State Politics

Capitol battle is on over funding Visit Florida, Enterprise Florida and more

There were polite smiles for Gov. Rick Scott flanked by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, left, and Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, on the first day of the 2016 session, Tuesday, Jan. 12, in Tallahassee. But Corcoran, now Speaker of the House, and Scott are clashing over Corcoran’s efforts to end financial support of two of Scott’s go-to programs, Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida.
There were polite smiles for Gov. Rick Scott flanked by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, left, and Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, on the first day of the 2016 session, Tuesday, Jan. 12, in Tallahassee. But Corcoran, now Speaker of the House, and Scott are clashing over Corcoran’s efforts to end financial support of two of Scott’s go-to programs, Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida. AP

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida House are now in open warfare over two of his biggest priorities.

As the Republican governor sharpened his criticism of the Legislature for threatening to cut tourism marketing spending and job incentive programs, the Florida House retaliated Thursday by proposing a bill that would completely eliminate entire agencies charged with carrying out Scott’s goals.

The House, led by Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, rolled out a massive 172-page proposal that would abolish the state’s economic development agency, Enterprise Florida, and the state’s tourism marketing arm, Visit Florida.

But the far-reaching bill goes even further. It eliminates sales tax exemptions for filmmaking and would bar professional sports teams from using millions of dollars from future local hotel bed taxes to fund new stadium construction or renovations.

If we don’t fund these things, it will ... it can’t ... it’s not logical.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott

The bill quickly drew the ire of Scott, who was in Orlando at an Enterprise Florida board meeting and touting the state’s economy. Scott said anyone who would propose such cuts doesn’t understand how business works. He sternly warned that eliminating Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida would undercut Florida’s economy and risk future job creation. Usually hewing close to a scripted line, Scott struggled to express his frustration with the House.

“If we don’t fund these things, it will ... it can’t ... it’s not logical,” Scott told dozens of corporate executives who make up the bulk of Enterprise Florida’s membership.

READ MORE: Visit Florida fires CEO, hires Tallahassee insider

Scott later acknowledged that he takes the whole issue “personally” because of how important job creation is to him. The job incentive packages and Visit Florida have been critical to helping Florida create more than 1.2 million private sector jobs since he was elected in 2010.

Corcoran shows no sign of backing down. He has long opposed government providing tax breaks to businesses, sports teams or filmmakers. He has repeatedly called it “corporate welfare” and says there’s no evidence they work. Economic development should be more about using tax money to improve things like education and public infrastructure — factors that play a bigger role in helping companies decide where to relocate and have a broader impact on the public, he said.

It’s about what the proper role of government is.

Rep. Paul Renner, R-Jacksonville, sponsor of the bill to eliminate the programs

He’s not alone. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Paul Renner, R-Jacksonville, said the legislation is part of a bigger philosophical statement that House Republicans believe in.

“It’s about what the proper role of government is,” said Renner, adding that the state would save $200 million a year if the bill is passed and implemented. It gets its first hearing Wednesday when the House Careers & Competition Subcommittee meets.

Thursday’s actions come days after Corcoran compared the spending practices of both Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida to an insect infestation. He said that as he and other House members have dug into the spending of both agencies, it’s been akin to turning on the lights in a kitchen and seeing cockroaches everywhere.

In the last year, Scott has ordered reforms of both Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida to rein in spending. In the last year both have come under increase scrutiny for spending issues. An audit in May 2016 of Enterprise Florida showed the agency was top heavy with management, spent too much on office space and lacked internal controls to prevent financial mismanagement. That audit came after Scott announced that CEO Bill Johnson was being replaced.

Florida does not have a traditional commerce department like many other states. Florida created Enterprise Florida 20 years ago to be a quasi-governmental entity with a 64-member board of directors that runs it like a private business. About 90 percent of its operations are funded by taxpayers.

Visit Florida is coming off rough year, too, only with worse publicity. The agency was roundly criticized for hiding a $1 million contract with Miami musician Pitbull to promote Florida beaches in music videos. The agency has also spent $1.2 million to advertise with a British soccer team and is paying more than $2.8 million for a Le Mans-style car racing team.

Mr 305, aka the rapper Pitbull, is the star of ‘Sexy Beaches,’ a video for Visit Florida. But the main attraction is the sights.

Tourism groups rallied to defend Visit Florida, saying its marketing efforts are needed.

“Visit Florida helped grow the local tourism development counsels and made tourism stronger,” said Russ Kimball, general manager of the Sheraton Sand Key and vice president of the Pinellas County Tourism Development Council. “We need that state brand to get tourists to consider Florida first before we can get them into Pinellas County.”

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Enterprise Florida has been a “great partner” in helping bring jobs to the region.

“It would be terribly shortsighted on the part of the Legislature to kill this agency,” he said. “I don’t care what the Koch Brothers’ playbook is, come be a mayor for a day and see the positive impact Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida have had on our communities that you supposedly represent.”

Buckhorn referenced the role the billionaire Koch brothers’ companies have played in the backlash against corporate incentives in Florida. A spokeswoman for Koch Companies Public Sector testified last month before a Florida House committee that “Koch fully supports continued legislative efforts to end corporate welfare programs.”

Scott, however, has allies in the Legislature who can help.

Senate Appropriations Chair Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, told the Herald/Times on Thursday that killing both agencies would be “the dumbest idea I’ve heard in my time in the Florida Senate.”

Later told of Latvala’s remark, Corcoran said, “A tremendous intellectual argument on his part.”

Tampa Bay Times reporters Justin Griffin, Steve Contorno and Charlie Frago contributed to this report.

Contact Jeremy Wallace at jwallace@tampabay.com. Follow @JeremySWallace.

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