Florida college students shouldn’t be asked to step on the name of Jesus or Buddha or Mohammed or “any spiritual leader’s name,” Gov. Rick Scott said during a Monday interview with The Palm Beach Post editorial board.
Scott discussed his recent decision to get involved in the “Jesus” controversy at Florida Atlantic University during an hourlong interview in which he also said also said that boosting teacher pay and eliminating sales taxes on manufacturing equipment are higher legislative priorities for him than his nationally noted call to expand Medicaid in the state.
Scott, expected to face a tough reelection challenge from Democrats next year, didn’t explicitly talk about politics during the interview. But when asked about the legacy of former Gov. Charlie Crist — his immediate predecessor and potential 2014 rival – Scott said Florida’s economy has improved in “stark contrast” to conditions while Crist was in office.
After the editorial board interview, Scott attended the Palm Beach Strategic Forum at the Palm Beach County Convention Center, where he and Texas Gov. Rick Perry shared a stage to tout low-tax, reduced-regulation strategies for bringing business to their respective states.
Scott last month asked University System Chancellor Frank Brogan to look into the controversy surrounding an FAU exercise in which an intercultural communications instructor, following the manual for a widely used textbook, asked students to write “Jesus” on a piece of paper and step on it to demonstrate the power of words as symbols.
Student Ryan Rotela of Coral Springs objected to the exercise and raised concerns with instructor Deandre Poole after the Feb. 25 class. Poole filed an incident report with a campus security officer, saying the student made a fist and repeatedly smacked it into his other hand and said he wanted to hit Poole. FAU charged Rotela under the school’s disciplinary code with threatening the instructor and told Rotela not to attend Poole’s class.
Rotela denied making threats and contended he was targeted as retaliation because he told Poole he would go public with his complaints about the “Jesus” exercise.
FAU initially defended the exercise, then apologized for it, removed it from its curriculum and dropped the charge against Rotela. Scott’s March 26 letter to Brogan asks for “a report of the incident, how it was handled and a statement of the university’s policies to ensure this type of ‘lesson’ will not occur again.”
“I was concerned about the student,” Scott said Monday. “When something like that happens I think we ought to look at it to make sure it doesn’t happen again…From my understanding, it didn’t make any sense that he would be suspended based on what I read.”
Asked about Poole’s statement that he felt threatened by Rotela, Scott said, “I think the right thing to do is look into it and see what happened and we’ll see what the facts are.”
As to the broader question of a governor weighing in on what type of lessons should be in university classrooms, Scott said, “I don’t think that people ought to be stomping on the name Jesus.”
If students had been asked to write “Buddha” instead of “Jesus” on the paper, Scott said, “They shouldn’t be stomping on that either. Or Mohammed.”
His feeling would be the same if students had been asked to step on President Barack Obama’s name, Scott said.
“I don’t believe they ought to be stomping on people’s names like that, especially spiritual leaders,” Scott said.
Scott also spoke on a range of other topics:
• He stood by his decision in February to support an expansion of the Medicaid program under the federal Affordable Care Act. “It’s the law of the land,” Scott said. “While the federal government is going to pay 100 percent (of the expansion cost), I can’t in good conscience deny people that don’t have health care access.” But House and Senate Republicans have rejected expanding Medicaid, and at least the Senate is trying to come up with other ways to provide health care to the poor. Scott said he would wait to see whether a legislative plan meets his “parameters,” which include using federal funding.
• But he made clear expanding Medicaid is not a top priority for him in the way that a $2,500 raise for the state’s teachers and elimination of the sales tax on manufacturing equipment are. “I believe we should continue to work to get all Floridians access to high quality health care at a price they can afford. But if you ask me my two priorities for this session, it’s the teacher pay raise and the sales tax exemption,” Scott said. The sales tax provision, a $115 million budget item, has received a cool response so far from House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
• The governor said the state’s plan to spend an extra $5 million to keep Flagler Bridge open between West Palm Beach and Palm Beach during renovations was made on merits and not because of the wealth and influence of Palm Beach. “The Department of Transportation’s job is to try to alleviate and improve traffic flow and that’s what they’re doing…I try to respond to all 19.2 million people in the state,” Scott said.
• He called himself “a strong supporter of the Second Amendment” and said that putting armed guards in schools should be up to individual school districts. If the state requires armed guards, Scott said, the state should pay for it.
• Scott, whose hard-line stance on illegal immigration helped him win the 2010 GOP primary, said a path to citizenship should only be considered after the federal government figures out how to secure borders and creates an immigration policy “that doesn’t put our employers at an economic disadvantage to employers around the country and a visa program that doesn’t hurt our companies.”
• With the legislature considering bills to ban texting while driving, Scott declined to take a position on a specific piece of legislation, but said: “I worry about my family when people are driving and texting, so I’m looking forward to seeing what the legislature passes…I don’t believe people ought to be texting and driving.”
• Asked about Crist’s legacy, Scott didn’t directly answer, but said the state’s economy has improved since he took over. Former Republican Gov. Crist is now a Democrat considering a run against Scott in 2014. Scott noted that Florida’s unemployment rate went from 3.5 percent in January 2007 to 11.1 percent in December 2010, Crist’s last full month in office. The national unemployment rate climbed from 4.6 percent to 9.3 percent over the same period. Unemployment stood at 7.7 percent nationally and in Florida in February, the last month for which state and national figures are available.
“In unemployment, we’re now down to the national average,” Scott said. “Housing prices are coming back…So it’s a stark contrast. We’ve cut regulations, we’ve reduced permitting times, we’ve cut taxes and it’s worked.”