TALLAHASSEE -- Florida Gov. Rick Scott delivered an election-year State of the State address to the Legislature on Tuesday in which he contrasted his own “courage” in handling Florida’s improving economy with the “terrible mess” left behind by his predecessor and likely opponent, former Gov. Charlie Crist.
Setting the stage for a grueling re-election campaign that will be the most closely-watched governor’s race in the country, Scott took direct aim at Crist’s record in a speech dominated by short, punchy, declarative sentences and emotional references to his own hard-scrabble childhood, including “Christmas without any presents.”
“A lot has happened since I spoke to you last year,” Scott said in remarks prepared for delivery. “I could talk about how our unemployment rate is now down to 6.3 percent. How our crime rate is at a 42-year low. How we have invested record funding in protecting our environment. While our tourism industry is breaking records.”
Repeatedly criticizing Crist without mentioning him by name, Scott described a Florida that “was in a hole” and “in retreat” with 11 percent unemployment and $28 billion in debt in 2010. That was Crist’s last year as governor before an unsuccessful independent candidacy for U.S. Senate.
Scott criticized Crist’s decision to accept billions of dollars in federal stimulus money that drove Florida’s economy “into the ground.” Crist has said that without the stimulus money from President Barack Obama’s administration, things would have been much worse, forcing massive layoffs of teachers.
“Some say these statistics were all because of a global recession,” Scott said, quoting almost word-for-word Crist’s explanation of the bottoming out of the Florida economy. “They say it doesn’t matter who was running our state — that anyone would have been just a victim of the times. I disagree.”
Returning to the theme a short time later, Scott said: “Let’s be honest about it. We inherited a terrible mess. Growing unemployment. Dangerous levels of debt. Growing deficits and a crippling housing market.”
Scott renewed his call for $500 million in tax and fee cuts, and called on legislators to hold the line on college tuition, abolish 15 percent tuition differential hikes at select state universities and tuition hikes tied to inflation.
He avoided any mention of a major hot-button issue that’s a priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford: providing in-state tuition to college students who came to Florida as children and are undocumented immigrants. The in-state tuition issue could face an uphill fight in the Senate.
Scott made no mention of other issues that legislators will grapple with over the next 60 days, including a major expansion of school vouchers, changes to the pension fund and new sentencing laws designed to lock up fewer non-violent drug users. His speech made no mention of health care, transportation or environmental policy.
The Republican governor’s televised speech on the opening day of the annual lawmaking session, in a House chamber bedecked with flower arrangements, was also more personal than his previous efforts. It was a template for an effort to re-engineer his biographical story to better connect with Floridians and overcome his persistently low poll numbers.
The former health care executive who spent $73 million of his own fortune to get elected spoke in greater detail about what he called “my story” — his poor childhood in the Midwest and how he and his wife, Ann, as young newlyweds living in Newport, R.I., were so poor they slept in sleeping bags on the floor.
Referring to himself in the third person, Scott described living in public housing, not knowing his biological father, seeing the family car repossessed, buying a struggling doughnut shop, and learning the value of hard work from his mother, Esther, who died in 2012.
“I lost my mom over a year ago, and I wanted another chance to talk about her and how I wish she was here today,” Scott said. “The second reason for talking about my story is that I hope it explains just a little about my passion for creating jobs and opportunities for all Florida citizens. I know that reporters get tired of me constantly talking about creating jobs when they are asking other questions.
“I know that some people think I’m too singularly focused on growing Florida’s economy. Well, all I can tell you is that we are all products of our own experiences in life.”
Scott singled out five Floridians whom he described as living the American dream because of Florida’s vibrant economy.
Two were Hispanics: Ruthie Santiago, a Delray Beach elementary school teacher and cancer survivor, and Jorge Martir, who moved to Florida from Puerto Rico seven years ago and has risen to a supervisor’s job at an O’Reilly Auto Parts distribution center in Lakeland.
The governor hailed a third visitor, Freda Voltaire, who came to Miami from Haiti when she was 8, got a business degree from Florida State University and now works in the bilingual sales department at AT&T.
The speech revealed another subtle shift in Scott’s election-year strategy, reflected in internal polling that suggests many Floridians remain unconvinced of a major economic recovery.
Scott has dropped the catch-phrase “It’s working” to describe Florida’s economy, and instead uses a three-word phrase that suggests the job is not finished.
“Let’s keep working,” Scott said several times. “We have more work left to do, so let’s keep working.”