Governor pledging to cut $500M in taxes and fees
There were two summits that Gov. Rick Scott was involved in last week: the one he called and the one he attended.
The one he called – to consider the state's efforts to hold schools accountable and to make sure students are learning – didn't feature any policy announcements or dramatic plans. Instead, it was more of a gathering to try to get business leaders, educators and state officials on the same page.
The summit that Scott attended, though, featured the unveiling of a proposal that seemed like the latest plank in the governor's emerging re-election platform. Speaking to the kind of tea-party activists who propelled him to the Republican nomination three years ago, Scott served up tax relief and a hefty side of Charlie Crist-bashing red meat.
Scott's speech to the "Defending the American Dream Summit," held in Orlando by Americans for Prosperity, seemed to be his clearest step yet toward shoring up the conservative base he will need heading into a tough re-election campaign in 2014. His remarks included a pledge to slice $500 million in taxes and fees.
"This year, we are committed to returning even more money to the hard-working Florida families who earn it," Scott said in his prepared remarks. "I look forward to working with our friends in the Florida Legislature to make these tax cuts a reality."
Even without any specific details on what the tax cuts would be, Scott seemed to already be well on the way to winning support from "our friends." House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, quickly rallied around at least the idea of reducing taxes and fees – never a particularly hard sell in an election year.
"When you announce a tax cut, you can count on a hearty cheer from the Florida House of Representatives. ... Although we do not have the concrete numbers that the Legislature will use to write our budget next year, we are committed to funding our state priorities, which will include a significant tax cut for Floridians," Weatherford said.
As one might expect, some Democrats were less impressed, and pointed out that Scott had delivered the speech in Orlando despite playing hooky at his own education summit.
"Instead of offering new ideas for educating our children, expanding access to health care, advancing women's rights, and protecting the right to vote, he doubled down on the same failed message of big giveaways to businesses at the expense of the middle class," said Florida Democratic Party spokesman Joshua Karp.
As for the education summit, the focus was less on deciding policies for Florida's public schools and more on gathering input as state officials consider a range of issues related to the state's accountability system. Among the topics covered were teacher evaluations, school report cards and how far the state should go with the nationwide "common core" standards and an associated group of tests.
Already, there were signs of progress on school grades at least. Interim Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said the State Board of Education will debate in October whether to extend for another year a plan to keep public schools from dropping by more than a letter grade on state-issued report cards.
The state board has approved the "safety net" on the report cards for two years now, most recently in July, as public schools implement Common Core, but in both cases the board was asked late in the process of calculating grades to approve the policy.
"I think when the board voted in the summer, I think it was always the intention that they take it up again when it wasn't such a quick turnaround, but they had time to be thoughtful about it and think about it and do it early," Stewart said.
The board voted 4-to-3 for the policy this summer, with some members criticizing it as a move to water down the system.