Florida lawmakers challenge governor's economic incentives

Florida lawmakers are pressing Gov. Rick Scott's job-creation team to cough up more details about the hundreds of millions of dollars in tax-incentives it awards to companies every year.

Scott's team, led by Enterprise Florida chief executive Gray Swoope, told House and Senate economic-development budget committees Wednesday that its tax incentives have helped lead to economic growth.

Relying on data that aren't publicly available yet, Swoope said Florida's tax-incentives had created 103,000 jobs since 1995, at a cost to taxpayers of $335 million.

And with a PowerPoint presentation displaying Scott's "7 years = 700,000 jobs" campaign mantra, Swoope said the governor was doing more with fewer dollars and is on pace to meet that target.

"The story is more jobs, better wages, better return, and less money going out. It's a strong story," Swoope said.

But that's been a tough sell with some skeptical lawmakers, who are pushing to get more evidence the $125 million a year given out to companies is actually creating high-wage jobs -- as opposed to funding Walmart distribution centers and Publix groceries that would be built anyway.

"There's a big difference between a job and a job that adds value to our economy," said Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate.

Senate economic development budget chief Andy Gardiner, an Orlando Republican slated to lead the chamber in 2014, is drafting a bill requiring the governor's jobs agency to provide more data on the different types of tax-credits, rebates and other corporate breaks given to companies.

"We all want the ultimate goal, but we need more information to look at," Gardiner told Swoope Wednesday. "We need more. We need a lot more."

Meanwhile, Gardiner's House counterpart, Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, said his committee would devote an entire hearing next month to Florida's use of economic incentives.

For the last year, Scott's jobs agency has labored to sell lawmakers completely on the merits of Florida's lucrative incentive programs, amid bad publicity over past performance and two high-profile bankruptcies.

The governor's Department of Economic Opportunity -- now on its third executive director in 16 months -- released data in 2011 suggesting most of the projects inked over the last 17 years had failed to produce the jobs promised when they were announced.

Last summer, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, forced DEO to go out for bids to hire an outside auditor to review its incentive awards. The agency said Wednesday it was "very close" to finalizing a contract with a CPA.

Lawmakers last year also pushed the agency to create an online portal to disclose contracts. It debuted this summer -- but a majority of the contracts awarded since 1995 aren't on it yet.

And DEO is going to court in several high-profile cases -- including Digital Domain in Port St. Lucie, a company founded by "Titanic" director James Cameron, and a software company deal in Panama City -- where the companies took more than $21 million in incentives and then declared bankruptcy, keeping the money.

"I'm looking for truth in numbers," Sen. Aubrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, told Swoope.

Scott's team argues that those are isolated problems and obscure the fact that the governor has made strides in improving the situation he inherited.

Swoope told lawmakers Wednesday that former Gov. Charlie Crist's economic-development team had been "marginal, at best" and that the state's jobs-creation agencies hadn't closely kept track of its results.

Despite that, Swoope said, of more than 100 projects where up-front cash was given to companies over the years in a program called the Quick Action Closing Fund, only three were considered "failures" -- meaning the companies made off with the money -- while 18 had refunded dollars for not meeting job goals.

But most of the projects negotiated under Scott's watch are still confidential.

Enterprise Florida says the state has signed 316 incentive deals since the governor took office, but only 18 of those are posted on its Website. The rest were exempt from public disclosure. DEO says it will have all incentive deals from 1995 through the present online by March.

Outside the House committee, Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, cornered Swoope for details about how much tax-incentive money and how many jobs were created on Scott's watch.

Swoope said while much of the individual performance data remained confidential, the governor's team had confirmed it had generated a total of about 11,000 jobs for some $35 million in investment so far.

Fasano seemed unconvinced. "They're taking credit for jobs they didn't create," Fasano said afterward.

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Copyright 2013 - Orlando Sentinel

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