Saturday, February 24, 2018
Business

Quid pro quo for jobs deals? Hard to see it

Gov. Rick Scott has made it a linchpin of his administration to create employment opportunities — or at least appear to do so.

Almost every week he's on the road announcing a corporate expansion or relocation, trumpeting the state Department of Economic Opportunity's incentive programs as one way he's recruiting corporations to Florida.

But what's the value of the tax breaks and cash incentives to the private-sector companies that receive them? At least publicly, most corporate CEOs say cash incentives and tax breaks trail other factors — the skill level of the workforce, schools, infrastructure, quality of life — when they decide to move or expand.

This insouciance may be no act. According to a Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald review of more than 300 known companies participating in the state's incentives program since Scott took office, just six were found to have contributed to his re-election campaign.

Together they've donated $177,000, which is less than 1 percent of the $36.8 million Scott had raised for his "Let's Get to Work" campaign committee through October.

Most of the money came from one company, Heritage Property and Casualty Insurance Co. of St. Petersburg. It contributed $110,000 in March. Last December, it signed a deal to create 35 jobs in exchange for $367,500 of incentives, according to state records.

But Heritage CEO Richard Widdicombe said one thing had nothing to do with the other.

It was St. Petersburg's economic development office, not Scott's office, that alerted him that incentives were available when he started Heritage in August 2012. The state merely matched what St. Petersburg and Pinellas County offered.

And Widdicombe is ready to leave those incentives behind, he says. His business has grown from three employees to 70, and Heritage is planning to move to Clearwater — which would nullify the original deal.

"It has nothing to do with Gov. Scott," he said.

Other recipient companies that gave to Scott's campaign offer similar responses.

Take telecommunications giant Verizon. In late December 2012, it negotiated to receive $6 million in tax breaks to create 750 jobs in Seminole County. Less than a year later, the company gave $30,000 to Let's Get to Work.

"This was not a quid pro quo," said Ray McConville, a Verizon spokesman. "It was almost over a year since we decided to bring jobs to Florida to when we gave the contributions. The two are completely unrelated."

Verizon, so far, hasn't created any of the jobs it promised, according to the Times and Herald analysis of state data.

Advanced Disposal Services, a waste collection company in Ponte Vedra, gave $5,000 to Scott's campaign in September. Like Verizon, the company hardly resembles a small business in need of tax breaks. The company has 2.5 million customers throughout the United States. Five months before the contribution, in April 2013, the company negotiated a deal with Florida to create 85 jobs in St. Johns County as it moved its headquarters from Duval. So far, zero jobs.

The most attractive feature about Florida was the absence of a personal income tax, so employees from the Midwest transferred to the headquarters could see their pay increase by 6 percent without the company having to cover that increase, ADS spokeswoman Mary O'Brien said.

But the state's tax break program was an important factor, she said. ADS probably would have gone elsewhere without the breaks. So was the company's contribution a show of appreciation to Scott?

"It's not related at all. We support good government," O'Brien said. "He helps create a positive business environment for the state."

Contact Michael Van Sickler at [email protected]

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