Gov. Rick Scott, in his first State of the State address Tuesday night, finally focused on Florida issues, for once downplaying complaints about the federal government. Scott predictably pledged to create private-sector jobs by cutting taxes and government, appeasing his core constituency of tea party backers and business lobbyists.
But for a governor who won with the smallest margin in modern history after a self-financed campaign, there was little sign of acquiescence to anyone else. Scott's promise to dramatically improve education while cutting school spending by 10 percent rings hollow after four years of stagnant investment. Broad promises to cut Medicaid, unemployment compensation and regulation to make Florida more business-friendly ignore the potential human and environmental costs.
Scott continues to try to lay the blame for a lack of jobs on runaway government. But Florida, unlike the federal government, has a balanced budget requirement that prevents the Legislature from overspending. Property taxes have dropped precipitously in recent years, forcing spending cuts at state and local levels. The real issue in Florida, which has been under Republican control for 14 years, is a recession fueled by a national housing bust.
Scott is right that the state needs more jobs and that government will need to cut spending to weather this lingering recession. Florida faces a $3.6 billion deficit for 2011-12. But Scott's pledge to cut property taxes and phase out the corporate income tax, already one of the lowest in the nation, is irresponsible and would make that hole even deeper.
Notably, neither House Speaker Dean Cannon of Winter Park nor Senate President Mike Haridopolos of Merritt Island, both staunch fiscal conservatives, has embraced Scott's plan. Entering the fourth year of budget cutting, Haridopolos said Tuesday in his opening speech to the Senate: "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."
Scott claimed his plan was in response to the "1.1 million Floridians who are out of work … running out of options." But the governor wasn't interested in exploring the real pain his plan would inflict. It would shrink unemployment compensation for out-of-work Floridians, lay off 6,700 state workers, dramatically increase state employee health costs and force all members of the Florida Retirement System to contribute 5 percent of their income to their pension after four years of flat pay.
Scott urged lawmakers not to listen to the "special interests" that oppose his plan. Though apparently they should heed those pushing for his tax cuts, privatization of prisons and Medicaid, and a rollback of growth management laws.
Scott is right that the state's pension plan and employee health plans need to more closely track those found in the private sector. But the cost shifts he proposes starting in July are too steep initially.
Scott is also right that Florida needs to evaluate teachers based more on performance than seniority. But his blanket embrace of expanding private school vouchers and charter schools won't serve the vast majority of Florida children.
And the governor is right that growth management and environmental laws could be streamlined. But they shouldn't be gutted simply to make way for cheap sprawl.
Scott received a warm reception Tuesday night from the Legislature. And there's little doubt this session has the potential for radical change, as Republicans have a veto-proof majority. But lawmakers are likely to hear from constituents, be they police officers forced to pay pension costs or outraged public school parents.
Earlier Tuesday, after roughly 500 tea party adherents showed up to support Scott outside the Old Capitol, he told them: "If we're not going down the path, call us. Show up right here and complain." That should go for anybody else, too.