Gov. Rick Scott’s chief jobs creator faced intense criticism Tuesday from key senators who openly mocked claims by Enterprise Florida that it needs more money to lure businesses to Florida.
Senate analysts found that since 2011, when Scott became governor, the Legislature has set aside $398 million for various state economic incentive programs, but that only $38 million, or less than 10 percent, has been awarded to firms in exchange for actual jobs created. Most of the rest was not spent or sits in escrow accounts to be paid out over several years if jobs are created.
The Senate findings closely mirror a Times/Herald series in 2013 that found only a fraction of new jobs promised as a result of incentive awards actually existed.
As a result, hundreds of millions of dollars sit idle, committed to promises of future jobs that don’t yet exist.
“You’ve got money resting in a graveyard, practically,” Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, told Enterprise Florida’s chief executive, Bill Johnson. “When you’ve got that much money in the bank, we have trouble giving you another $80 million… It’s almost hilarious.”
Johnson, who oversaw the construction of PortMiami’s massive undersea tunnel project, was Scott’s hand-picked choice to run Enterprise Florida eight months ago, but he has struggled to gain credibility in a Capitol known for its cutthroat politics.
Johnson persuaded lawmakers to give Enterprise Florida $10 million for a marketing venture to build a Florida “brand,” but he also needs to rebuild the organization’s relationships within the Capitol.
Among some senators, Johnson has been a marked man since last spring when he railed against lawmakers for short-changing his organization, a public-private partnership that depends on taxpayer money.
Johnson angered legislators in May when he said if his organization can’t get more money, “Why do we exist?”
Backtracking Tuesday, Johnson told senators: “I was speaking incorrectly, or inappropriately,” and at one point referred to “the anxiety in my voice.”
The latest clash between Johnson and lawmakers is a likely preview of further discord between the governor and the Senate in 2016 over how to run incentive programs.
You’ve got money resting in a graveyard, practically.
Sen. Nancy Detert
Senators want to require incentive payments on a year-to-year or pay-as-you-go basis, making them subject to annual legislative decisions.
Scott and Enterprise Florida say that level of political uncertainty would drive firms away from Florida. They want to preserve the status quo.
The Legislature set aside less money for incentives this year than Scott wanted, and a new battle on that front is already emerging.
Prodded by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, chairman of a Senate budget panel that oversees economic development, Johnson conceded that his signature accomplishment, the Miami port tunnel, was financed on a pay-as-you-go basis, backed by the “full faith and credit” of Miami-Dade commissioners.
“All we hear is, ‘We don’t have enough money and the sky is falling,’” Latvala told Johnson.
Johnson defended the huge escrow balance ($142 million by the Senate’s count) as committed to pay incentive money to companies over as many as seven years as their jobs appear.
“That money is sacred,” Johnson testified. “That money is in a lock box ... That’s our way of telling the company, ‘Your money is guaranteed. It’s assured, once you perform.’”
Breaking away from Scott’s relentlessly upbeat jobs message, Johnson displayed graphics entitled “missed opportunities” and “projects lost” to emphasize the need for more money to dangle before employers. He said some firms chose other states, such as Texas, which offer bigger incentive packages than Florida.
“Cash is king,” Johnson told senators. “I can only deal with the amount of money I’m told I have available. Obviously, I wish it was a different number.”
Johnson also said he’s taking a fresh look at $765,000 in bonuses recently paid to some Enterprise Florida staff members. He said the organization is hobbled by excessive staff turnover because of low salaries, with 30 of 90 employees departing in the past year.
As he rushed from the Senate to a friendlier reception before a House committee, Johnson said: “I’m the new kid on the block. I’m still learning and I’m the first to admit it.”