In his State of the State Address on Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott took a different tone from the anti-tax, anti-spending rhetoric of his first two years in office, speaking instead of rewarding teachers with an across-the-board raise and “investing” in education.
But Scott’s overall message was that his anti-tax, anti-spending policies have succeeded in reviving the Florida economy and that conservative reforms have improved public schools.
“It’s working,” he said repeatedly during the address.
“We eliminated thousands of regulations on job creators. We paid down state debt for two years in a row,” he said. “We invested in priorities – like education. And, now our economy is on the rebound. It’s working.”
Scott pronounced two major priorities for the coming legislative session – his proposal for a $2,500 raise for teachers and eliminating the state sales tax on manufacturing equipment to stimulate the manufacturing industry.
He also defended his decision to accept the federally funded expansion of the Medicaid system, citing his own family’s financially distressed history. He talked at length about his divorced mother’s efforts to take care of her children.
“As I wrestled with this decision, I thought about my mom and her struggles to get my little brother health care with no money,” he said.
With the federal promise to pay the entire cost for three years and most of it after that, he said, “I cannot, in good conscience, deny the uninsured access to care.”
The comments drew shouts of approval from Democrats in the back benches of the state House chamber, while some Republicans in the front benches sat in stony silence.
Only Monday, a House committee voted not to go along with the expansion, and House leaders say the idea is dead.
Scott may also face opposition on the teacher raise from legislators who think raises shouldn’t be given except as a reward for good performance.
Still, he contended, conservative education reforms of the past few years have resulted in improved performance of public schools, justifying the raise.
“Some say they are afraid raises to all teachers may mean that a teacher doing a bad job gets rewarded,” he said. “But, thanks to our work, we are now in a better position than ever before to reward good teachers and move bad teachers out of the classroom.
“We don’t want a war on teachers; we want a war on failure,” he said.
Jean Clements, a special education teacher and Hillsborough County teachers’ union president, said Scott’s speech was “a very different tone from what we’ve heard over the past couple of years,” but she wasn’t convinced it means a better climate for public education.
“We’re all waiting with bated breath to see what kind of leadership he demonstrates and whether he will move the state in funding public schools in a way that makes us competitive,” she said.
A $2,500 raise, she said, is good but won’t close the $10,000 gap between Florida and national averages.
Teachers don’t stay in the profession long in Florida, “and the pathetic level of funding Florida is known for historically is one of the reasons,” she said.
Clements also disputed Scott’s contention that improved public school performance came from changes by Scott and former Gov. Jeb Bush, including basing teacher evaluations on test scores and abolition of the hiring and firing process commonly called “tenure” in Florida schools.
“Tenure,” Clements said, “was never anything but a red herring.”
Improvements in student performance, she said, resulted largely from reading and math curriculum revisions begun years ago, and increased attention under the federal No Child Left Behind program to groups of students including the financially disadvantaged and non-English speakers.
Manufacturing interests praised Scott’s proposal to end sales taxes on manufacturing equipment, which Scott’s office said produces about $114 million a year.
Scott said most states don’t impose such a tax.
Many of the state’s approximately 18,000 manufacturing businesses already get exemptions. All equipment for new businesses and expansions is exempt, as is equipment that a company can show resulted in productivity increases.
Those exemptions were helpful to 82-employee PharmaWorks of Odessa, which recently expanded, said President Peter Buczynsky. It makes machinery that produces and packs blister-packs for medications.
But Buczynsky said abolishing the tax would help more.
“There’s still a lot of supportive equipment the exemption doesn’t apply to. It’s good just to have a carrot,” he said.
Democrats, who have exulted in Scott’s low job approval numbers as his 2014 re-election battle approaches, blasted the speech, pointing out topics he didn’t mention: election reform, protection of the environment, and the state’s seemingly endless property insurance crisis.
“Gov. Rick Scott is running away from everything he campaigned on to get re-elected,” the state Democratic Party said in a news release. The party noted Scott began his political career by spending millions of his own money to oppose the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare – and now wants to participate in its Medicaid expansion provision.
The party said the speech was “nothing more than a State of Denial about your record of putting corporations and special interests ahead of middle class families – and nobody is buying it.”
In his response speech, Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, took issue with Scott’s comments on teachers, saying, “Let me remind you – you started the war.”
“We truly need leadership when it comes to insurance – we heard nothing from you today and you’ve been silent on it for many years,” Smith said.
“When it come to elections, please follow through and undo the mistakes you and the Republican Legislature did two years ago in making Florida once again the laughing stock of this nation,” he said.