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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Companies that take tax incentives and run are 'prostitutes,' says Florida senator

15

November

Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, told Gov. Rick Scott's jobs czar this morning that the state should not pay companies for the "privilege" to relocate to Florida. He said the state should do a better job of "taking care of existing businesses" and that low taxes and few regulations should be incentive enough to attract new job creators.

"They don't need to be paid to move here because normally when you pay a company to move here, as soon as that incentive is done they're looking for the next state that's going to put some more money on the table and they relocate again because they've already proven themselves at being prostitutes," Bennett said. "That's what they're looking for."

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Wellington Republican and chairwoman of the Senate Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Appropriations, scolded Bennett for the ribald language saying, "It's a little early in the morning for that, Senator Bennett."

Enterprise Florida CEO Gray Swoope, who Scott recruited from Mississippi, told Bennett that the state needed to be competitive with more aggressive states in the southeast.

Scott's Economic Development Department is asking for up to $230 million in cash incentives for next year. Swoope said that money was a "key piece of our competitiveness" along with programs like Visit Florida and fewer business regulations. "Those three go hand-in-hand," Swoope said. "You can't do one without the other."

Benacquisto's committee made more demands of Gov. Rick Scott's hand-picked jobs czar, asking for details about any incentive projects that have taken years to kick-start and to assemble a user-friendly website that details which companies received state tax incentives, when the contract was signed and from what fund the money was taken.

"There is worry on behalf of members of this committee and maybe the public at large that we are doing everything we can to be protective and good stewards of the taxpayer dollar and holding everyone to the contractual obligation they agreed to," Benacquisto said.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said the the state was "tying up an extraordinary amount of cash" waiting for projects to start. Gaetz noted that most deals require companies to produce a specific number of jobs within a set amount of time.

"Is there a cash issue here that we could do a better job with?" Gaetz asked.

In one instance, the state incorrectly reported that $12.5 million had been paid to the St. Petersburg-based Jabil, Inc. without creating the required jobs. That money is in an escrow account and Swoope said the department was doing calculations by hand to summarize some data. Another $13 million for Piper Aircraft is also in escrow.

Swoope told Gaetz and the Senate committee that he would review that data.

Swoope assured the committee that the state knew which projects received tax dollars and which deals had cash sitting in escrow. But Swoope acknowledged that the state, including Scott's new Department of Economic Development, needed to better report that information after years of a "fractured" approach to economic development incentives.

The Senate committee used the department's data to show in the past three years, tax incentives have created about 6,000 out of the 40,000 jobs the state predicted. Most contracts pay out only for performance, but some of that money is unspent.

"We'll look for ways to improve upon that," Swoope said.

[Last modified: Tuesday, November 15, 2011 11:00am]

    

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