TALLAHASSEE -- In an unusually personal appeal, Florida Gov. Rick Scott spent more than a hour Tuesday directly pitching his plan for $1 billion in tax cuts to a key committee in the Florida Legislature.
Governors rarely testify in person at legislative committee meetings, and Scott has long been criticized for not reaching out to legislators enough. But on his 63rd birthday, he chose a relatively friendly forum, the House Finance & Tax Committee, to drive home how much he is ready to fight for a tax cut plan that up until now has received at best a lukewarm reception in the Legislature.
"The tax reduction package that I have proposed is basically an investment to diversify the economy, to help small and large businesses and create more jobs," Scott said.
He was emphatic his plan to eliminate corporate income taxes, which reduces taxes on commercial leases and slashes sales taxes on manufacturing equipment, is a critical step toward protecting Floridians from the boom-bust cycles the state's housing and tourism markets typically provide.
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He cited his time living in Texas in the 1980s as evidence of how important that push is. He told the committee Texas suffered wild economic swings because of its reliance on the oil industry. Texas diversified the economy by attracting corporate headquarters and building a tech industry in Austin that has balanced the state's energy economy.
"What Texas actually did is they did what we need to do," Scott said. "They diversified their economy."
Scott mostly won praise from Republican House members on the committee who patted him on the back for wanting to cut manufacturing taxes to lure companies to move to Florida.
"I think he did a great job. I think Gov. Scott really did a great job selling his bold vision of tax reform," said state Rep. Matt Gaetz, the committee chairman.
State Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, used unexpected face time with the governor to press him on how his budget plan would likely result in higher property taxes to pay for increased school funding. Rodriguez asked why Scott would propose so much in tax cuts for businesses when that money could be used to offset the shifting of tax burdens for education onto local governments.
Scott responded by emphasizing he is not proposing to increase the property tax rates. The increase would be due to rising property values, which Scott said is a positive sign for the economy.
"Home prices in our state are rising, which is a good thing, and so that's what's helped fund a lot of things we've had to do," Scott said.
When Democratic state Rep. Mark Pafford twice described Scott's business friendly tax cuts as "corporate welfare," the panel's vice chairman, state Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, silenced him for making political arguments during a question-and-answer session.
The governor rolled out his budget plan a week ago, but Tuesday was the first time legislators took it up in committee meetings.
And it wasn't just Democrats questioning the school tax shift. Later Tuesday, the House Education Budget Committee took up the same issue, where Republicans questioned whether Scott's plan actually raises property taxes, despite the governor's objection.
"In my mind, it's a tax increase if you take in more money," said state Rep. Fred Costello, R-Ormond Beach. "Why is it that we, at the state, feel that we can do the same thing and not consider it at tax increase, even though we mandate the locals call it a tax increase?"
Scott's budget director spent an hour fielding questions about the plan in the House Appropriations Committee. Cynthia Kelly listed Scott's priorities to diversify the economy, create jobs and spend more money on schools.
Most hostile criticism came from Democrats, who say Scott is boosting businesses at the expense of the poor and state workers, who for the eighth year in a row would not get an across-the-board pay raise in Scott's $79.3 billion budget proposal.
Without a cost-of-living increase, workers will lose buying power because of inflation, said state Rep. George Moraitis, R-Fort Lauderdale.
State Rep. Liz Porter, R-Lake City, pointedly noted state firefighters, whom she said live barely above the poverty level, would not get a raise lawmakers approved last session but which Scott vetoed.
Standing firm, Kelly said Scott has "strong feelings" against general raises and prefers his option of bonuses of up to $1,500 per employee.
State Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, criticized the low pay for entry-level state correctional officers, who make $10,000 a year less than their county counterparts. As a result, he said, Miami-Dade prison guards are leaving in droves for better-paying county jobs, even though in some cases they must repay the state up to $2,000 for the cost of their state training.
Democrats oppose not only the size of Scott's tax cuts but the fact they would be permanent, while mostly benefiting businesses that are a part of the Republican political base.
"They're protecting their own," Pafford said. "It's a little infuriating."
Herald/Times staff writer Kristen M. Clark contributed to this report.