IMMOKALEE — As part of a statewide sales pitch for his new jobs agenda, Gov. Rick Scott toured the mechanics wing of a technical school in Immokalee on Friday and repeated calls for lower taxes, streamlined business permitting and job-focused education.
Flanked by a toolbox and an excavator engine, he delivered an abbreviated version of a seven-point plan he announced Wednesday at a precision metal and plastics company in Central Florida.
“How many of you want your taxes to go up?” he said to a classroom-full of heavy equipment mechanics students, educators and reporters at the Immokalee Technical Center. “Anybody voting for a tax increase? Most people aren’t.”
Although his speech met with mute reaction and hesitant applause from the audience here, several in attendance said they were pleased with the governor’s jobs message.
“Let’s face it, not everybody’s cut out for college,” said Todd Francis, a 39-year-old North Fort Myers resident and student at iTech, as the school is known. “I did a year and a half (at Cape Cod Community College), and it just wasn’t for me.”
So he enrolled in the two-year program here, learning how to work on massive construction equipment. The program is largely subsidized by private foundations, including Caterpillar, the heavy machine manufacturer, said iTech Principal Dorin L. Oxender.
A job-centric approach to education policy is welcome at iTech, where Francis said “99 percent of us feel completely confident we’re going to have jobs when we get out.”
But Scott has not gained friends among liberal education groups and, in particular, anthropology professors, who have criticized him for using the discipline as an example of a degree taxpayers should not be funding.
Friday, Scott again brought up anthropology, but only in quiet conversation with a group of heavy equipment mechanics students.
“If we’re spending your tax dollars, I want to make sure everybody gets jobs,” he said in response to a reporter’s question. He added later, “A lot of times when you’re going through school, you don’t know where the opportunities are.”
He said he would nudge students toward degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM fields, by telling them what jobs are available and holding educators to standards.
“The STEM stuff is great for about 30 percent of the jobs we’re going to have, but we can’t forget the other 70 percent,” said Julie Sprague, board chair of the Collier County Public School District.
Some of the fields at iTech, including digital design, culinary arts and cosmetology, will not train students for the 120,000 new STEM jobs Scott says Florida will need through 2018.
“If you want to be an English major that’s great, you just have to understand what the job opportunities are,” Scott said.
Before the Immokalee stop, Scott made an impromptu visit to Ave Maria, the Ave Herald reported. He visited with schoolchildren at the Donahue Academy and met with Ave Maria University President Jim Towey.
It remains to be seen how the Republican-controlled Legislature will respond to Scott’s jobs agenda when the lawmaking session begins in January.
Some, including Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, are concerned about the governor’s call for lower business taxes, the St. Petersburg Times reported Thursday. He doubted Fortune 500 CEOs would decide “not to come to Florida because of our tax structure,” the newspaper reported Gaetz as saying.
But Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, sides with Scott, saying that taxes, regulations and the ease of acquiring permits are all concerns for businesses. He said he would consider sponsoring parts of the governor’s plan.
“I am looking forward to being a small part of the process that continues the governor’s agenda,” Richter said.
Faced with a shortfall that could be as much as $2 billion next year, cutting taxes will almost guarantee cutting spending, just as it did earlier this year, when the Legislature did both.
“We had to find efficiencies, just like every family in Florida has done, they’ve had to find out how to spend their money smarter,” he said. “This year we’ll have to do the same thing. We’ll have to tighten our belts at the state level.”
Connect with Ben Wolford at http://www.naplesnews.com/staff/ben-wolford.