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Gov. Rick Scott's jobs czar defends Florida's economic incentive programs

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott's jobs czar defended the state's economic incentive programs on Friday, saying Florida would go after companies that failed to perform.

"There are good procedures in place that protect the state," said Gray Swoope, Scott's handpicked CEO of Enterprise Florida.

As the economy remains the top issue in a state with near-record unemployment, Swoope cautioned against broad judgments on incentive programs and urged that 1,622 projects since 1995 should be judged contract by contract.

But any details about projects with 62 companies, including 49 since Scott took office, are protected from public scrutiny because of public records exemptions that can last for two years. Other data, like average wages, are shielded from the public for the life of the deal.

According to new numbers released Friday, the state has paid $739 million in incentives to create 86,284 jobs since 1995.

But jobs for road projects are never verified because incentives are based instead on how much money a business spends.

Most of the state contracts withhold payments until jobs are created.

But companies can get cash up front from the Quick Action Closing Fund.

In the past 15 years, 10 companies have refunded $10.5 million to the state for failing to keep jobs promises. Burger King returned $3 million for a Miami-Dade project and Fidelity Global returned $2.3 million for an expansion in Jacksonville.

The state is also renegotiating contracts with six companies, including Jabil Circuit in St. Petersburg, that were paid $23.3 million but did not meet job goals.

Nearly all the deals were finalized before Scott took office. But lawmakers this year removed some legislative oversight of cash incentive projects and created a new agency, the Department of Economic Opportunity, to streamline job creation.

Sen. Don Gaetz, a Panhandle Republican expected to take over as Senate president next year, said companies could return state money if they aren't making good on their promises.

"If we have players out there who have not done what they said they would do, I want the money back to invest in more promising companies," Gaetz said in an interview.

Swoope said the state's 11 incentive funds all have different objectives. Some funds are meant to have immediate impact on job creation or retention. Others are supposed to create long-term impact and need decades to work, he said.

Swoope said the state gets a return on its investment even if the company only creates a fraction of the jobs it intended, because most of the contracts only pay out as companies meet certain goals. "We probably have some of the best compliance and metrics of our incentives anywhere in the country," he said.

Michael C. Bender can be reached at mbender@sptimes.com.

Gov. Rick Scott's jobs czar defends Florida's economic incentive programs 10/28/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 28, 2011 10:59pm]
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