NAPLES — In a duo of Southwest Florida stops Wednesday, Gov. Rick Scott addressed representatives from what he called Florida’s two most recognizable industries: tourism and citrus.
“Our state is known for two things: tourism and orange juice,” he quipped. “And that’s not bad, because from the standpoint of economic development, people don’t move companies here, or they don’t start their companies here, unless they’ve come and visited first.”
At his first stop, a breakfast meeting of the Tallahassee-based Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, Scott praised the association.
“You’re leading us out of this recession,” he said. “That’s how we’re going to continue to grow our jobs in the state, is tourism is going to lead it, and that’s what you do well,”
But, mindful of his dwindling support in the state after a tense legislative session, Scott told attendees from across the state’s tourism industry what he’s done for them lately.
“Everything we’re doing is to get jobs going in the state,” he said.
Scott rattled off a list of accomplishments from the legislative session: reducing property taxes, beginning a roll-back of the state’s business tax, removing regulations deemed restrictive of businesses. All of that, he said, helped contribute to Florida’s No. 3 ranking as one of the best states for business, up from No. 6 in the list circulated by Chief Executive magazine last month.
Meanwhile, he touted the state’s reduction in unemployment, from a dismal 12 percent in December to the slightly-less dismal 10.8 percent most recently. New numbers are due out Friday, he noted, adding that he expects to have cut down even further on unemployment by the newest measures.
For their part, the attendees gathered at the Ritz in Naples gave Scott good marks.
Association President and CEO Carol Dover said Scott provided the exact message she hoped and expected to hear.
“I just want to say how appreciative we are that this governor is bringing jobs to Florida and understands the importance of tourism,” she said. “He just gets it.”
The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association is riding high, in part, on a $750,000 state allocation for a program it runs to give hospitality training to 22,000 students in 225 high schools. That money was vetoed last year by Gov. Charlie Crist, Dover noted, but Scott left it intact.
However, a record round of vetoes by Scott eliminated millions of dollars in construction and equipment funding for state colleges and universities, and K-12 education funding was reduced by the Legislature in such a way that schools across the state anticipate having to lay off teachers in spite of the demand for more because of the class size reduction amendment. Scott, asked how he squared those education reductions with the proclamation that more people want to move their families and businesses to the state, said Florida is, in fact, “the education leader in the country.”
He pointed to the elimination of teacher tenure, the implementation of merit pay that ties teacher compensation to student achievement, the expansion of charter schools and the growth of the state’s virtual school program as ways in which Florida is leading the country.
Meanwhile, Scott addressed calls resounding at the conference to cap Florida’s minimum wage, which exceeds the federal minimum wage, but is tied to increases in the consumer price index as a provision in the Florida Constitution. Scott would not go so far as to say minimum wage in the state is too high, but said Florida has to be “very careful” not to put itself at “an economic disadvantage.”
Dave Reid, owner of the chain Miller’s Ale House, said the 2011 increase in minimum wage for workers who earn gratuity has hit his bottom line hard — to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars.
“I just think that the bulk of our industry and our workers make the majority of their living on gratuity,” he said. “I think there’s a misconception about what minimum wage is, and I think there’s also a possibility it could set a low bar for a pay rate.”
The standard minimum wage in Florida is $7.31, and the minimum wage for employees who work on gratuity is $4.29. Nationally, the standards are $7.25 and $2.13 respectively.
And in case anyone thought that wasn’t the only labor issue directly weighing on members’ minds, Reid, the association’s chairman, also asked Scott about immigration reform during a brief question-and-answer session. Again, Scott was careful: “We cannot do anything that’s going to impact our business community. ... In our state we are here to grow business. We’re not here to hurt business.”
State Sen. Garrett Richter, who attended the breakfast meeting and was slated to speak at the conference later in the day, said afterward that the state needs to address immigration reform because not enough is being done at a national level — and doing it right is key to how business operates in the state.
“From 100,000 feet, a macro level, this country needs to do two things: we need to make it much, much, much easier to get into this country legally, and make it much, much, much harder to get into the country illegally.”
That includes using systems like E-verify, Richter said, but also allotting Visas to growers who need unskilled labor during the growing season in Florida.
During his appearance at the annual luncheon for Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual, the largest citrus grower’s association in Florida, Scott reiterated the need for immigration reform and mentioned a guest worker program for those who do seasonal migrant work in Florida. Scott assured those in the room he will not sign a bill that will not give citrus growers employees.
“An issue you deal with is immigration, and we want people to know if you’re here illegally, be careful,” he said. “But we don’t want to ruin the (citrus) industry.”
Along with repeating his mantra of job creation, Scott spoke on issues particular to the grower’s association, including a line-item veto which eliminated $2 million appropriated for citrus disease research. The state money would have been supplemental to the grower’s support of the Citrus Research and Development Foundation.
“As you know, there’s 3,333 lines in the budget and I went through all the lines,” he said. “It’s a matter of allocating the dollars as well as you can and picking projects where you think you’ll get the biggest return.”
The governor admitted to not completely understanding the citrus industry completely but told association members what his government will do is create an environment where the industry does well. Scott suggested the citrus industry work with Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida, both focused on bringing in businesses and tourists to the state to promote economic growth.
Scott’s visit with members of Florida Citrus Mutual was an early step in establishing a line of communication between citrus industry leaders and the governor’s office. Employing over 76,000 people a year and generating $9 billion, Andrew Meadows, director of communications with Florida Citrus Mutual, said that with Scott being the “jobs governor” and the citrus industry being one of the state’s job creators, it’s only good policy to get to know him.
“Relationships are developed over time,” Meadows said. “We certainly want to work with him and educate him on the industry.”
In other news, Scott gushed to crowds on Wednesday that his daughter is expecting her first child. He joked that he doesn’t feel old enough to be called “grandpa,” and would instead request that his first grandchild call him “governor,” because “everybody else does.”
He also acknowledged he would have to pony up on a bet to Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Scott told Perry he would send him a Key lime pie if the Dallas Mavericks beat the Miami Heat for the NBA finals, and he passed along a joke asked of him in an interview from earlier Wednesday.
He was asked, he said, whether he would declare Thursday LeBron James day, and allow all workers to leave work 12 minutes early — a nod toward the post-game analysis that Heat player LeBron James essentially threw in the towel during the final quarter, or last 12 minutes, of the final Heat-Mavericks game on Sunday.
Connect with Allie Garza at naplesnews.com/staff/allie_garza and Leslie Williams Hale at naplesnews.com/staff/leslie_hale