TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Rick Scott opened the annual legislative session Tuesday with a State of the State address punctuated by a vow to not sign a new budget unless it increases school spending by $1 billion next year.
"On this point, I just can't budge," Scott said in a speech delivered haltingly to a crowded House chamber and a live TV audience, with lawmakers' desks filled with commemmorative flower arrangements. "I ask you again today to send me a budget that significantly increases state funding for education. This is the single most important decision we can make today for Florida's future."
Scott last spring signed a budget that cut school spending by $1.3 billion. But in a series of meetings with parents across the state, he said they resoundingly favored more money for schools, and in an election year, an emphasis on education is likely to be well-received by voters.
He said his three most important goals as governor are to ensuring that people have jobs and a quality education and keeping the cost of living low. He called for reform to reduce fraud in Florida's no-fault car insurance system, and he spoke in personal terms of his personal work history, including running two doughnut shops.
In his speech to the Republican-dominated Legislature, Scott claimed that in the past year, the state saw 135,000 new private sector jobs and the second largest unemployment drop among states (2 percentage points). He celebrated census figures showing that Florida grew by more than 250,000 people over a 15-month period.
Dozens of Occupy the Capitol protesters chanted and waved signs in the Capitol's Rotunda, but were blocked by security personnel from sitting in the visitors' gallery.
"I'm here mostly for economic issues," said Brian Foster, 21, of Orlando, wearing jeans and a blue bandana around his neck. "A lot of our elected officials still don't believe they will take us seriously. That's kind of disheartening." He said his parents are losing their home due to foreclosure.
In the gallery, Scott singled out three Floridians: Penny Mecklenburg, whose husband John, a Hernando County sheriff's deputy, was killed in the line of duty; small business owner Rachel Waatti, owner of Nicola's Doughnuts in Tampa; and Heather Viniar, a first-year teacher in Immokalee High School, a community with a large immigrant population,
The annual lawmaking session began two months sooner than usual because it is the one time each decade when the Legislature must redraw all congressional and legislative districts to reflect population and demographic changes.
Scott spoke on a day when a new Quinnipiac University poll showed him still unpopular with a majority of Floridians. The poll showed 50 percent of the people disapprove of his job as governor and 38 percent approve. The Legislature ranked even worse in the Quinnipiac poll, with 49 percent disapproving of its performance and 33 percent approving.
Times/Herald staff writers Toluse Olorunnipa and Kathleen McGrory contributed to this report.