TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In his last State of the State speech, Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday asked lawmakers to make it harder to pass future tax increases by requiring a “supermajority” vote by the Legislature.
“This is my last session to cut taxes,” Scott told House and Senate members on the opening day of the 2018 legislative session. “And we must acknowledge that, unfortunately, at some point, there will be politicians sitting in this chamber who are not as fiscally responsible as we are today.”
Scott wants lawmakers to back a constitutional amendment, which if approved by voters in the fall, would require two-thirds votes by the Legislature to pass tax increases. The Republican-led Legislature can now pass a tax increase by a majority vote, with the last increase being a $1 hike in 2009 on the tax on packs of cigarettes.
In his 35-minute speech to lawmakers, Scott discounted arguments that adopting a higher voting requirement on tax increases would hamper future state leaders in dealing with financial challenges.
“It is during times of economic downturn where this proposal is needed the most,” Scott said. “It will force leaders to contemplate living within their means rather than taking the easy way out and just sticking it to the public by raising taxes on families and job creators.”
The House is already advancing a constitutional amendment (HJR 7001) to require two-thirds votes before raising taxes or fees. The Florida Constitution Revision Commission, which has the power to place issues on the 2018 ballot, is also considering a similar measure (Proposal 72).
Facing term limits as he approaches eight years in office, Scott said more than $7 billion in cumulative tax cuts have occurred since he became governor in January 2011.
But in his final legislative agenda, Scott is backing a modest tax-cutting plan in addition to the constitutional proposal. Scott wants to expand sales-tax holidays for Floridians when they buy school and hurricane supplies, and he wants to cut some motor-vehicle fees, including reducing the renewal fee for drivers’ licenses from $48 to $20.
Coming to Tallahassee as a political novice and facing a state budget undermined by the recession, the former health-care executive called his two-term governorship his “most rewarding job.”
“There were the naysayers who told us there was no way that a businessman with no experience in politics or government could possibly be successful at helping turn Florida’s economy around,” Scott said. “Fortunately for all of us, the naysayers were wrong.”
In addition to the tax cuts, Scott used his final State of the State address to mark progress in recovering from the recession. That includes a state unemployment rate of 3.6 percent, which is below the national average.
“The results speak for themselves,” Scott said. “Working together, we’ve created an environment where our private sector has added nearly 1.5 million jobs.”
Scott noted that his father was a truck driver, and putting more money in his pocket would have meant a lot.
"Our GDP has grown 26 percent, home values have skyrocketed, we’ve decreased state debt by $9 billion, and our unemployment rate has dropped from over 10 percent when I took office to a more than 10-year low of 3.6 percent," Scott told lawmakers.
Scott acknowledged the challenge last year of Hurricane Irma, a “mammoth storm” that engulfed nearly the entire state.
“It was like a scene from a bad movie,” he said.
But Scott also said the “response and solidarity” of Floridians in dealing with the storm provided “one of the proudest moments I have had as governor.”
Scott also highlighted the state’s efforts to help residents who have fled Puerto Rico after it was hit by Hurricane Maria, saying he wanted Florida to be “the most welcoming place for people displaced by the storm.”
Lawmakers will have to deal with the financial impacts from both hurricanes as they shape the next state budget, taking into account emergency spending related to Irma and the influx of Puerto Ricans, including more than 11,000 students who have enrolled in Florida public schools.
Scott said little in his speech about his previously announced effort to increase public school funding by $200 per student in the new budget. The $770 million increase is funded largely by an increase in property tax values. But House leaders oppose such an idea, characterizing it as a tax increase.
On other high-profile issues, Scott pointed to his $53 million initiative to address the opioid crisis and his proposal to increase pay for state law enforcement officers by $30 million.
Also, with sexual harassment scandals rocking the nation and Tallahassee, including the resignation of prominent state Sen. Jack Latvala, Scott outlined steps his office has taken to help victims.
He called on lawmakers to pass legislation to protect state employees who may have witnessed harassment, encouraging them to participate in investigations.
“Things have got to change, and it starts right here in this building,” Scott said. “We all must join together and send a very strong message: Florida stands with victims.”
Scott also used his speech to provide some clues to his future, taking time to highlight Florida’s global role and to condemn the authoritarian regime of Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro.
“Make no mistake, Maduro and his gang of thugs pose a problem for the entire world, especially for us here in Florida,” Scott said.
Foreign affairs could play a role if Scott, a Republican, decides to challenge U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat, later this year.
Northeast Florida lawmakers hopeful as session begins
Between the House and the Senate, there are about a dozen people elected to represent Northeast Florida.
As the 60-day legislative session begins, News4Jax spoke with many of them about their efforts in the Capitol.
The ceremonies in the House and Senate gave way to the joint session and Scott’s speech. That led to just a little reflection and a lot of hope for lawmakers such as Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Nassau County, who's starting his second full year in state government.
Byrd said he has more confidence and less nervousness now that he's no longer navigating the process for the first time.
"Last year, you know, it's deer in the headlights and then it's, this year, much more confidence in the process," Byrd said. "(We've) heard so many great success stories from the speaker and the governor, and Floridians should be very proud of their state government. I think we're leading the nation and we have a lot of work to do this year, but (I'm) very excited about what's ahead."
"We've got a lot of different policy ideas in front of us and we're here to work," said Rep. Jason Fischer, R-Jacksonville. "That should be the focus is the work we've come to do here for the people."
Rep. Clay Yarborough, R-Jacksonville, echoed those thoughts, saying they have important issues to take up in the House. He also commented on the strong leadership.
"Speaker Corcoran has always been very deliberate, very thoughtful in his approach," Yarborough said. "You can definitely see where a lot of his priorities intersect with the governor's priorities, too.”
In the Senate, Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Clay County, and Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, believe the start of session is the time to be most optimistic.
"We all want to give money back to Floridians. We all want to cut taxes. We all want to balance the budget and we all want to make sure that our environment remains pristine and protected, and that we have record funding and education," Bradley said. "I think we're poised to do it."
Bean said he's most excited about the bill he filed to make supervisor of elections an elected office.
"I believe fair and open elections are the basis of any open democracy. Whoever heads that up should be accountable directly to the people," Bean said.
A huge priority for Northeast Florida lawmakers is hurricane relief money. Rep. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, told News4Jax that the governor wasn't a friend to the Northeast Florida region last year, but she hopes he will be this time.