ORLANDO — Stopping huge unemployment tax hikes, giving tax credits to all job-creating businesses and limiting government involvement emerged as key themes of a statewide jobs summit here Friday.
The daylong event, organized by Florida Senate President-designate Mike Haridopolos and House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon, was called to carve a framework for the legislative session beginning in March on what state leaders call their top priority: fighting Florida's double-digit unemployment.
Organizers knew they hit a nerve when they had to stop taking reservations this week when the summit maxed out at 350 reservations.
"I want economic climate change — changing the mind set of how people look at Florida," Haridopolos said, later paraphrasing George Washington in a moment of crisis: "We're all out of money. Now we must think."
Attendees had no lack of suggestions for him:
• Tony Villamil, research professor of economics in the School of Business at St. Thomas University and keynote speaker at the Jobs Summit, suggested a state real estate sale. He said Florida should inventory its vast holdings of state-owned land and buildings and see what it could sell to raise money for state coffers, leasing back buildings as necessary. "I wish somebody would tell me what the state's net worth is," he said.
• Film industry promoters said Florida needs to offer better incentives to the film and entertainment industry after losing projects and talent to states like Michigan and Georgia. "Florida actually has the third-largest trained professional work force (for moviemaking) in the world — or at least we used to," said Leah Sokolowsky, location manager-scout with the Florida Film Production Coalition. "Unlike some … we still have demand for our service. People want to come here."
• Barney Bishop of business lobbyist group Associated Industries urged more school construction, increased lending to small businesses and a renewed emphasis on Florida's threatened space industry. "We're about to lose 7,000 jobs over here in Brevard County," he said. "If we do, shame on us."
Panelists and participants also urged investing for the long-term, creating tax policies that support businesses at many different stages of investment and removing red tape.
One recurring suggestion already has the blessing of the incoming political leadership. Haridopolos said both he and Cannon back a plan to defer large tax hikes in unemployment insurance going into effect this year.
Instead of pushing higher taxes onto struggling businesses, Haridopolos said he preferred borrowing hundreds of millions from the federal government, even after interest fees kick in.
Bruce O'Donoghue, chief executive of a Central Florida business called Control Specialists Co., cited one fellow small business whose unemployment taxes are slated to jump from $4,000 to $22,000 this year. "That's a job right there," he said. "We see companies folding every day. … We've got to do something in 2010 to keep people in business."
Several participants chided the state for lack of consistency, saying fluctuating taxes and shifting regulations discouraged investment and made it difficult for small businesses to plan.
Chancellor Frank Brogan, who oversees the state's university system, picked up on that theme with an education twist. Without a more predictable funding stream from the state, he said, Florida's network of universities are hamstrung.
Brogan advocated reliable and increased education funding to funnel more highly trained graduates into Florida's work force. Drawing parallels to North Carolina, which made its push into high-tech education decades ago when it was suffering from a recoiling tobacco industry, Brogan said the time to invest is when Florida is down.
"We cannot crawl out of this recession," he said. "We've got to slingshot out of this recession."
Haridopolos said he planned to craft a legislative agenda for job creation within a couple weeks based in part on what he heard Friday.