Gov. Rick Scott touted Florida's improving economy in a State of the State speech Tuesday that drew a contrast between the recession years under former Gov. Charlie Crist and the jobs created during his first three years in office.
In his final speech to Florida lawmakers before hitting the campaign trail asking voters to give him a second term, Scott described the bleak economic condition the state was in when he took office in 2011 and then highlighted efforts he's made to make the state more business friendly. Without directly naming Crist, a Republican-turned-Democrat who hopes to challenge Scott in November, he placed blame on his predecessor for Florida's hard times.
"Florida was in a hole. Unemployment was above 11 percent, more than one million people in Florida were out of work. Our debt ballooned to more than $28 billion," Scott said during the 30-minute speech. "Some say these statistics were because of a global recession. They say it doesn't matter who was running our state - that anyone would just have been a victim of the times. I disagree."
The speech reflected more on Scott's accomplishments than it laid out a vision for the final year of his first term. It also introduced a new catchphrase that will likely be used in his re-election. Scott campaigned with the slogan "let's get to work" and last year proclaimed "it's working" in his State of the State speech. This year he said "Let's keep working" several times in the speech that marks the opening of the Legislature's 60-day session.
"Unlike the previous administration which lost almost 1 million jobs, we've added almost a half a million jobs in three years," Scott said. "Working together, we have made Florida not just a destination for tourists, but a destination for opportunity."
In a 30-minute address, Scott urged lawmakers to continue cutting taxes by another $500 million this year, including a rollback of vehicle registration fees that were increased under Crist and further cutting corporate income taxes.
"Working together, Florida rejected the tax, borrow and spend approach that was hurting our future," Scott said. "Now it wasn't easy getting our physical house in order, and it wasn't any fun."
He also criticized laws passed under Crist that allowed state universities to increase tuition and asked lawmakers to keep tuition from rising this year.
Scott, a former hospital chain CEO who spent $73 million of his and his wife's money to win the 2010 election, has been perceived as being out of touch with working families. He used his speech to describe his own humble beginnings, telling lawmakers that he lived in public housing and never knew his birth father. He said his adoptive father struggled to keep a job and that he remembers the heartbreak on his parents' faces when their car was repossessed.
The speech sounded more like a case for Scott's re-election rather than an outline of his session priorities.
"This was his re-election speech," said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, who said Scott can't take credit for Florida's recovery. "Our job growth is no greater than New York or California. We're in the middle of a national recovery, not a state recovery."
Senator Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, said the message of "let's keep working" doesn't work for her.
"Actually, he didn't have a lot to say. Except the same thing over and over basically," said Gibson.
Republican legislators praised Scott for his focus on tax cuts and the economy. Sen. John Thrasher, a former head of the Republican Party, said he agreed with Scott's veiled criticism of Crist during his speech. Thrasher said Crist left the state in a "horrible situation" when he left office in 2010 and he disputed the idea that the GOP-controlled Legislature should also shoulder part of the blame.
"He's the leader of the state, and he's the guy that people depend on," Thrasher said.
The ceremonial start of the session was overshadowed somewhat by loud protests coming from the same group that occupied the Capitol over the summer, demanding that legislators repeal the state's contentious "stand your ground" law.
"The House is ours," the protesters chanted at one point as they jumped up and down in the rotunda that separates the House and Senate.