Leader departs as Enterprise Florida remains under fire

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A proposal to abolish Enterprise Florida was readied Monday to go to the House floor, as the state's business-recruitment agency suddenly found itself without a leader.

Chris Hart caught state leaders off guard when he abruptly resigned as president and CEO of Enterprise Florida, claiming differences of opinion with Gov. Rick Scott on the future of the public-private agency, which House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, wants to eliminate.

"This difference of opinion is of such a critical nature that I no longer believe I can be effective in my position," Hart wrote to Enterprise Florida Vice Chairman Stan Connally.

Hart, a former two-term state lawmaker from Tampa who took over Enterprise Florida in November after a long tenure running CareerSource Florida, did not elaborate on the differences in the letter. However, Hart noted he had yet to sign a contract with the business-recruitment agency.

Enterprise Florida representatives did not offer comment on Hart, nor did any official from the agency address the House Rules & Policy Committee on Monday. The committee approved a bill (HB 7005) to abolish Enterprise Florida and another bill (HB 9) to reform the tourism-marketer Visit Florida.

The Enterprise Florida Executive Committee has scheduled a conference call Tuesday afternoon to discuss how to proceed.

The governor's office, which has been at odds with Corcoran over the proposals for both Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida, didn't expect the resignation to alter the focus of Enterprise Florida. Scott wants lawmakers to provide $85 million to the agency for business-recruitment incentives during the upcoming fiscal year.

"It is odd that Chris Hart never shared any differences of opinion or vision with the governor until we first read that he had them in his resignation letter," Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said in a statement. "The future of EFI and its role in creating more jobs in Florida as we compete with other states is more important than one person's sudden change of opinion or position, no matter how surprising."

Scott had praised Hart in November when Enterprise Florida made the hire.

"Chris understands the incredible impact a job can have on a family and the need for EFI to make job creation the number one priority," Scott said in a release. "As president and CEO, I know Chris will immediately get to work to return EFI back to its core mission of creating jobs for our families."

Hart's decision came hours before the Rules & Policy Committee voted 15-3 to back the measure that would abolish Enterprise Florida and a number of other agencies. Corcoran has described such programs as "corporate welfare" and has fought funding for them.

The committee also voted 15-2 to approve the measure to overhaul Visit Florida.

That measure would require Visit Florida 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.

Scott has asked for $76 million for Visit Florida in the upcoming budget.

In voting against the Visit Florida bill, Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, called the changes an "overreach" and "arbitrary." He noted that Visit Florida has worked internally on measures to become more transparent, due in part to a controversial $1 million Visit Florida contract with Miami hip-hop artist Armando Christian Perez, better known as Pitbull, and ongoing sponsorship deals with London-based Fulham Football Club and an IMSA racing team.

Both bills are now ready to be voted on by the entire House during the annual legislative session that starts Tuesday. However, neither bill has a Senate version, and senators have expressed support for both agencies.

Hart was hired Nov. 30, replacing Bill Johnson who left in June following the Legislature's rejection of a Scott request for $250 million in economic-incentive money for the public-private organization.