Rick Scott made an appeal to promote pro-business policies and vowed to fight sexual harassment during his final State of State address to the Florida Legislature as state lawmakers returned to Tallahassee to convene the 2018 legislative session on Tuesday.
Speaking to a packed chamber in the Florida House of Representatives, Scott emphasized what he saw as great strides the Sunshine State had made since he took office in 2011.
For Scott, the connection to Florida businesses is personal.
“When I was in business, I would see politicians come and go and always make promises that they would be business-friendly, cut taxes and reduce regulations,” he told lawmakers. “And usually, it was all just talk. Nothing much ever happened.”
Scott said when he stepped foot in the governor’s mansion, he vowed to be a man of action rather than a run-of-the-mill politician.
“When I ran for Governor, I promised to change the status quo and create an environment where businesses can succeed and create jobs for Florida families, and the results speak for themselves,” the governor said, pointing to a growing job market as well as an unemployment rate which has plummeted since Scott took office seven years ago.
Florida’s unemployment rate teetered around 11.5 percent in 2010 but has dropped steadily over the last eight years to 3.6 percent.
Among Scott’s “must-do” priorities: passing a constitutional amendment requiring two-thirds of the legislature’s approval to raise taxes in Florida before any tax increases become law.
If passed, the amendment wouldn’t be lifted if the state entered a financial crisis, Scott said.
“It is during times of economic downturn where this proposal is needed the most,” he argued. “It will force leaders to contemplate living within their means rather than taking the easy way out and just sticking it to the public by raising taxes on families and job creators.”
Despite Florida making progress, Scott acknowledged the state’s political system had fallen into dark times.
Scott reflected on the last few months in Florida politics, which have been tumultuous and controversial in the wake of allegations of sexual misconduct by several high-profile lawmakers like former state Sens. Jeff Clemens and Jack Latvala.
To perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault, Scott’s message was clear: Florida is no place for harassment -- and he vowed the state would stand by the often voiceless victims crying out for justice.
“No one in Florida who has been a victim of crime should feel ashamed,” Scott said. “Victims of crime or harassment deserve to have their voices heard.”
Scott also took a swipe at a state system which he said often didn’t keep the needs and desires of sexual harassment victims in mind, perhaps referencing in part to what many saw as a smear campaign against Senate staffer Rachel Perrin Rogers, who went public with her allegations Jack Latvala groped her after Latvala and his supporters -- as well as various media outlets -- alluded to her identity.
“I was stunned to learn that state employees who reported incidents of sexual harassment did not have their identities protected in many circumstances,” he said. “I want to ensure the identities of these brave individuals are protected so they feel encouraged to participate in investigations.”
To Scott, the first step to ending a lengthy problem with sexual harassment begins at the top in the Florida Legislature.
“Things have got to change, and it starts right here in this building,” he said. “The people of Florida deserve better than what they are reading about in the news.”
Florida has faced challenges over the last year, with Hurricane Irma being one of the most trying times in the state’s history -- but Floridians’ resilience and sense of community, Scott said, made all the difference in recovery efforts.
“The response and solidarity that was shown by our state was one of the proudest moments that I have had as Governor,” Scott said. “And when I was urging people to get prepared for the storm and to evacuate, so many of you were there to help raise awareness in your communities.”
Helping Puerto Rico, which was ravaged by both Irma and Hurricane Maria, is at the top of Scott’s agenda. Scott is pitching a $12 million investment in the English Language Learner Program for students displaced by Hurricane Maria.
“There is still more we can do together to help Puerto Ricans displaced by the storm,” he said.
Scott touched on a plethora of other issues, from protecting law enforcement officers to combating the state's ongoing opioid crisis.
Technically speaking, legislators don’t have to pass any bills besides the state budget. Scott’s $87.4 billion budget proposal is considered to be widely ambitious as it is $4 billion larger than his 2017 proposal and over $21 billion higher than his first budget in 2011.
Future House Speaker and House budget chair Rep. Jose Oliva has already said the House will aim to pass a budget that is less than Scott’s proposed number, though nothing is set in stone just yet.
Scott, who is rumored to be contemplating a run for U.S. Senate, will undoubtedly attempt to use his final year in office as a way to seal his legacy in the minds of lawmakers and average Floridians.
Though his time as governor is winding down, Scott said there was still much more the state could accomplish in the meantime by focusing on education, the economy and getting Floridians back to work.
“Our work is not done,” Scott said.