TALLAHASSEE – Florida lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott christened an election-year legislative session Tuesday with the potentially conflicting goals of cutting spending, boosting aid to classrooms, and crafting new political lines that could decide who returns to the Capitol next year.
With anti-Scott protestors crowding the Capitol halls, the Republican governor used his 34-minute State of the State speech to a joint session of the Legislature to reiterate his demand that lawmakers boost classroom spending by roughly $1 billion – after cutting $1.35 billion last year.
“Floridians truly believe that support for education is the most significant thing we can do to ensure both short-term job growth and long-term economic prosperity for our state,” Scott said. “That’s why this session I ask you to continue your commitment to education … On this point, I just can’t budge.”
Overall, the speech reflected perceptions in a Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday that found only 16 percent of Florida voters believe the economy improved last year, even though unemployment declined from 12 percent the month before Scott took office to 10 percent a year later.
Scott touted his workaday in a Tampa doughnut shop, joked that he had enjoyed taking advice from all his “media friends.” He touted last year’s tax cuts, dismantling of growth-management rules, and budget-cuts as part of the reason the state’s economy was turning around. But he acknowledged that belief wasn’t widely shared.
“When I talk to Floridians, they worry that their best opportunities are behind them, that their children may never experience the security and prosperity that they’ve known,” Scott said. “It’s clearly understandable that they would feel this doubt. … I’m here to tell you that promise and opportunity absolutely will return.
“But we have many miles to go, and clearly some of them will be painful.”
But minority-party Democrats called Scott’s second-year course correction a token gesture that would inflict pain on Medicaid recipients in order to only partially undo last session’s budget-cuts to classrooms.
“I don’t know how realistic it is,” said incoming House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Plantation. “We certainly need education because that’s how you’re going to create jobs. But I don’t think you have to do it at the expense of others.”
Scott’s budget calls for cutting $1.9 billion from the $21 billion Medicaid program that treats nearly 3 million poor, sick and elderly.
“To say we’re adding money is disingenuous,” said Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, a Weston Democrat who complained cutting health care to fund schools was a bait-and-switch. “The same people are ending up paying the cost of what he’s asking for.”
The governor’s call for education spending is one of several topics that could divide the chambers over the next two months.
House Speaker Dean Cannon used his last opening-day speech as presiding officer to throw down the gauntlet to his Senate counterpart that the Legislature should finish its budget work – dealing with a revenue shortfall estimated to be as high as $1.9 billion — within the 60-day regular session.
“Our prior insistence on fiscal discipline has paid great dividends,” the Winter Park Republican said in his remarks to the House today, as “Occupy the State” protesters were being kept at bay outside the chamber by the House Sergeants office.
“Although Florida was one of the state’s hardest hit by the national recession, we have avoided the kinds of financial crises that paralyzed governments in other states,” he added. “It is my intention that this House work with our colleagues in the Senate to complete the budget during the scheduled 60 days of regular Session.”
Cannon’s remarks were directed at Senate President Mike Haridopolos and Senate Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander, who have floated the idea of waiting until later this spring to pass a new spending plan — in the hope that the economic climate improves, the federal government approves a Medicaid privatization, and the revenue picture improves.
The quiet standoff has the potential to force extra innings because all the Senate has to do is nothing to force a later passage date for the budget.
Lawmakers are confronting a budget shortfall of between $1.2 billion and $1.9 billion, although economists are expected to revise revenue projections later this week. Delaying a final budget until later this spring would allow more time for them to determine if revenues are likely to improve in 2013.
Across the Capitol Rotunda, Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, responded that he wanted to be “thorough, accurate and measure twice before we ever cut once,” saying he wanted to empower individual senators to help decide whether to go along with the House’s timeframe.
Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said the decision would be based on getting the best information. “If we decide to wait little bit to get the best information, that could be the choice.”
Lawmakers are meeting earlier than the traditional March start of session in order to pass new legislative and congressional maps, including drawing two new congressional seats Florida was awarded thanks to population gains over the last decade.Further complicating the session, the chambers are also at odds over a proposal to authorize resort casinos in South Florida, a measure that cleared its first Senate committee Monday.
Later in the day, the Senate passed 37-2 a $1.35 million claims bill to compensate William Dillon, a former Brevard County resident who spent 27 years in prison for a murder that DNA evidence proved he never committed. Haridopolos, who saw a similar bill get caught up last year in an 11th-hour standoff with the House, had vowed that the measure would be his top priority this year.
“I firmly believe it is paramount that government step in and correct instances of injustice when we can,” Haridopolos said. “That is why I pushed for the establishment of the Innocence Commission – to ensure that justice prevails in every case.”
“I commend my fellow Senators for their unwavering support of this good bill, and I am pleased that we were able to pass this important piece of legislation on the opening day of the 2012 Legislative Session.”
Cannon also called on lawmakers to begin the process of reforming Florida’s higher-education system, saying lawmakers had “contributed to the problem by advancing parochial interests,” such as Cannon’s support for University of Central Florida appropriations.
email@example.com or 850-222-5564. firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-224-6214.