Photo via Florida House of Representatives
A House proposal that would kill Gov. Rick Scott's prized economic-development and tourism agencies began moving forward Wednesday over Scott's growing public objections.
The House Careers & Competition Subcommittee voted 10-5 to back a 172-page proposal (PCB CCS 17-01) that would eliminate the public-private Enterprise Florida and tourism marketer Visit Florida, along with a lengthy list of tax-credit and grant programs designed to attract companies to relocate and build in the state.
The proposal, pushed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, has raised tensions in the Capitol, but it likely won't reach the Senate as is. Some supporters said they expect the bill to undergo changes if the agencies are able to quickly show they can be more transparent and focus more on small counties and small businesses.
"I do think that some of the things are going to be zeroed out, but I think at the end of the day not everything gets zeroed out," subcommittee Chairman Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello, said after voting for the proposal. "The bigger guys are going to take care of themselves. That doesn't mean throw them under the bus. It just means we need to focus those dollars where we can get the best bang for our buck."
After the vote, Scott tweeted, "Politicians in @MyFLHouse turned their back on jobs today by supporting job killing legislation."
Prior to the meeting, Scott —- amid a growing feud with Corcoran —- tweeted, "A job creates hope, a job creates opportunity for your family. LETS FIGHT FOR JOBS TODAY."
The capital letters were by the governor.
The House proposal drew criticism from business lobbyists who filed the committee room and said spending through the public-private agencies has helped improve the state's economy during the past six years.
Rep. Paul Renner, a Palm Coast Republican who is sponsoring the proposal, said money spent on incentives doesn't help small businesses or local residents, puts at a disadvantage businesses that are forced to compete with companies that get state money and reduces spending for public safety, roads, bridges and education.
"When we spend hundreds of millions of dollars on economic incentives for a few companies, we steal money from those core critical priorities that we all share an interest in," Renner said.
Renner added that Visit Florida has a growing "accountability" problem, which should force the agency to justify its existence. But for now, reports that included Visit Florida paying what had been an undisclosed $1 million to Miami hip-hop artist Pitbull offset any positives that the agency has garnered by helping the state hit record tourism numbers.
"When taxpayers sit back and see millions of dollars going to multimillion-dollar celebrities, it doesn't sit well," Renner said. "Visit Florida needs to come in and offer up what they're going to do to fix this. But at this point, because of those challenges, the House's position is they need to be eliminated."
Ken Lawson, who recently became president of Visit Florida after serving as secretary of the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation, told the subcommittee the tourism agency is moving to become more transparent in its contracts.
Enterprise Florida President Chris Hart, who also recently moved to his current job, added that the bill leaves Florida "flat-footed and forces us to compete without the resources to win."
Both expressed optimism after the meeting that the House will be open to making changes to the proposal within the next three months. The annual 60-day legislative session starts March 7.
Voting against the bill, Rep. Al Jacquet, D-Lantana, cited a "big fear" that eliminating Visit Florida will harm the service industry that relies on tourists.
Also, Rep. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican who voted against the proposal, questioned how Florida will be able to remain competitive with other states that provide business-recruitment money.
The vote came as Scott has rallied supporters of the two agencies to lobby House members against the measure and to back his budget request to provide $85 million for Enterprise Florida business incentives and $76 million for Visit Florida.
Lawmakers rejected Scott's request of $250 million for economic incentives through Enterprise Florida a year ago, but at the same time approved $78 million for Visit Florida.
On Tuesday, rancor over the House proposal spilled across the Capitol.
Scott contended after a Cabinet meeting that Corcoran —- rumored to be eyeing a gubernatorial run in 2018 —- was using the issue to further his political career.
"It's pretty clear if you don't care about people's jobs, you must be caring about something else. … The only thing this could be is politics," said Scott, who may run for U.S. Senate in two years.
Corcoran quickly responded that "we were elected to do what is right and clean up government, put an end to the waste of taxpayer money and end the culture of corruption."
Along with abolishing Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida, the House measure also would end the Office of Film & Entertainment, the Florida Small Business Development Center Network, Florida's international offices and several other programs.
Rep. Mike La Rosa, R-St. Cloud, said in voting for the proposal that many of the programs "should have been eliminated a long time ago."
Under the proposal, unallocated money from those programs would be shifted into the state's general revenue.
Existing deals between the agencies and private businesses would remain in place and, along with selected programs, be rolled into the state Department of Economic Opportunity.
Earlier Wednesday, Senate Transportation, Tourism & Economic Development Appropriations Chairman Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, expressed doubt about the Senate taking up the House measure.
"I don't think there is going to be a bill like that in the Florida Senate," Brandes said after his panel heard an overview from state economists about incentive programs.
"I think we're in an open conversation with the House," Brandes added. "Obviously, they have their own ideas … they're free to work on whatever projects they want, and we will thoughtfully consider what their proposals are."
But Brandes said he believes lawmakers should look to recast the agencies to focus on small and local businesses.
"I think focusing on small businesses is what our team of economists is telling us we should be doing that we're currently not doing," Brandes said.
Amy Baker, head of the Legislature's Office of Economic and Demographic Research, told Brandes' subcommittee that the biggest driver of economics in the state is the growing population that demands more goods.
She also offered a report indicating the majority of the state's incentive programs, including what is known as the "Quick Action Closing Fund," have fallen short of providing a positive return on investment.
But she noted that the state's benchmark for breaking even is a "lofty challenge," as each tax-incentive dollar offered must "cycle" through the state's economy 16.67 times to be considered an even return on investment.