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Florida Chamber CEO calls upcoming Legislative session "our time"

Forgive Mark Wilson, head of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, if he sounds supremely confident that his probusiness agenda to "realign the way government works" will largely sail through Tallahassee this upcoming session.

After all, 80 of the 84 candidates the chamber endorsed were elected in the fall. Business interests enjoy a "veto-proof" House and Senate plus a new, business-friendly governor promoting tax cuts, public-sector job cuts, teacher pay tied to performance and a regulation freeze.

"If we don't have a good three or four years … then we've blown it," Wilson said during a legislative briefing before 50 area business leaders in Tampa on Tuesday morning. "This is our time in the business community to do what we do best."

As Florida struggles with 1.1 million jobless and an unemployment rate hovering at 12 percent, Wilson urged the group to avoid the temptation for quick fixes or seeking more stimulus dollars. Rather, he said, focus on a five- to 10-year game plan.

The state's unemployment rate will likely still be around 11 percent by year-end regardless, he said. As Florida rebuilds, it's time to transition the economy beyond its core tourism, agriculture and construction industries to set the stage for high-wage and high-growth industries.

"This is about returning Florida to the No. 1 private sector job creator in the country. We need to help our elected officials think long-term, making decisions that are so tough," he said. "By 2020 the state will have 2.5 million more people than it has now. … We need to create 1.52 million net new jobs to support that."

To spur jobs over the long term, the chamber's legislative road map calls for:

• Spreading the risk on businesses that have to shore up the state's depleted unemployment insurance trust fund. Florida has been borrowing $300 million a month from the federal government to keep unemployment benefits flowing. One option the chamber floated: having employees pay a portion of the unemployment tax now paid by employers.

• Passing an education package that includes cutting back on teacher tenure, establishing teacher pay-for-performance, expanding access to virtual schools and creating education savings accounts.

• Tightening medical malpractice suits and venue-shopping for judges.

• Making Internet retailers responsible for collecting sales taxes on Florida transactions to capture an estimated $3 billion a year in lost state revenue.

• Pushing a property insurance system overhaul that was vetoed a year ago.

In a meeting with the Times' editorial board later in the day, Wilson was hard pressed to find fault with any of Gov. Rick Scott's early moves in office — including controversial parts of the governor's proposed $66 billion budget that call for cutting per-pupil spending by 10 percent and laying off about 6,700 state workers.

Though some state legislators were sharply critical of Scott's budget, Wilson predicted that "80 percent" of the proposal will pass.

He also took a few jabs at Scott's predecessor, Republican-turned-independent Charlie Crist. For instance, he applauded Scott for making prospecting phone calls from his office "seven days a week," urging out-of-state companies and site selection firms to consider Florida.

It was the kind of thing Jeb Bush used to do regularly as governor, Wilson said, adding, "We've been missing that for four years."

During the chamber member briefing, Wilson preached the need for businesses to stick together, citing the prospect of picketing over government job cuts. The assembly at the law offices of Carlton Fields included developers, bankers, Realtors, small-business owners, consultants and a couple of representatives of WorkNet Pinellas.

"Forget the doom and gloom," Larry Cretul, a former Florida House speaker and now director of the Florida Chamber board of governors, told the group. "This is going to be a great session for the business community."

Jeff Harrington can be reached at jharrington@sptimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ jeffmharrington.

Florida Chamber CEO calls upcoming Legislative session "our time" 02/15/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 15, 2011 10:08pm]
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