Since January, state lawmakers have debated the future of Enterprise Florida Inc. On Monday, the outlook for the embattled program went from bad to worse.
It was the eve of Florida’s annual legislative session, and before a third House committee would vote overwhelmingly to eliminate the job-recruitment organization, its top official abruptly resigned.
Chris Hart, Enterprise Florida’s president and CEO, said in a statement that he did not “share a common vision or understanding” with Gov. Rick Scott.
Scott, a Republican, serves as Enterprise Florida’s chairman of the board of directors and is the state’s foremost proponent of using taxpayer resources to fund incentives for private businesses looking to relocate to Florida or expand within the state.
Scott wants $85 million to fund Enterprise Florida incentives this year.
Hart didn’t elaborate on his decision, but he did say that he was hired to restore the public-private partnership’s reputation and that “much of the effort would be directed at members of the Legislature.”
That hasn’t gone well.
Hart, himself a former legislator, served just two months on the job before quitting. In that time, two separate House committees voted to kill Enterprise Florida, along with 22 taxpayer-funded economic incentive programs.
Had Hart resigned on Monday afternoon instead of Monday morning, he would have presided over a third House committee that voted to eliminate his employer – this time with several Democrats in support.
“I’m happy to get rid of incentives,” said Rep. David Richardson, a Miami Democrat, at the House Rules and Policy Committee. “I think they’re unfair. They disadvantage our businesses at home because existing small businesses in the state aren’t being paid anything to stay.”
Since its inception in 1996, Enterprise Florida has awarded nearly $2 billion in incentive subsidies to private companies largely in an effort to lure out-of-state businesses to the Sunshine State.
Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, who’s sponsoring the bill to eliminate Enterprise Florida, said the taxpayer-funded incentives have gone to the “privileged few.”
“Everyone pays taxes. We don’t have a choice and we expect something back for all of us,” Renner said. “Yet these benefits go to the privileged few who know how to navigate the system.”
According to the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, a nonpartisan legislative research office, about 90 percent of Enterprise Florida’s funding has historically come from taxpayers, despite a statutory requirement that half of the public-private partnership’s funding come from private sources.
A recent OPPAGA report also stated that most of the incentive awards are going to companies with more than 1,000 employees.
Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Clearwater, blasted the organization’s practice of sending public money to large corporations that then compete with small businesses.
Referencing the lobbyists, economic development officials and chambers of commerce reps who spoke in favor of continuing the taxpayer largesse, Sprowls said he was voting against Enterprise Florida on behalf of Floridians who don’t have industry groups or paid board members representing them at the Capitol.
Rep. Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa, said he would have asked Hart what percentage of businesses with fewer than 50 employees have been receiving assistance from the quasi-state agency. According to data from the Department of Economic Opportunity, the answer is 14.5 percent since 2012.
The committee opted to split Renner’s HB 7005, into two bills — one dealing exclusively with the closure of Enterprise Florida, and another, HB 9, that would reduce funding for Visit Florida, the state’s taxpayer-funded tourism marketing corporation, by 67 percent.
Both items are part of House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s “corporate welfare” crackdown.
Committee members voted 15-3 to eliminate Enterprise Florida, and 15-2 to reduce Visit Florida’s fiscal 2018 funding from $76 million to $25 million.
Richardson has emerged as a leading voice among persuadable Democrats amid the intra-Republican party fight.
Richardson proposed an amendment to the Enterprise Florida elimination bill that would have saved the Florida Office of Film and Entertainment, an entity that in the past has doled out incentives to large production companies.
The proposal failed, but may be a sticking point ahead of a floor vote that could take place later this week.
William Patrick is a Florida reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at [email protected] and @WmPatFL.