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Florida senator wants to end secrecy on tax incentives for businesses

TALLAHASSEE — A Republican state senator wants to end secrecy surrounding deals that use tax dollars to lure companies to Florida or that keep existing businesses from leaving.

"Once the deal is signed, all the details should be open to the public," said Nancy Detert, R-Venice, chairwoman of the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee.

The public record exemption hides details for two years, including the name of the company, for deals that use taxpayer money to create jobs. Since Gov. Rick Scott took office in January, the exemption has been used 49 times.

Some details, including the average wage for the newly created jobs, are secret for the duration for the deal. Other information, such as trade secrets, is confidential forever.

The exemption is scheduled to sunset Oct. 1. A bill (SB 7014) that would simply re-enact the law is scheduled for a hearing today in Detert's committee.

But the veteran lawmaker said in an interview Monday that she will postpone the hearing to write an amendment that ends the two-year exemption and provides the public faster access to the deals.

"Everyone comes and promises us jobs," said Detert, who owned a mortgage company for more than 20 years. "We still have close to 1 million people unemployed, so where are the jobs we gave you all this money to create?"

Florida has paid $739 million in incentives since 1995 to companies like Wal-Mart, Burger King and Coca-Cola to create 86,284 jobs. Details for other deals worth millions more remain shielded.

Most of the state's incentive contracts are performance-based, which means companies earn money as they add jobs or make capital investments. Those deals are audited annually, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity says.

Other deals give companies cash up front. At least six companies have received $23.3 million in recent years without fulfilling their jobs promise. The state is attempting to renegotiate those contracts.

A spokesman for the Department of Economic Opportunity, which oversees many of the incentive funds, declined to comment on Detert's position.

"We support the law being re-enacted," spokesman James Miller said.

Scott's jobs czar, Gray Swoope, said parts of the exemption were crucial, but declined to talk specifics during an interview Friday.

"When they're using state funds, I think companies understand that there is the accountability measure that's there," Swoope, the Enterprise Florida CEO whom Scott lured from Mississippi, said Friday. "But a lot of times in these things where they're negotiating . . . they're covered by confidentiality for various reasons.

"There's things about market share, things that they're doing that, from a competition standpoint, it would be detrimental to the company if that was released."

An open government advocate, meanwhile, applauded Detert but said the public should have some access to details before contracts are signed.

"They're trading in public assets and saying, 'Trust us,' " Florida First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen said. "We need to be able to see this information to hold the government accountable and the companies that make promises to us in return for our money accountable."

Michael C. Bender can be reached at mbender@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelCBender.

Florida senator wants to end secrecy on tax incentives for businesses 10/31/11 [Last modified: Monday, October 31, 2011 9:38pm]
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