ORLANDO — Gov. Rick Scott, effectively kicking off his re-election campaign before conservative activists Friday, proposed cutting $500 million in taxes and fees and attacked his probable Democratic opponent Charlie Crist for embracing President Barack Obama's stimulus.
Citing signs of an improving state economy, from a budget surplus to swelling tax revenues, Scott said it was time to give back. "It's your money, not the government's," he told 1,500 people at the two-day Americans for Prosperity conference.
Scott did not provide details on the tax cuts, and his office refused to elaborate. But it gives him a selling point to voters as he enters campaign mode. His remarks about Crist were among his sharpest yet and signal the GOP feels the matchup is inevitable.
"I came into office just as President Obama's stimulus money was on the way out. My predecessor made a name for himself by hugging President Obama's stimulus spending — and he even hugged the president," Scott said as the crowd booed and laughed. "When he was asked about the stimulus money, he said he needed the money. As a result, spending and debt were increased in our state at an alarming rate. (Washington) D.C.'s spending addiction had spread to Florida."
The Crist-Obama hug came during a rally in Fort Myers in 2009, with Crist stepping out as one of the only Republican governors to back Obama's stimulus. It was devastating politically.
Crist lost favor with the conservative base, giving life to Marco Rubio in their 2010 U.S. Senate battle. (Rubio also spoke at the conference Friday, along with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.)
But the stimulus was lifeline to the state, a fact unmentioned by Scott. The Republican-controlled Legislature used billions of the federal money to prop up the budget over several bleak years. Even Scott kept nearly $370 million in stimulus in the 2011 budget, his first.
Crist stood by his decision. "It was the right thing to do and I'm glad we did it," he said in a telephone interview, noting the stimulus money helped prevent cuts affecting teachers, firefighters and law enforcement officers.
"It would only be nonsense and ideology that would keep you from investing in our fellow Floridians," Crist said.
Crist said Scott was trying to take credit for an improving national economy under Obama and said Scott's job-creation efforts clash with his rejecting $2.4 billion in federal money for high-speed rail, which would have created jobs.
Crist said he would probably reach a decision in the fall whether he will run, though he's already making the rounds in the state.
Scott has tried to push tax cuts before with mixed success.
In 2013, he championed a modest sales tax break for manufacturing equipment — the smallest tax break in years in Florida. It will cost state and local governments $22 million in the current fiscal year, takes effect next April and ends in three years unless the Legislature renews it.
In 2012, Scott approved a series of tax cuts worth more than $1 billion over a three-year period. They included cuts to the state's unemployment and corporate income tax along with targeted cuts for manufacturers, private aircraft repairers and fruit and meat packers.
In 2011, Scott called for $1.7 billion in business tax cuts, but the Legislature approved only $308 million in reductions. Scott also signed legislation that year cutting property taxes imposed by four of the state's five water management districts, which amounted to a property tax cut for the average homeowner of $16.22.
Scott's repeated call to phase out Florida's corporate income tax was ignored by the Legislature in 2013.
House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston of Fort Lauderdale issued a statement after Scott's speech saying he was carefully monitoring the Republican talk of revisiting "drastic tax and fee hikes they imposed in recent years on working families and small businesses."
It's true the last major tax and fee increase did come under Republicans in 2009 — $2.2 billion, including a $1-a-pack cigarette tax and higher fees on driving licenses and motor vehicle tags. But the Republican governor then was Crist.
Scott's appearance before the conservative audience echoed his rise from obscurity in 2010 when he ran to the right of Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum in the GOP primary. Though Scott's delivery was monotone and halting — "He's like the zombie candidate," said Edward Lynch, a conservative activist from Wellington — the crowd was receptive as Scott ticked off his job creation efforts, plans to drug test welfare recipients and success in paying off $3.5 billion in state debt.
"Conservative, pro-growth solutions are working in Florida. We have a lot to brag about. Our future is bright, indeed," Scott said.
But the appearance and Scott's conservative focus raise questions about his broader campaign strategy. With low approval ratings he'll need to appeal to the kinds of moderate voters that may be drawn to a candidate such as Crist.
Despite his wide-ranging speech, Scott did not address the touchy issue that has risen to the top of the conservative agenda: the Common Core educational standards. At least three times Scott was interrupted by a woman shouting "Stop Common Core!"
Scott, who has not taken a position on Common Core, smiled and kept on reciting his speech.
Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.