Florida Gov. Rick Scott, heading into what could be a tough re-election fight, is using his appearance before a conservative group to bash a potential rival while also calling for large tax cuts in the coming year.
Scott is speaking Friday to Americans for Prosperity in Orlando. A transcript of his prepared remarks given to The Associated Press before his speech shows that he will advocate cutting $500 million in taxes and fees next year.
The Republican governor will maintain that if Florida has a budget surplus in 2014, it should use some of the extra revenue to cut taxes.
"It's your money, not the government's," Scott's transcript says. "Working with the Florida Legislature, we have cut taxes year after year, even while forcing government to live within its means. This year, we are committed to returning even more money to the hard-working Florida families who earn it. "
Scott will also use the speech to directly criticize former Gov. Charlie Crist. Crist, who became a Democrat last year, is expected to challenge Scott in the governor's race.
The governor, echoing the same type of criticism leveled at Crist by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, will lash into Crist for backing the federal stimulus signed into law by President Barack Obama. Scott even plans to invoke the now-infamous hug that Crist gave Obama during a Florida stop to promote the stimulus.
"My predecessor had made a name for himself by hugging president Obama's non-stop spending — and even hugging the President," Scott's transcript says. "When asked about taking all the stimulus, he said he needed the money. As a result, spending and debt increased at an alarming rate. ... Florida was in a hole — and for about four years — the state just kept digging."
Scott, during his remarks, does not note that he signed into law budgets that also relied on money tied to the federal stimulus.
Crist, in an emailed response, continued to stand by his decision to support the stimulus, saying it was money that was used to help teachers, firefighters and police officers.
"I thought it was right and smart to invest in our fellow Floridians," Crist stated. "...It just made sense to want to help us get through the very tough economy."
Scott has sought tax cuts every year he has been in office, but his initial efforts encountered stiff resistance from his fellow Republicans in the Legislature. Shortly after he was inaugurated in 2011, Scott sought tax and fee cuts of $4 billion over a two-year period. But those deep tax cuts were rejected by state legislators struggling with a budget deficit.
Now Florida is expected to have as much as $2 billion extra on hand next year if the economy continues to recover as projected.
Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland and the House budget chief, has already publicly said he wants to use part of any surplus for tax cuts.
"I'm totally on board, and I'm on the team with the tax cuts," McKeel said Friday.
Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart and the Senate budget chairman, took a more cautious approach. Negron said the Legislature would give Scott's proposal "careful consideration," but he stressed he wants to keep the state's budget reserves flush in case the recovery falters.
"We don't know how the economy is going to perform," Negron said.
Scott's speech can be seen as an attempt to reconnect to the conservative base that helped propel him to victory three years ago. Scott angered some conservatives earlier this year with his decision to endorse expanding Medicaid, a key part of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
Scott will argue that his "conservative, pro-growth policies" — which include modest tax cuts and cuts in state spending during his first two years — have contributed to a drop in the unemployment rate and helped boost the economic recovery.
But Scott's proposal could also help in a potential Crist matchup. Crist was a Republican in 2009 when he signed into law a package of tax and fee hikes that the Legislature passed in order to balance the budget.
Scott does not plan in his speech to specify which taxes and fees he wants to cut.
But one possible target is to roll back automobile fees that were part of that $2.2 billion package. Negron and the Florida Senate unsuccessfully pushed to cut the fees this past year, but the House scuttled the move because it relied on ending existing tax breaks to cover the costs.
Negron said that if the Legislature determines it has enough money to cut taxes and fees, then rolling back automobile registration fees would "be at the top of my list."
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