TALLAHASSEE -- Promised their investment would help lure 500 high-paying jobs to Florida, lawmakers in 2009 sidestepped existing procedures to funnel $20 million to a well known movie production company that animated the scenes in Titanic and the Transformers movies.
But this story’s ending isn’t one for the movies.
The company, Digital Domain Media Group Inc., closed its Florida operations last week and on Tuesday filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, laying off 300-or-so Florida employees and likely leaving taxpayers without a return on its $20 million state investment. Local governments stand to lose around an additional $110 million.
The news of the bankruptcy and the potential loss of the economic incentives underscores concerns about governments doling out taxpayer dollars to politically connected private companies with little oversight and few guarantees. From 1995 to 2011, the state has paid $739 million in incentives to create 86,284 jobs, state officials say.
“Of course, 100 percent of all new businesses are not going to be successful. In fact the majority are going to fail,” said Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, who helped pass a 2012 law to make the state’s economic incentive program more transparent. “There’s something worse than not having a job … that’s having one and losing one, and having the taxpayers chip in for that disaster.”
The failure of Digital Domain, in particular, shares some of the same traits of the failed solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra, which received $535 million in federal loans before closing its doors and filing for bankruptcy in 2011.
The Port St. Lucie animation company, created by acclaimed director James Cameron, has donated at least $70,000 to various politicians and committees.
Gov. Rick Scott this week ordered an investigation into how the company received state funding and if similar incentive deals could or should be prevented going forward.
“There are questions about the way those incentives were approved in 2009 through the governor’s office, and (Scott) wants to make sure there is now a process in place that would not allow them to be approved in the same manner,” said Melissa Sellers, a Scott spokeswoman.
At issue is the state’s practice of bypassing the traditional review process, and steering money to private companies through subtle, last-minute budget changes known as proviso.
State Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa, helped insert budget language, which then-Gov. Charlie Crist approved when he signed the spending plan into law.
Typically, the Legislature creates a generic pot of funds to be used for economic development projects — rather than identify individual recipients.
“When the Digital Domain funding was awarded, there already were processes in place to ensure a thorough review of a company’s proposal for job creation and if incentives were recommended, what would be the return on the state’s investment,” said Gray Swoope, the man who Scott selected to lead the state’s economic development organization, Enterprise Florida, in 2011.
“Unfortunately, in the case of Digital Domain incentive funding, the processes were circumvented,” he said.
Swoope pointed blame at former Gov. Charlie Crist. Crist in turn blamed the Legislature for inserting the last-minute language into the state’s massive budget.