Session starts on ‘exceptional’ note



THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE – Calling on something he termed “Florida exceptionalism,” Gov. Rick Scott used the annual State of the State address Tuesday to try to reinvigorate his legislative agenda after a difficult opening to his second term.

150306_front04During the 21-minute speech, Scott pushed lawmakers to adopt his proposals to slash taxes, hold down the cost of higher education and boost public education spending to the highest per-student level in state history.

Scott did not unveil new proposals in the speech. But the governor introduced an overarching theme to tie together his agenda. He used “dream” or some form of the word 19 times in the address.

“Florida’s long been a place where dreams come true. But this is not just our past, it’s our future. … We want more people to chase their dreams in the great state of Florida,” he said.

Changing the subject
The annual speech also gave Scott a chance to change the subject after a bruising two months that featured questions about the forced resignation of the state’s top law enforcement officer and speculation that Scott’s influence might be waning as lawmakers begin looking past the term-limited governor.

Some of Scott’s goals enjoy broad support, including his call to increase education funding. There is also agreement among the Republicans who control the Legislature on the need for further tax cuts. The amount of cuts and which taxes are slashed might differ.

Democrats critical
Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, took issue with Scott.

“Dreams are not coming true for over a million Floridians who are blocked out of affordable health care,” she said, referring to Republicans’ refusal to expand Medicaid despite Scott’s previous, tepid support for the plan. “…Dreams die when people get sick and can’t get health care. One of the top issues facing this state is providing health care for 1 million people who don’t have it, and the governor didn’t even mention it.”

Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, expressed concerned about Scott’s push for more tax cuts.

“The idea of handing those (dollars) out in tax cuts every year means that things like teacher’s salaries, more police officers, better-supported judges, better-supported public defenders and state attorneys, suffer the consequences,” Bullard said.

“We have to be about the business of protecting the revenue streams that we have and not losing sight of the good that government can do. Government should be in the business of helping and protecting people, and not be in the business of being shrunken to the point that it suffocates.”

House, Senate plans
House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner set shared priorities dubbed “Work Plan 2015” that includes cutting taxes, crafting a water policy and boosting education spending.

Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, touted the need to reform state and local government pensions. While the Senate has supported efforts to revamp local pensions, it has not gone along with past House attempts to change the Florida Retirement System. Those attempts involved moving away from traditional pensions and toward 401(k)-style plans for state workers and others, including teachers. Many people looking at their pensions seek to bolster them by releasing equity, and whilst allowing 401k plans for teachers may change who does this it is still a common option, as brokered by The Equity Release Experts and other companies.

Meanwhile, Gardiner said the Senate has an “obligation” to look at expanding healthcare coverage for low-income Floridians, particularly because the state might lose about $1 billion in federal funding.

House Republicans have refused to accept tens of billions of dollars in federal money under the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid.

Another part of the leaders’ shared agenda will be to increase educational and job opportunities for people with disabilities.

Brandon Larrabee, Margie Menzel, Jim Saunders and Jim Turner of the News Service of Florida Reporter all contributed to this report.



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