A year after taking office, Florida Gov. Rick Scott is starting to look more comfortable in his job. His State of the State address Tuesday was noticeable for his relaxed delivery, upbeat message and limited agenda that acknowledged the need for legislative cooperation, a sharp contrast to a year ago when the governor relished his role as an outsider. His demands that lawmakers find more money for public schools and address the problem of skyrocketing car insurance premiums are encouraging. But in delivering an address of such limited scope, which made no mention of the casino debate or updating the state's discriminatory sales tax policy, the governor took the safest political route, not the courageous one.
Nearly every Republican in Tallahassee is scaling back ambitions for this session. Senate President Mike Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon joined Scott on Tuesday in saying that after so much heavy lifting during the 2010 session, lawmakers this year should focus on balancing the state budget and drawing new political boundaries for legislative and congressional seats, as required every 10 years.
That may not be all bad, considering the radical changes the governor and Legislature oversaw last year, from dismantling the state's water management districts and making it harder to vote to eliminating tenure for new teachers and making it easier for property insurers to raise rates. Such policies have surely contributed to the poor approval ratings for the Legislature and Scott, an embarrassing 33 percent and 38 percent, respectively, according to a new poll by Quinnipiac University.
Scott missed several opportunities Tuesday to stand for Floridians. While he wants government to create a level playing field for business, he failed to insist that the state finally embrace an Internet sales tax plan. The outdated tax loophole that allows out-of-state Internet retailers to avoid paying sales taxes puts every Florida retailer at a competitive disadvantage, ultimately costing Florida jobs and $450 million annually in resources for public schools and other state services.
It also would have been helpful if the governor had declared he was against allowing every parimutuel in the state to acquire slot machines or was opposed to welcoming three destination casinos. Instead, Scott's continued silence on the greatest expansion of gambling ever proposed in Florida all but ensures the issue will continue to churn through the legislative session, wasting valuable time and energy that could be devoted to solving problems instead of creating new ones.
Even as the governor gave an important nod to improving the state's higher education offerings, he did not offer a plan of how that should be done or pledge to invest more money in universities that have seen significant budget cuts. That clarity belonged to Cannon, who pledged to reconsider how the state organizes its colleges and universities, refreshingly acknowledging that legislative interference has helped create a system that duplicates too many programs and lacks coordination.
Scott narrowly won election in the throes of a horrendous economy. Now the economy is slowly brightening, and so is the governor's more inclusive message as he grows into the office. While his narrow agenda this year may be politically prudent, Florida also needs a governor who will take a firm position on the most pressing issues that could forever shape its character.