Scott Austerity Gets Warm Tea Party Response

By: Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida
By: Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida

EUSTIS, Fla., Feb. 7, 2011 --

Red meat political rhetoric and the buzz of campaigns normally are polar opposites to the arcania of proposed budgets.

But for the tea party movement – born out of frustration with the health care law, but also with what its followers see as rampant government spending – the first proposed spending plan put forth by the movement’s chosen son in Florida, Gov. Rick Scott, was a perfect occasion for an old-fashioned campaign style rally.

Tea partiers filled the First Baptist Church of Eustis, while the guys hawking political buttons lined the walk, as Scott released his first budget, a plan for spending roughly $66 billion next year.

Cutting $5 billion from the current year budget drew wild applause from the tea party crowd, a group that was predestined to like the proposal – and promised to put pressure on lawmakers to go along.

“I bet you we’re going to like 95 percent of it, because he’s one of us,” said tea party activist Billie Tucker before the governor released his plan. “We’re going to support the deep cuts.”

Scott got the positive reinforcement he may have been seeking by leaving skeptical Tallahassee for the roll-out.

“This is the budget you asked for,” Scott said to applause.

Monday’s budget announcement reinforced Scott’s ties to the movement that helped get him through the Republican primary and into office. Before rolling out his budget, Scott met privately with tea party members at a luncheon at the Eustis civic center. During the public session at the church, Scott reiterated his gratitude before getting into his budget numbers.

“I started running last April 9th,” Scott said after being introduced. “Winning in November was because of what you all did. Thank you very much.”

Tucker, one of the organizers of the event, told the crowd to hold lawmakers accountable for going along with Scott’s plan – giving Scott a potentially powerful ally as he goes up against legislators who have to balance the budget while still running for re-election.

Legislative leaders have been cool to the governor’s idea of corporate and property tax cuts, saying such items, though desirable in better times, are not a top priority as lawmakers try to make up a $3.6 billion budget gap for the upcoming fiscal year.

“You’re going to hold the Legislature accountable to do it,” Tucker told the enthusiastic crowd. “Don’t let them say, no this is too big, we can’t handle it. We’re not going to let them.”

The budget roll out matched his “outsider” campaign theme, and his promise to get state government away from the “special interests” of Tallahassee. Tea partiers said his choice of giving them the first look at the budget – rather than Tallahassee insiders or lamwakers - showed Scott remained unchanged by his short time in the Capitol.

“I’m jazzed he’s here,” said Norman Little, a North Lake tea party member, in regard to Scott’s austere spending plan. “I know there are going to be a lot of disappointed people, but we should have done this a long time ago.”

Among his proposals, Scott called for cutting the corporate income tax from 5.5 percent to 3 percent and would completely phase it out by 2018. The initial cut would save $1.4 billion.

He also called on lawmakers to require public employees to contribute 5 percent of their salaries to their retirement funds. Florida is one of the few states that does not require an employee contribution. The change would reduce the state’s contribution by $2.8 billion over two years.

Beyond that, Scott said he can squeeze $600 million from reviewing and renegotiating contracts and lease while trimming $400 million by shifting more Medicaid patients to managed care and $500 million by making changes to juvenile justice and state prison program.

Though calling for cuts elsewhere, Scott announced he wants lawmakers to earmark $800 million for economic development efforts largely run out of his office. As a former CEO who made his fortune in the private sector, Scott promised tea partiers he’d take good care of the money.

“I know how to get a return for the shareholders,” Scott said. “You’re the shareholders.”

Outside the church, it hawkers sold T-shirts, buttons and hats, with conservative themes like “Friends don’t let Friends Vote Democrat.”

“My son sells to both sides, “said Anna Jacobson, who travelled from Sarasota to sell souvenirs. “It’s a business after all. He doesn’t send me to the “(Democrat) events, though. He said he doesn’t want me to call him from jail.”

Not all those attending Monday’s rally agreed with Scott’s plan.

“He’s going to bring corporate income tax down to zero yet require underpaid teachers to give another 5 percent (for their pensions),” said Dana Hoffman, a retired art teacher from Spruce Creek Elementary in Port Orange. “We haven’t gotten a raise in the past several years. How are you supposed to attract good teachers?”

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