TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Locked in a battle with Gov. Rick Scott, House Speaker Richard Corcoran on Friday got what he believes are more than symbolic votes to kill the business-recruitment agency Enterprise Florida and revamp tourism-marketer Visit Florida.
But Scott quickly returned fire by saying bipartisan House votes on two bills would harm Florida's economy and slow job creation. Questions also remain about the issues in the Senate, where companion bills have not been filed and some leaders have expressed support for business-recruitment programs and tourism spending.
Corcoran, however, downplayed those questions, as the 60-day annual legislative session finished its first week.
"We're dealing with the Legislature," Corcoran told reporters. "To say on week one that a House priority, where we believe firmly we're right on the policy, we're right on the principle, doesn't have life in the Senate, is not remotely in the ballpark of truth."
The House voted 87-28 on a proposal (HB 7005) that would abolish Enterprise Florida and a number of other economic development programs, such as the Office of Film & Entertainment and the Quick Action Closing Fund Program.
The House also voted 80-35 to approve a separate measure (HB 9) that would overhaul the structure and contract-reporting requirements of Visit Florida.
After the votes, Scott issued a release that agreed the agencies need to be more transparent, but he repeated his refrain that the House bills are "job killing legislation."
"Many politicians who voted for these bills say they are for jobs and tourism," Scott said in the statement. "But, I want to be very clear --- a vote for these bills was a vote to kill tourism and jobs in Florida."
Scott and Corcoran, R- Land O' Lakes, have butted heads for months over the future of the agencies, which the governor credits for contributing to state job growth and record increases in tourism.
In his proposed 2017-2018 budget, Scott called for sending $85 million to Enterprise Florida for business incentives and $76 million to Visit Florida. Last year, lawmakers approved $78 million for Visit Florida but rejected Scott's request for $250 million for Enterprise Florida.
Corcoran has hammered such business incentives as "corporate welfare" and "de facto socialism” and has attributed the state's tourism numbers to improvements in the economy and disposable income.
Rep. Paul Renner, a Palm Coast Republican who sponsored both bills, said many of the jobs promised in exchange for past incentives have never materialized.
"We also have a budgetary obligation, and I think the statement has been made today, by a wide margin, by Republicans and Democrats, that this is not where we should be spending other people's money," Renner said after Friday's floor session. "There are better, higher uses for that money, whether it's public safety, whether it's quality education, or infrastructure."
On the House floor, Renner said the Visit Florida bill is intended to "rein in" the agency, which has been criticized by lawmakers for deals such as a controversial $1 million contract with Miami hip-hop artist Armando Christian Perez, better known as Pitbull.
"This bill is about one thing and one thing only, it's about accountability, and whether Visit Florida is willing to submit to some level of accountability," Renner said. "We're not here … to talk about other state agencies and this government, they haven't been on the front page of the newspapers the way Visit Florida has."
In arguing against economic incentives tied to Enterprise Florida, Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said the deals go against free-market philosophy and favor large corporations that have learned to work the system.
But not every House Republican was convinced.
Rep. Jay Fant, a Jacksonville Republican who voted against both bills, said he understands the philosophy behind abolishing Enterprise Florida and supports making internal changes. But he said the positives of the economic programs outweigh the criticism.
"I fear killing this program will hurt people," Fant said. "I will not be a part of this."
The proposal to eliminate Enterprise Florida would transfer existing deals and some programs to to the state Department of Economic Opportunity.
For Visit Florida, the proposed changes would require the agency to post all contracts online; freeze agency employees' benefits at current levels and prohibit bonuses; remove public-records exemptions from marketing and research projects; and require approval from the governor for all out-of-state and international travel.
The changes also would require the Senate to confirm the governor's appointment of the agency's president and allow the Joint Legislative Budget Commission, House speaker or Senate president to reject contracts worth more than $750,000.
The Visit Florida proposal would leave the question of the agency's funding to budget negotiations between the House and Senate.
Ken Lawson, who was named president and CEO of Visit Florida in January, said the agency has already moved to become more transparent, but the House proposal "unnecessarily grows government regulation."
"This bill jeopardizes the record-breaking success of Florida's tourism industry and the 1.4 million jobs the industry supports," Lawson said in a prepared statement.
News Service of Florida