TALLAHASSEE — Minutes after the commencement of the 2012 legislative session, Gov. Rick Scott redelivered an ultimatum on education funding, asking for a big increase without raising taxes.
His second “state of the state” speech presented on the House floor Tuesday retained most of last year’s talking points — lowering the cost of living and cutting regulations — framed in the context of job creation. Last year, his priorities included cuts to K-12 education, and some went through. Now he wants a $1 billion investment.
“On this point, I just can’t budge,” he said.
Republican leaders have been vague on how they feel about the idea of a major spending boost in education in a year when a $2 billion budget shortfall is projected. But Democrats say it isn’t fair to pit education against health care funding for the state’s low-income hospital patients. They note that the $1 billion boost actually includes $410 million to accommodate 30,567 new students in the system and to replace lost property tax revenue.
Hospitals say the cuts would force them to shift the costs onto other patients and shed staff.
Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, as chair of the Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee is one of the main gate keepers on Medicaid reform. He has not said whether he will support the $1.85 billion in Medicaid reimbursement cuts Scott recommends.
“We’ve got to look at the entire proposal,” he said, referring to pieces of the plan that have not yet been presented to the House. Regarding Scott’s rhetoric Hudson said, “I don’t think it was a threat.”
House Speaker Dean Cannon, asked whether it was possible to cut Medicaid that significantly, said it will depend in part on new state revenue estimates expected Thursday.
“It may be. We won’t know until we have the revenue estimate of how much we have to spend. That will impact it,” Cannon said. “But I’m hopeful we can protect and fund K-12 education as much as possible.”
Tuesday was the opening day of a session unlikely to see major reforms but already steeped in the politics of setting the annual state budget and redefining the state’s legislative districts. Lobbyists have arrived in droves.
The anti-lobbyists, louder and suit-less, are here, too.
As Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos delivered opening-day speeches, dozens of members of the Occupy Wall Street movement chanted in the halls of the capitol building. This time last year, the Occupy movement did not exist.
When Scott entered the House chamber to deliver his speech, their volume rose. They screamed, “pink slip, Rick Scott.” The governor slipped past them from a side hallway grinning.
“He knew that we were there,” said Ralph Wilson, 27, a protester who studies postgraduate mathematics at Florida State University. “It seemed like he was trying to get through there are quickly as possible.”
No members of the Occupy Naples group who have congregated at Cambier Park were apparently at the Capitol Tuesday. But Chris O’Brien, 61, drove 640 miles from Key West to stand with others opposed to corporate influence on government, the governor’s agenda and wealth inequality.
“I’m a mom and a grandma, and I care about the world they’re growing up in,” O’Brien said.
It’s unclear what effect the Occupy movement will have on policy or November elections, in which every legislative seat is on the ballot.
“Nobody has a monopoly on good ideas,” said Lane Wright, a spokesman for the governor. “If Occupy Wall Street protesters actually had some specific proposal, they’re welcome to submit those.”
The budget remained the prime topic yesterday following speeches by leaders of both Houses diverging over how long to wait for revenue estimates for the upcoming fiscal year. Haridopolos has suggested ending the session early and then returning later when perhaps the revenue picture has improved.
“This is all about getting the number right,” he told reporters Tuesday.
Cannon says there is no reason to rush the session and wait on a new economic forecast.
“It is my intention that this House work with our colleagues in the Senate to complete the budget during the scheduled 60 days of regular session,” he said.
Scott, meanwhile, stuck to his message in his speech and did not speak to reporters afterward.
He reaffirmed his vow to eliminate regulations and lower taxes, what he called the two main obstacles to business growth.
“Having spent decades in business and now one year in government, I’m convinced more than ever that with few exceptions the best thing government can do is to create a level playing field and then get out of the way,” he said to applause.
The Republican majority in the Legislature also cheered his reminder that Florida added 120,000 new jobs in 2011. Here, Scott left his prepared notes.
“And thank goodness, because everybody remembers I said seven steps to 700,000 jobs,” he said. “I’ll be happy when we get to 700,000.”