TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott kicked off the annual legislative session Tuesday by extolling the virtues of job creation and pushing his top two priorities: cutting taxes and spending more money to lure companies to Florida.
In his sixth State of the State address, the Republican governor was a model of consistency and predictability as he defined a job as the fulfillment of the American dream.
"I believe that the best way to help the weakest, the poorest and the most disadvantaged to live their dreams is to get them a job," Scott said to applause. "A job is the No. 1 way to change any person's life for the better."
Scott spoke for nearly a half-hour, and made a rare reference to the need for a government "safety net" to help those in dire need. But with a tight focus on jobs, tax cuts and the economy, he ignored vast areas of public policy. He never mentioned crime, the environment, immigration, colleges and universities, transportation or health care.
"The American dream for 567,000 people in Florida is to have health insurance, and they weren't even mentioned," said Senate Democratic leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa. "He said jobs, jobs, jobs, but I want high-paying jobs, where people will make enough money to pay rent and buy groceries."
Scott issued familiar marching orders to legislators. He wants them to cut taxes by $1 billion, mostly to help businesses, such as by repealing the corporate income tax on retailers and manufacturers, eliminating the sales tax on manufacturing equipment and reducing taxes on commercial rents.
Scott also has executed an aggressive campaign to win support for a new $250 million incentive fund to attract more jobs to Florida and help small businesses expand.
"It was great. Fantastic," said Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes.
But to some of Scott's fellow Republicans, it was the same old same old.
"It wasn't anything revealing. That's his theme," said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.
In yet another sign of trouble for Scott's tax cut proposals, Galvano, the Senate majority leader whose job is to round up enough votes to pass the Republican agenda, voiced doubt that he could persuade 21 senators to support $1 billion in tax cuts.
"A billion dollars is a big number and it's a tough number," Galvano said.
Scott will take his tax cut show on the road today with Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a candidate for Florida's open U.S. Senate seat. They will kick off a statewide bus tour with stops in Orlando and Tampa and at a car dealership in Sunrise.
The Broward County Kia dealership is part of Rick Case Enterprises, which has donated $65,000 to Scott's political committee, Let's Get to Work, a continuing magnet for political donations that would fuel Scott's widely anticipated run for a U.S. Senate seat in 2018.
At times during his speech Tuesday, Scott sounded like a Senate candidate. He diverted from an upbeat Florida-centric message of jobs with references to the global threat of terrorism and the forthcoming presidential election.
Scott has said Donald Trump is the candidate who most effectively is "capturing the frustration of many Americans," and Trump will hold a political rally at a civic center in Pensacola today.
"Our next president must make it their mission to immediately eliminate the threat of ISIS to the United States of America," Scott said in his address.
Scott saluted six Florida mayors who were in the audience, all of whom support the $250 million jobs fund, including Tampa's Bob Buckhorn and Orlando's Buddy Dyer. All six have big-dollar priorities they want Scott to include in the next state budget.
House Democratic leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, gave his party's televised response to Scott's speech, criticizing the governor for "crazy talk" and for favoring the rich over the middle class.
"Your government should spend more money in the classroom. Your government should stop diverting big money to big private corporations," Pafford said.
Scott's sixth State of the State speech came on the first day of an unusually early session. Lawmakers moved up the starting date to January, in part so that they would be able to spend spring break with their children in March.
As Scott addressed a packed House chamber and a statewide TV audience, more than 100 people filled the rotunda. Wearing jeans and hooded sweatshirts, they protested Republican-backed bills that the protesters said would make criminals out of undocumented immigrants.
"It's criminalizing our people," said Serena Perez, 47, of the New Florida Majority, a Miami-based advocacy group.
Protesters rode from Homestead to Tallahassee on buses and caught a few hours of sleep on the floor of a church in downtown Tallahassee, where the morning low temperature was 30 degrees.
Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, both referred to a grueling and contentious past year that they hope to put behind them.
Legislators barely met their June 30 deadline for passing a budget and held three costly special sessions, and courts found them in violation of the state Constitution twice, for the House's premature shutdown and for violating anti-gerrymandering provisions in drawing congressional and Senate districts.
Gardiner said the Senate hopes to send three major bills to Scott by Friday, dealing with statewide water policy and people with learning disabilities, and he said senators want to reduce a state backlog for services for disabled people who have waited the longest.
"It could be a very good week, and I think it sets the tone for where we are over the next 60 days," Gardiner told reporters.
Gardiner and Crisafulli struck cooperative themes on opening day.
"We must not confuse our principles with our preferences, for if we simply insist on our way or the highway, we will fail the people of Florida," Crisafulli told the House. "Our challenge is to sort out the differences — to put away pride — and to find real solutions."
The runaway sensation of the day was not a politician, but the child of one.
Eleven-year-old Jacqueline Galvano of Bradenton, an aspiring singer/actor and the daughter of Sen. Galvano, sang the national anthem twice and received thunderous standing ovations both times.
"On that note, we'll take a motion to Sine Die," Gardiner said, using the Latin phrase for the end of the session. "That was incredible."
Times/Herald staff writers Michael Auslen and Kristen M. Clark contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.