Gov. Rick Scott delivered his most upbeat State of the State speech yet Tuesday, reflecting Florida's economic rebound from the worst of the Great Recession. He praised everyone from teachers to university presidents to business leaders, avoiding confrontation and appealing to mainstream voters he will need to win re-election next year. But the governor was noticeably silent on most big issues and stuck to narrow budget priorities, passing up an opportunity to cast a broader vision for Florida's future.
Scott renewed his argument that the state's economy is recovering because of less state spending, smaller government and tax breaks for job creators. He drew comparisons to the four years before he took office, an unsubtle jab at former Gov. Charlie Crist, the Republican-turned-Democrat who may challenge Scott next year. But Crist did not trigger the recession, and Scott cannot take too much credit for the recovery. The federal stimulus helped stop the bleeding, and state economists attribute nearly half of the drop in the state's unemployment rate last year to people dropping out of the workforce. The housing market is improving, but Florida also had the highest foreclosure rate in the nation last year.
Still, the state anticipates its first surplus in six years for 2013-14. After two years of painful cuts, Scott now champions investing in public schools and higher education. He renewed his call for a $2,500 raise for each public school teacher and offered, "We don't want a war on teachers; we want a war on failure."
It is a welcome sentiment from Tallahassee after two years of dramatic changes that left teachers whipsawed and with less money in their pockets. But it will take more than a pay raise for Scott to demonstrate his conversion. A general pay raise contradicts the merit pay plan he signed that takes effect in 2014. Even if the Legislature embraces Scott's proposed $1.2 billion more for public schools, per student spending will be less than in 2007-08.
Scott highlighted his push for a $140 million exemption on sales taxes for manufacturing equipment. He reaffirmed his smart endorsement of accepting billions in federal dollars to expand Medicaid to nearly 1 million uninsured Floridians under the Affordable Care Act he long opposed — drawing cheers from Democrats and silence from Republicans. It would have been even more helpful if the governor had made a direct plea to the Republican leadership to embrace the Medicaid expansion.
An hour before Scott spoke, House Speaker Will Weatherford delivered an unnecessarily strident argument against the expansion that was at odds with his pledge to oversee a less ideologically driven House. Weatherford left himself no room for negotiation, and it will be up to the governor and Senate President Don Gaetz to help the young speaker out of the box he has created for himself.
Scott's speech failed to address the state's voting debacle or the need for ethics reform — which the Senate unanimously approved Tuesday afternoon. The governor also was silent on property insurance and on utilities collecting hundreds of millions for nuclear plants that may never be built. Applying the sales tax to all Internet sales, or the controversial "stand your ground" law? They never came up.
Swept into office by the tea party wave in 2010, Scott more recently has embraced more mainstream views, from supporting teachers and expanding early voting to accepting federal Medicaid dollars. But Scott's view of Florida on Tuesday was not nearly so expansive, as the governor focused more on establishing a positive tone than on addressing some of Florida's most pressing issues.