TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - 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.
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."
Scott cited 24 tax cuts and the elimination of nearly 3,000 regulations since he took office as examples of how Florida has become more business friendly. He said state debt is down, and government has become more efficient under his watch.
"Four years ago people were down on Florida. High unemployment, shrinking home values - Florida was in retreat," Scott said. "Now, we are on the rise. Jobs are coming back, career opportunities are growing, home values are improving and there is simply no reason that Florida cannot be the number one state in the country to find a good job, raise a family and achieve the American dream."
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.
He also criticized laws passed under Crist that allowed state universities to increase tuition and asked lawmakers to keep tuition from rising this year.
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."
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.
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.
He said he and his wife, Ann, furnished their first home with camping equipment they received as a wedding gift, saying a cooler was their coffee table and they slept in sleeping bags on the floor.
"We're all a product of our own experiences in life. I've seen what happens to families who struggle for a job. I've had Christmas without presents. I don't want anybody in our state to ever feel stuck in those situations," Scott said to extended applause. "I didn't start caring about jobs when I ran a company. I started caring about jobs when I watched my father lose his."
In closing, Scott said, "I am asking you to join with me today to say to all the people of Florida, 'We have more work left to do, so let's keep working.