TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Larger pools of money for tourism marketing and infrastructure improvements to help attract businesses cleared House and Senate committees Wednesday as a scheduled three-day special legislative session opened.
Lawmakers during this spring's regular session set aside $25 million for tourism-marketer Visit Florida and now propose to increase that amount to $76 million. They also propose redirecting $85 million to help draw businesses through a new “Florida Job Growth Grant Fund.”
But differences remain in the House and Senate approaches to the issues.
The House, whose leaders feuded for months with Gov. Rick Scott about economic incentives they deemed “corporate welfare,” now appear to have his backing for a economic-development proposal (HB 1A). But Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, contends that proposal offers less oversight than a Senate version (SB 2-A).
Latvala said he added project-approval measures into the Senate proposal so senators wouldn't be “stuck” with the bill worked out for the special session by the House and the governor's office.
“When this bill was given to me, there was a very strong indication that this was the way, the way the bill was given to me, which was 1A, was the way that bill needed to be passed,” Latvala said. “I just felt, especially in view of all the criticism we've taken from the people that have developed that bill, that that would be pretty hypocritical to do it that way.”
The House, which during the regular session supported eliminating the public-private Enterprise Florida and other economic-development programs, is proposing that projects up for money through the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund get recommendations from the Department of Economic Opportunity, an agency the governor oversees. The fund would help pay for infrastructure and job training.
House sponsor Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, said moving from offering incentives directly to certain businesses to providing regional infrastructure improvements and job training “will be to the benefit of everyone.”
Both the House and Senate bills say the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund money can't be given for the "exclusive benefit of any single company, corporation, or business entity."
Visit Florida President and CEO Ken Lawson supported the House bill, saying it will maintain existing tourism efforts.
“This allows us to pursue 120 million tourists,” Lawson told the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.
Cissy Proctor, executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, said the House measure would give more decision-making leeway to Scott.
“We support a program that is flexible and gives the governor the ability for us to be proactive and bring more economic development to the state,” Proctor said.
The Senate wants to let Enterprise Florida, in consultation with the Department of Transportation, jointly review and recommend infrastructure and workforce-training projects with the Department of Economic Opportunity.
Democrats in both chambers argued against the creation of the new fund.
“The House has no oversight,” Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, said. “At least this (Senate) bill, I'll acknowledge, has a process and application. But then it puts it into a process that looks like an $85 million slush fund.”
The Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee voted 6-2 in support of the Senate measure, with Rodriguez and Jacksonville Democrat Audrey Gibson opposed. The proposal goes before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday.
The House Appropriations Committee approved its proposal, preparing it to go to the full House.
Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, disagreed with Democratic members' characterizations of the House bill as providing little oversight, noting the proposal eliminates business incentives that the governor has been able to directly offer to individual companies.
“Since before (the regular) session started we've been very vocal about changing the state's approach to economic development,” Brodeur said.
Prior to the meeting, Florida Democrats labeled the economic-incentive package as a “self-serving” deal made in the “backroom.”
“It's time to stop wasting tax dollars on handouts to Scott's political allies instead of investments in quality public schools,” said Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park.
Visit Florida has been in the crosshairs of lawmakers over its $11.6 million sponsorship of a cooking show hosted by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, a $1 million contract with rapper Pitbull, and ongoing sponsorship deals with London-based Fulham Football Club and an IMSA racing team.
Both bills would require Visit Florida contracts valued at $500,000 to be posted online. Contracts over $750,000 would go before the Joint Legislative Budget Commission and could be voided within 14 days by the House speaker or Senate president.
The bills also would maintain $16 million for Enterprise Florida operations that was included a measure from the regular session.
The Senate proposal also would require the Department of Economic Opportunity to move into the State Economic Enhancement and Development Trust Fund about $107 million set aside for incentive deals in escrow accounts outside the state treasury.
Latvala said the state can draw better interest rates with the move. Also, money from the “SEED” trust fund would be used to help pay for tourism marketing, Enterprise Florida operations and the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund.