes and fees by $500 million. I want to hear from citizens."
The state projects a surplus of $845 million next year after paying for expected growth in programs, such as increased public school enrollment, and putting aside $1 billion in reserves.
But even though the state budget grew by $4 billion this year, Scott's only tax cut idea was a sales tax break for manufacturers that lawmakers scaled back considerably.
The 2013 session was noteworthy for its lack of talk of tax cuts. That's why news of Scott's tour brought a welcome-to-the-party type reaction from Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who reminded Scott that senators voted for more than $200 million in auto tag fee reductions last session, which the House rejected and Scott ignored.
A key Republican budget-writer in the Legislature says that while Scott's call for cutting taxes makes sense, it's too early to commit to a specific amount with the legislative session six months away.
"There's so much that could change," said Rep. Seth McKeel, a Lakeland Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. "There's just a concern that it's too early to tell."
Democrats say Scott is using campaign-style gimmickry to prop up his low poll numbers with voters. The most recent Quinnipiac University poll in June showed voters still deeply ambivalent about Scott with 43 percent approving of his performance and 44 percent opposed, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, said if Scott wants to show real leadership, he should call for more money for state universities, which have been forced to cut faculty positions and delay needed building projects.
"We need an investment tour instead of election year vote-buying," Smith said. "We have neglected so many things for so many years."
Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, a Broward lawmaker whose county is the second stop on the tour, said Scott should be paying more attention to festering problems such as the waiting list of people with developmental disabilities who need services.
"Can we justify keeping families on the waiting list before we begin looking at cuts?" Edwards said in an email.
The Agency for Persons with Disabilities says the current waiting list is 22,034. The budget that took effect July 1 includes $36 million more for services in an effort to shorten the list.
Scott has not proposed which taxes and fees should be cut. That much specificity would antagonize lawmakers who zealously protect their turf as guardians of the public purse.
One possibility is a rollback of motor vehicle tag fees that were increased in 2009 during the tenure of former Gov. Charlie Crist, who could be Scott's Democratic challenger next fall.
Other targets include sales taxes on commercial leases, a communications services tax largely applied to cellphones or another reduction in the corporate income tax, which Scott proposed last spring and legislators ignored. Scott ran in 2010 on a promise to abolish the tax.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce on Monday again called on Scott to support a tax on Internet sales that would be offset by other tax cuts.
Scott's top aide, chief of staff Adam Hollingsworth, dismissed the idea that Scott is playing politics and said the focus is on lowering the cost of living for families.
"It's responsible governing," Hollingsworth said.
The tour opens with stops in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale today, followed by Jacksonville on Wednesday, Tampa on Thursday and Orlando on Friday. Details about the Tampa stop have yet to be released.
Aides said Scott would use Twitter to solicit suggestions from voters.
Former Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, an announced Democratic candidate for governor, tweeted this about Scott's travels: "Instead of embarking on a 4 day 're-election' tour, Scott should stay home & prepare a budget that invests in & funds quality education!"
Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.