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Bill Johnson out as head of Enterprise Florida; Gov. Scott orders $6 million downsizing

Bill Johnson, left, was director of PortMiami, when he was named to head Enterprise Florida in January 2015. In this photo from April 2012, he and U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Miami hold a press conference to draw attention to Customs delays at Miami International Airport due to federal budget cuts.
Bill Johnson, left, was director of PortMiami, when he was named to head Enterprise Florida in January 2015. In this photo from April 2012, he and U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Miami hold a press conference to draw attention to Customs delays at Miami International Airport due to federal budget cuts. Miami Herald file photo

Bill Johnson, Gov. Rick Scott’s top jobs recruiter, abruptly resigned Monday as president and CEO of Enterprise Florida, which faces a dramatic downsizing after the Legislature rejected its bid for $250 million to attract companies to Florida.

“It is clear that Enterprise Florida will now move in a new direction that includes organizational changes,” Johnson told his board members Monday.

Johnson came to Tallahassee after eight years managing PortMiami’s massive tunnel project, but public clashes with powerful senators last year exposed his lack of political skills. In a conference call with Enterprise Florida board members last June, Johnson called lawmakers “shameful” for not supporting Enterprise Florida more enthusiastically.

Scott directly blamed the Legislature for Enterprise Florida’s demise and told its board of directors to make $6 million in cuts to its staff and office space. The agency has 90 employees and a payroll of $9 million.

“The Florida Legislature sent a clear signal this year that they do not want to fund competitive economic development incentive programs,” Scott wrote. “Clearly, we have no choice but to refocus the efforts and mission of Enterprise Florida. ... The agency will be forced to become smaller and more streamlined.”

Scott said he has asked David Wilkins, who ran the state’s Department of Children & Families in his first term, to manage a restructuring of Enterprise Florida, including converting it to a private entity, with no public money.

Most of Enterprise Florida’s operating budget is paid by taxpayers.

Even before lawmakers rejected the $250 million fund, Scott said Enterprise Florida was “bankrupt” and that 277 separate deals and 50,000 jobs were in jeopardy of being lost.

He said Monday that the decision “will forever change the face of economic development in our state.”

Scott’s high-profile effort to win political support for the $250 million was a major failure, as fellow Republicans in the House killed the idea with some dismissing it as “corporate welfare.”

Scott issued a vague statement Monday that said Johnson “will be transitioning out of the organization” and that “the details of his departure are being finalized to allow Mr. Johnson to fulfill existing EFI commitments.”

“I was surprised,” said Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton. “I didn’t have any indication that he was going to move on.”

Johnson’s skill was salesmanship, not navigating the treacherous shoals of state politics.

“He probably wasn’t the best fit,” said Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, a member of a budget panel that oversaw Enterprise Florida.

With a lot less money to dole out to companies, what the state needs now is a business-savvy manager, Detert said.

In this year’s session, Johnson was largely absent. A deputy, Crystal Sircy, testified on Enterprise Florida’s behalf at the Capitol.

Johnson has been on the job for 15 months. He signed a two-year contract in January 2015 at a salary of $265,000 a year and held a second title as Florida’s commerce secretary.

“Bill has been laser-focused on helping us beat Texas to become the No. 1 state for job creation in the nation, and we are deeply grateful for his service to our state,” Scott said.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com. Follow @stevebousquet.

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