Budget, tax cuts, re-election are Florida Gov. Rick Scott's 2014 priorities

10:08 AM, Mar 2, 2014   |    comments
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TALLAHASSEE, Florida -- Gov. Rick Scott, weighed down by lackluster poll numbers and a Republican Legislature intent on pursuing its own contentious reforms, appears content to keep it simple as he heads into the 2014 session.

Months before he will ask voters to re-elect him, Scott is choosing to push ahead with a limited agenda that sidesteps ongoing debates on hot-button issues such as expanding Medicaid or opening the door to casinos.

Scott's pitch to legislators this year centers primarily on tax cuts and increasing spending in key areas such as hiring more child protection workers or boosting the amount of money spent on Everglades restoration.

"My goal is 'Let's get money back into Florida families hands; let's continue to build our economy,' " Scott said.

The GOP governor wants to use a projected budget surplus to pay for nearly $600 million in tax cuts, including a rollback in auto registration fees enacted under former Gov. Charlie Crist five years ago. Crist is challenging Scott in the governor's race.

Scott also wants legislators to revive a sales tax holiday for hurricane supplies as well as expand the back-to-school sales tax holiday from its current three days to 10 days.

But Scott also has a long list of ideas for the other side of the ledger as well.

He wants to boost state spending on tourism marketing by nearly 60 percent in an effort to attract 100 million tourists next year. Scott has proposed raising public school spending by nearly 3 percent for each student, although part of the increased money relies on a rise in local property values.

Scott is backing a proposal from his child welfare agency to hire more than 400 child protection investigators to reduce caseloads for those who investigate child abuse allegations. Scott has recommended boosting spending on environmental programs, including $130 million for Everglades restoration and $55 million to help restore and improve water quality at the state's freshwater springs.

When Scott first came into office in 2011, he pushed for large spending cuts and tax cuts, while advocating proposals to drug-test welfare recipients and passage of an Arizona-styled measure on immigration.

Although the governor's moves won support from his tea party base, poll after poll in the past three years has shown a majority of Floridians don't approve of the job he's doing. The most recent poll found that a majority also don't consider him worthy of a second term.

Republican legislative leaders insist Scott is remaining consistent with his longstanding pledge to cut taxes.

"His message has been the same," House Speaker Will Weatherford said. "Tax cuts have been a hallmark of his tenure, even in times when we didn't have a lot of money. I think a half-a-billion tax cut is pretty aggressive."

Legislative leaders already have said they are willing to go along with many of Scott's top priorities, including a push by the governor to keep college tuition levels flat this year.

But Democrats view the governor's scaled-back agenda as proof that he is worried about his re-election campaign.

"Scott has become the person he ran against," said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. "He has become an actual politician."

Last year, Scott had a modest agenda as well, but on the eve of the annual legislative session he came out in favor of expanding Medicaid to draw down federal dollars available under President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. At the time he called it a "compassionate, common-sense step forward."

Scott's support, however, did not translate into action. State Senate leaders crafted a compromise that would draw down more than $50 billion in federal funds and give it to residents so they could buy private insurance. But the House did not want to take any funds tied to the Affordable Care Act.

This year, Scott has returned to some of the same stinging criticisms of the health care overhaul he has made previously.

Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Tallahassee lobbyist who was a chief of staff for one governor and helped lead one of Jeb Bush's campaigns, said it makes sense for Scott to pursue a limited agenda.

"On the policy front, the governor is betwixt and between," Stipanovich said. "He isn't in good enough shape politically to be able swing for the fences with impunity, and he isn't in bad enough shape to have to swing for the fences out of desperation."

Stipanovich added that GOP legislative leaders are cooperative, but they have "ambitions of their own" and they could thwart any major policy initiatives.

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