Future Foggy for Enterprise Florida

May 15, 2016 by

The biggest story of Florida’s 2016 legislative session was Gov. Rick Scott’s failure to get passage of his top priority—a $250 million pot of money to lure businesses to the state to boost Florida’s job numbers and to reach the 1.7 million jobs Scott promised in his first campaign.

There are many fascinating facets to this defeat.

The Legislature, controlled by Republicans, denied the Republican governor his top funding issue.

The incoming Florida House speaker, Richard Corcoran, who has been a close ally of Scott’s during and before his time in the House, was the major force in zero-funding his quarter-billion-dollar incentive pot, calling it corporate welfare.

Gov. Scott, in his sixth year, still hasn’t developed a good working relationship with the Legislature or a strategy for pushing through his top priorities using the power bestowed on the office.

Enterprise Florida (EFI), the public-private partnership started 20 years ago by Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, was celebrating what it perceived to be a few high-profile victories in luring businesses to Florida, including the Hertz Corp. and the Navy Federal Credit Union.

The state had a sizeable increase in projected revenue over last year when Scott received about half of the $85 million he requested for EFI’s Quick Closing Action Fund. This year he received none of the $250 million requested.

EFI’s 64-member board—appointed by Scott and comprised of heads of major corporations—reached out to legislators for the funding along with the Florida Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, to no avail.

One conservative group led the opposition to using taxpayer dollars for EFI’s closing fund. The group—Americans for Prosperity—is often linked to the tea party and is thought to be funded by the billionaire Koch brothers. AFP aggressively campaigned against government waste and what it called “corporate giveaways.” Many House Republicans heeded its call.

The state Senate—often on the outs with Gov. Scott—was willing to partially fund his request but the House—more often his ally—refused any funding.

Scott blamed the Legislature for killing Enterprise Florida by not pouring money into its recruitment fund and he warned that thousands of potential jobs would be lost. But where was the action?

For a guy who based his entire campaign on creating jobs, who branded himself the “Jobs Governor” and who answers every question regardless of the topic with “jobs,” he really didn’t put up a fight.

As governor, Scott has the power to veto bills, line items in the budget or the entire budget. He also has the ability to call the Legislature back for a special session. But, on this—his top priority—he did nothing.

Prior to session, Scott embarked on a bus tour and ran TV ads to sell his $250 million taxpayer-funded job recruitment tool and his plan for $1 billion in tax cuts—mostly for businesses. Scott funded this campaign with money raised by his political committee, Let’s Get to Work.

Was it more about campaigning for it than really getting it?

To be clear, Enterprise Florida still exists. Influential people still serve on its board. The Legislature funded the agency for the coming year with $23.5 million for operations and most of its other programs.

After the Legislature denied Scott’s $250 million in incentive funding, the dominoes started to fall. The agency’s CEO, Bill Johnson, abruptly resigned his $265,000 position. Gov. Scott asked for staff and agency cuts. He also called for a financial review and audit of EFI—not a bad thing but definitely an about-face for an agency whose praises he sung.

Perhaps Scott is focusing on his next race. Is he afraid of alienating the growing number of conservatives opposed to corporate welfare?

Enterprise Florida started as a public-private partnership that was to operate with equal funding from each, but 90 percent of its funding now comes from taxpayers. The agency is based in Orlando but has offices throughout the world with 90 employees and a payroll of $9 million. Last year the EFI board gave out $900,000 in bonuses.

The EFI Board also spent $10 million on a Florida branding campaign with a new slogan—The Future Is Here.

Enterprise Florida’s future is not so clear.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at PBDockery@gmail.com.

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