Florida Politics

What are Florida senators doing while Rick Scott, House Republicans feud? Nothing.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott speaks during a roundtable discussion about the local economic impact of Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida in Panama City Beach, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott speaks during a roundtable discussion about the local economic impact of Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida in Panama City Beach, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017. AP

Almost three weeks have passed since open warfare erupted between Florida House Republicans and Gov. Rick Scott over job creation programs.

On Monday, Scott released a statement that accused House leaders of relying on falsehoods to dismantle Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida. Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, then announced that the House would propose a steep cut to Visit Florida that would decimate the agency.

It was the latest volley in a Republican civil war that continues to build without the one player that will decide its outcome. And as of Monday, the Florida Senate remained on the sideline.

Initially Sen. Jack Latvala blasted Corcoran’s plan to dissolve both the state’s primary economic development agency and the tourism marketing agency as the “dumbest idea” he had ever heard. But even the outspoken Clearwater Republican — and the Senate’s budget chief — has stepped aside to let the Scott-Corcoran conflict rage on.

Here’s why.

Senate leaders know the House idea is likely already dead and not worth the energy. For the House to eliminate both agencies, the Senate would need to approve. But the Senate has no companion bill filed nor does it appear that one is imminent.

Even if such a bill were close to passing, it cannot become law without going to Scott’s desk. Without a doubt, the self-proclaimed jobs governor would veto a bill he sees as a threat to his job creation efforts.

Scott has tried to pull the Senate into the fray. During a series of campaign-style stops last week around Florida blasting House members by name, Scott praised Latvala and Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, for supporting Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida. And in Panama City, Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City, stood by Scott’s side in defending both agencies.

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, is steering clear of picking a side. He told the Herald/Times that those agencies need more scrutiny like the House wants, but he isn’t ready to endorse killing both.

“There is room for improvement and for more transparency and more accountability,” Negron said. “But I think there is concern by many senators that throwing the entire programs out would be an overreaction, and that we live in the real world where we are competing with other states and other countries for job creation and for job expansions, and to unilaterally disarm from that competition could be detrimental to Florida.”

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has been a frequent critic of both agencies. But he said rather than eliminate both agencies, he wants them recast. Last week he told Enterprise Florida CEO Chris Hart that Enterprise Florida needs to trim its nearly two dozen different programs to less than 10. Brandes runs a Senate budget committee that oversees Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida.

The Senate’s measured approach stands out only because of how intense the battle between Scott and the House has become. It started three weeks ago when House members loyal to Corcoran proposed a bill to completely eliminate both Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida, which have both been under fire for questionable spending. After the bill passed its first committee, Scott went to the home district of members who voted for the bill to single them out. Then he took the unusual step to use political funds to attack many of those same Republican members in automated phone calls in their districts.

Corcoran has fired back with a video blasting the agencies. He held a closed-door pep rally in Tallahassee with House Republicans to keep them unified against Scott’s attacks.

On Monday, Scott sent letters to newspapers throughout Florida blasting House members.

“The Florida House is currently planning to take our state backward,” Scott says in his letter. “I will fight to stop them, and so should you.”

Scott has asked the Legislature to give Enterprise Florida $85 million to hand out in tax credits to lure companies to Florida. Scott has also asked for $76 million for Visit Florida — matching last year’s record expenditure.

Corcoran has called both examples of “corporate welfare” that put the state in a position of using tax dollars to pick winners and losers in the private marketplace. He argues that Florida would be better served cutting taxes and investing money in schools and infrastructure that give a broader benefit to more companies.

Herald/Times reporter Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

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