Gov. Rick Scott gave state lawmakers the hard sell in a measured and positive State of the State speech Tuesday, urging them to embrace his vision of a transformed Florida that would serve as a national model of job creation with fewer taxes and less regulation on businesses.
Scott acknowledged his long line of critics but told lawmakers to stare them down.
"Don't blink," he said in the biggest applause line, drawing a standing ovation. "Don't let special interests persuade you to turn your backs on the people who elected you."
Scott's 27-minute speech, his first time addressing the Legislature, was less of a policy road map than a continuation of his campaign, offering few specifics while portraying his budget plan as a boon for businesses that would lead to jobs for 1.1 million out-of-work Floridians.
Just like Scott calls his spending proposal a "jobs budget," this was his jobs speech.
He said "job" or "jobs" 34 times.
"As we meet tonight, unemployment in Florida stands at 12 percent — 12 percent," Scott said, capping a divisive opening day of the annual spring lawmaking session. "While this legislative session is a regular session, in many ways it is an emergency session."
But Scott's speech left many legislators wanting more.
"I liked the charge: to create jobs," said Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island. "We'll have to see how much substance he has. I liked the speech, but the TelePrompTer sure helped him."
Scott, a former hospital CEO who financed his first political campaign last year, has struggled to replicate the sharp delivery of his TV campaign ads in major political speeches. He had a few stumbles Tuesday but was clearly thrilled to be standing in front of a packed House chamber.
"Gosh, this is great," Scott said as he first glimpsed the crowd.
Scott packed the gallery with guests, such as Sonia Mitchell of the Florida International Academy in Miami, and used his speech to single out four businessmen, including Armand Lauzon, president of Chromalloy, a Tampa-based aviation parts manufacturer.
Scott criticized lawmakers, saying they had "not dared to face the full extent of our financial problems" while letting government grow "way beyond its ability to pay for its promises."
But he took fewer shots than usual at the federal government, his favorite punching bag, opting instead for the sunny optimism characteristic of former Gov. Charlie Crist.
"We are a state that has regularly done the impossible," Scott said. "We build magic kingdoms. We launch ships that fly to the moon. Florida can be the state where the American dream continues to be a reality."
Unlike Crist, Scott offered no olive branch to Democrats as he attempted to drag the Legislature back to the days of hard-charging conservatism that Republicans enjoyed under former Gov. Jeb Bush.
"Some critics," Scott said, "say that our agenda is way too bold, that we need to trim the sails and settle for small improvements. They're wrong."
Polls show Scott is a polarizing figure among Floridians, and his speech was no different: Democrats were critical, while Republicans, who enter the 60-day session with powerful, veto-proof majorities in both chambers, applauded.
The dividing line was apparent earlier in the day. Conservative tea party activists rallied on the steps of the historic Capitol in support of Scott's budget cuts while, across the street, liberals protested.
"He's clearly got his priorities straight," said Rep. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. "It's exciting to see somebody who's committed to a bold vision and getting some clearly defined results."
Rep. Dwayne Taylor, D-Daytona Beach, said Scott could not claim to be the "jobs governor" while pushing a budget that would eliminate thousands of state jobs.
"All I heard were empty words," Taylor said. "Every time I hear him say 'Get to work,' I think of him going to work and cutting jobs from our state. He's giving out Scott slips. They're not pink slips, they're Scott slips."
But Scott said there was little choice: "Doing what must be done will not make me 'most popular,' but I'm determined to make Florida 'most likely to succeed.' "
Scott offered few specifics, instead using broad strokes to ask lawmakers to eliminate teacher tenure and force state workers to contribute to their pensions.
Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, called the speech "disingenuous," pointing to Scott's proposal to cut K-12 spending by 10 percent.
"He talked about creating a world-class education system, but he wants to gut education funding. It doesn't make sense," Bullard said.
Scott blasted special interests but also urged lawmakers to approve much of the business lobby's agenda, including unemployment tax cuts, phasing out the corporate income tax and making it more difficult to sue businesses.
"Give me the tools," Scott said, "and hold me accountable for the results."
Before Scott's speech, Republican leaders in the Legislature delivered their own speeches and took aim at the federal government.
House Speaker Dean Cannon used his session-opening remarks to criticize Congress for rampant spending, likening leaders in D.C. to a "fiscal heroin addict" with China as its supplier.
"It's created a paralyzing web of entitlement programs, and it's literally beginning to collapse under its own weight," said Cannon, R-Winter Park. "They forgot, for example, that social services are supposed to lift people out of hard times, not wrap them in a cocoon of dependency."
Senate President Mike Haridopolos laid out an agenda for his chamber that included Medicaid overhaul, pension reform and, in the face of a nearly $4 billion shortfall, strict limits on state spending.
"Whether we can actually reduce taxes, at the present time, in a responsible way remains to be seen," Haridopolos said. "If anyone can show me how we can realistically feed the increasing multitude with even fewer fish and less bread than we have now, then I will gladly follow him."
Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet, Marc Caputo, Mary Ellen Klas, Patricia Mazzei, Jodie Tillman and Janet Zink contributed to this report.