Florida Gov. Rick Scott, heading into what could be a tough re-election fight, used a Friday appearance before a conservative group to bash a potential rival while also calling for large tax cuts in the coming year.
Scott, speaking at an Orlando summit being held by Americans for Prosperity, said he will ask legislators to cut $500 million in taxes and fees next year.
The Republican governor maintained that with a budget surplus in 2014, Florida should use some of the extra revenue to cut taxes.
"It's your money, not the government's," Scott said. "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 hard-working Floridians."
But Scott also used his speech to directly criticize former Gov. Charlie Crist even though he never mentioned his name. 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, lashed into Crist for backing the federal stimulus signed into law by President Barack Obama. Scott even referenced the now-infamous hug that Crist gave Obama during a Florida stop to promote the stimulus.
"My predecessor made a name for himself by hugging President Obama's stimulus spending — and even hugged the President," Scott said. "When he was asked the stimulus money, 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 did not note during his remarks 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."
Joshua Karp, a spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party, said Scott's remarks reflected his "misguided priorities" and that instead of focusing on education or health care that Scott "doubled down on the same failed message of big giveaways to businesses at the expense of the middle class."
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 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. House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said in a statement that the House was supportive of Scott's "bold announcement."
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.
But he earned a standing ovation when he first came on the stage and he got support from the crowd for his tax cut proposal.
Scott's tax cut 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.
The governor did not 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."