The 2015 session of the Legislature began Tuesday with two starkly different visions of Florida, as Republicans and Democrats used the opening day to mark their political territory and set contrasting priorities for the next two months.
In his fifth State of the State address to the Legislature, Republican Gov. Rick Scott described a thriving land of opportunity with low unemployment, low taxes, low state debt and a shrinking state workforce, using the term "Florida exceptionalism" to describe the state's vast potential.
Democrats defined Florida as a state with a disappearing middle class where too many people have to work two low-wage jobs to make ends meet, lack health insurance and have no access to a doctor.
Addressing a Republican-dominated Legislature, Scott pitched his goals of cutting taxes, spending more for schools and job training, and capping graduate school tuition at state universities. His remarks were repeatedly interrupted by applause as lawmakers sat at desks adorned with flower baskets that traditionally mark Day One.
"We agree on more than we disagree on," Scott said. "We want to give families back more of the money they earn, and reduce the burden of government."
Scott's brisk, 20-minute speech was also notable for what he did not talk about. He said nothing about the raging controversy over high-stakes student testing, pervasive violence that has overwhelmed the prison system and two big health care issues: an expansion of Medicaid to help the uninsured, and a loss of $1 billion in federal low-income pool money to treat poor patients at Florida hospitals.
Immediately after his speech, Scott darted down a side hallway to a waiting elevator, avoiding reporters' questions.
Democrats were quick to respond.
"We still don't hear anything about working-class families that struggle and work two jobs and don't have health care coverage," said Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa.
Senate Democratic leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, said Scott's policies favor the rich at the expense of the poor and middle class.
"The middle class has been sinking while the lifeboats sailed off with the well-off and the well-connected," Joyner said.
Scott reiterated his goal of raising school spending to $7,176 per student, the highest in state history, while cutting taxes by $500 million. But even in a year with a projected $1 billion surplus, legislative leaders are voicing doubts that Scott will be able to keep all his promises, especially with the $1 billion shortfall in low-income pool money.
"This session is particularly challenging," said Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon. "We have an aggressive agenda to cut taxes and increase education funding against the backdrop of a very uncertain resolution of a $1 billion challenge for Florida hospitals."
Some Republican lawmakers are uneasy with Scott's education budget, which relies on $400 million in higher property tax collections.
Scott repeatedly stressed education. The governor who championed a cap on college tuition in his first term wants to extend it to graduate schools.
"I want to work with you this year to pass a college affordability bill that will hold the line on graduate school tuition," Scott said. "Just like any business, we should expect education to become more affordable each year, not more expensive."
The Senate is not in synch with Scott on a grad-school cap.
"There will be a pretty strong argument made by universities that graduate school costs are different than for undergraduates," said Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.
Scott's only reference to his grueling re-election victory over Democrat Charlie Crist was a request to lawmakers to help fulfill his campaign promise on school funding.
"Let's not squander our budget surplus on special interests," Scott said. "Our budget should reflect the principles we campaigned on. … We should do exactly what we told voters we would do."
Both legislative leaders emphasized issues that Scott ignored. The Senate supports expansion of Medicaid to provide health insurance to an additional 1 million Floridians, but the House is still opposed.
"We will have a discussion about Medicaid expansion," said Gardiner, an executive at one of Orlando's largest hospitals.
House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said he and Senate leaders want more programs to help people with disabilities, and that changes to state and local pension plans are necessary to avert a financial "catastrophe."
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said he was not surprised that Scott avoided the prison crisis, which has prompted senators to call for an independent oversight board.
"I'm sure any proposals like we are advancing in the Senate, which tend to chip away the authority of the executive branch, are not going to be received with open arms by the executive," Bradley said.
Legislators observed a moment of silence in memory of Ken Plante, a former senator and long-time lobbyist who died Sunday after a three-year battle with Lou Gehrig's disease. The likable Plante, 75, represented the Orlando area from 1967 to 1978 and worked on the staff of former Gov. Jeb Bush in between two stretches as a lobbyist for Florida businesses.
The session began on the 170th anniversary of statehood. Florida became the nation's 27th state on March 3, 1845.
Times/Herald staff writers Michael Auslen and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.
Statements on Florida's tax burden and education funding are evaluated. 4A
Read Gov. Scott's speech, highlighted and annotated, at Politifact.com/florida.