Fla. gov. needs help from skeptical legislators

Published On: Feb 28 2013 10:52:04 AM EST
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, entering what could be a crucial make or break legislative session, is calling on state lawmakers to make what he's calling "smart choices."

These choices include a $2,500 across the board pay raise for teachers as well as eliminating sales taxes now charged to manufacturers when they purchase equipment.

Scott's argument in favor of his top priorities are this: He and fellow Republicans made "hard choices" when they cut state spending over the last two years. Now they can afford to use the modest economic growth that's projected to boost spending on education and hand out tax cuts to help businesses.

But Scott's major proposals - which combined could cost $600 million in the coming year - are already encountering resistance from legislative leaders wary of another downturn in the economy. The annual 60-day legislative session starts Tuesday.

The governor's decision this month to endorse a three-year expansion of Medicaid is also creating turbulence since some Republicans have criticized his turnabout on what is seen as a key part of implementing the federal health care overhaul. A battle over Medicaid could overshadow Scott's own agenda.

House Speaker Will Weatherford says he supports the idea of tax cuts and more money for education, but added that he's under no obligation to enact Scott's top priorities.

"I don't feel pressure to do any priorities for people. I feel pressure to deliver on good policy for the state," Weatherford said.

GOP legislators have rejected some of Scott's top priorities before - including his push during his first year in office for a major cut in the state's corporate income tax.

But the stakes may be much higher this time during his third legislative session. The governor is battling stagnant poll ratings as he moves closer to what could potentially be an expensive and combative re-election campaign.

A failure by Scott to win over the Legislature could damage his standing and even increase speculation that he could be confronted with a challenger in his party's primary.

That prospect doesn't seem to be swaying top legislative leaders.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, is openly questioning why teachers should get pay raises as opposed to state workers who have gone without one for six years. Scott instead has recommended a one-time bonus for state workers.

Both Gaetz and Weatherford have questioned whether giving a flat pay raise to teachers runs counter to a new merit pay system that is scheduled to take effect next year.

"We have committed ourselves to paying our more effective teachers more money," Gaetz said.

Scott insists that he still backs the merit pay plan, but he adds that teachers deserve a raise to reward them for improving student performance during tough economic times. Scott signed a budget his first year in office that cut money to public schools.

Some Democrats have labeled Scott's push to bolster school funding as election-year conversion related to rehabilitating his low approval ratings.

But Gaetz - noting that one of Scott's daughters is a teacher - said he doesn't doubt Scott's sincerity since the governor has brought up the idea in the past.

"I don't think it has anything to do with an election coming up," Gaetz said.

Scott has been equally vocal about the need for the elimination of the state's 6 percent sales tax now charged on manufacturing equipment. He says that the tax cut - which would cost more than $100 million in its first six months - is needed if the state is serious about boosting the number of manufacturing jobs.

"We should have a significant percentage of manufacturing jobs because as a manufacturer you want to be close to where you ship," Scott said. "We won't get that finished if manufacturers are at a competitive disadvantage."

While Scott has put most of his energy so far on his teacher pay raise and manufacturing tax cut, he has also asked legislators to pass a series of other measures as well.

They include:

- A freeze on university and college tuition rates for this year as well as the governor's "Finish in Four" proposal. Scott wants legislators to pass a bill that would guarantee the same tuition rate for four years to university freshmen who start school this fall.

- Increase the exemption level for the state's corporate income tax to exempt another 2,000 businesses.

-Increasing the amount of money the state spends on economic development incentives. Scott wants to increase the amount from $111 million to $278 million in the coming year.

-Changes to Florida's voting laws. Scott, who signed a law in 2011 scaling back the number of early voting days, is now in favor of allowing up to 14 days of early voting. Scott also supports setting up more early voting sites.