State Politics

‘Frustrated’ Gov. Rick Scott blasts Legislature for short-changing job incentive programs

Gov. Rick Scott picked a new battle with his fellow Republicans on Thursday, blasting legislators for cutting his request for $85 million to attract jobs to Florida next year.

“The Legislature didn’t fully fund our tool kit. It’s pretty frustrating,” Scott told members of Enterprise Florida, the public-private group that directs economic development efforts. “We will not be able to get deals done moving forward.”

Scott wanted $85 million for incentives Florida uses to compete with other states to create jobs, the centerpiece of his agenda. The Legislature approved $43 million plus $10 million to market Florida as a premier destination for firms looking to move or expand.

Scott said Texas, a leading rival for jobs, spent $130 million for incentive programs last year.

The governor’s words brought a fierce reaction from lawmakers and seemed to ensure that bad blood between the governor and senators can only get worse with the 2016 session a few months away.

Enterprise Florida’s bottom line is a point of contention with senators, who are convinced that the group has much more money than it claims.

Senate spreadsheets show Enterprise Florida has not spent most of the tax money it has received since Scott took office in 2011.

The state’s largest incentive program, the Quick Action Closing Fund, had $113 million available on July 1 that was not set aside in escrow for previously approved projects, according to Senate Appropriations Committee documents, and the total paid out to companies last year was $9.2 million.

Enterprise Florida says the escrow money is paid as companies meet job-creation deadlines, and after accounting for all pending job deals, it actually has only $9 million on hand.

“We will run out of money,” Enterprise Florida chief executive Bill Johnson said. “If you want to play in the big leagues, you’ve got to pony up.”

Senators are still angry with Scott over his swift June vetoes of $461 million in local projects, which lawmakers say would have created thousands of jobs.

Those projects included roads, parks, sidewalks, wastewater systems, flood control and construction projects at colleges and universities.

“He has to understand that he killed all those jobs with a stroke of his veto pen,” said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth.

Enterprise Florida’s most influential critic is Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who chairs the Senate budget subcommittee for tourism and economic development.

Latvala said Scott’s administration has resisted efforts to improve state oversight of economic development programs, including requiring Senate confirmation of Enterprise Florida’s chief and putting escrow money in control of a state agency so it can produce more interest.

Those changes were in a Senate bill largely developed by staff members before Latvala became chairman, but the bill died in the 2015 regular session.

“If money for businesses is so important, why do the governor and his people fight me over getting more interest for the money they have control over?” Latvala said. “It’s a little sad.”

Latvala said he was shocked to discover that Enterprise Florida’s escrow funds draw interest at .25 percent. The money is in accounts at Wells Fargo, and Latvala noted that a Wells Fargo executive sits on Enterprise Florida’s board of directors.

Latvala, whose relationship with Scott’s office has soured in recent months, said senators want to dig deeper into Enterprise Florida’s books, including its policy of giving out big bonuses to staff members.

With the support of Scott, Enterprise Florida’s chairman, the board approved $765,000 in bonuses to 39 staffers at Thursday’s meeting in Ponte Vedra Beach, including $50,000 to Johnson, the former director of PortMiami. The group said the bonuses are paid with private funds, not tax money.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow him @stevebousquet.

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