Thursday, April 26, 2018

Gun makers, violent film and video creators benefit from tax breaks in Florida

TALLAHASSEE — What do violent video games, gory movies and high-powered assault weapons have in common? They have all been blamed for tragic mass shootings, including last month's at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. — and are all subsidized by Florida taxpayers. With Florida's tax code more business-friendly in recent years, economic incentives and tax breaks have flowed to companies and industries now under fire for their perceived roles in America's gun violence. Meanwhile, the state has cut funding for mental health care and school safety programs, two areas at the forefront of the national gun control debate.

While it has become more difficult and expensive to access mental health care in Florida, it is getting easier and cheaper to obtain high-powered weapons. Last year, the Legislature cut the cost of obtaining a weapons license by $5, and a string of gun-friendly measures has boosted the number of concealed firearms carriers past 1 million.

As the White House, Congress and states across the country look at new measures for curbing gun violence, Florida's tax code and budgeting measures could be having the opposite effect.

"I think the state of Florida has a role to play in preventing gun violence and in gun regulation," said Sunrise Mayor Mike Ryan, who has pushed for gun control but acknowledged that the controversial companies receiving tax breaks are all helping to create jobs in the state. "When you get to the issue of assault weapons, you get to a thornier issue."

Nationally, Florida ranks 49th in mental health funding, and first in gun ownership. The state has been a trailblazer in providing lucrative tax incentives to a smorgasbord of companies in return for promises to create jobs.

In 2012, a tough budget year when the Legislature cut funding for school safety by $1.8 million and Gov. Rick Scott vetoed $5.7 million for mental health programs, lawmakers were able to find more than $10 million for economic incentives that went to violent film productions, bloody video games and gun manufacturers.

In the Tampa Bay area, that meant budget cuts for school safety and a line-item veto of $250,000 in funding for mental health care at the Pinellas Receiving Facility. At the same time, Scott's administration signed off on $208,000 in taxpayer subsidies for a Palm Harbor gun parts maker and $814,695 in tax breaks for an R-rated film about four college coeds who get involved with a St. Petersburg drug dealer.

Tax breaks for gun dealers

The Legislature and powerful business groups are pushing to boost the state's manufacturing industry, a sector that includes makers of military-style weapons.

At least three gunmakers have been on the receiving end of lucrative tax break deals aimed at spurring job creation. Colt Manufacturing Co. was approved for a $1.6 million deal in December 2011, after it opted to open a new regional headquarters in Osceola County, bringing 63 jobs. Scott hailed the tax credit program as a "clear message that Florida is both open for business and a defender of our right to bear arms."

More tax breaks for gunmakers would soon follow.

Kel Tec CNC, a Cocoa Beach company that manufactured the handgun used in the controversial Trayvon Martin shooting last year, received nearly $15,000 in taxpayer cash to train its employees. The company, which also makes the types of high-powered assault weapons used in recent mass shootings, did not have to create any new jobs in return for the money. Repeated efforts to reach company officials were unsuccessful.

Taxpayer subsidies also went to Adams Arms, a Palm Harbor gun parts maker that sells equipment to enthusiasts looking to retrofit their assault weapons. That company received more than $200,000 in taxpayer incentives last year to set up shop, bringing an estimated 29 jobs. The company's motto: "Precision technology for the modern warrior."

The Department of Economic Opportunity and Enterprise Florida, the two state organizations that run the incentive program, did not respond to questions from the Times/Herald.

Scott did not respond to questions, but said through a spokesperson that he would not be proposing any new gun laws.

Gun control advocates in the Legislature are angered by the tax breaks.

"There are members of the Legislature who in recent years have talked about the funding of terrorist groups," said Sen. Dwight Bullard, a Miami Democrat who has tried to pass gun control measures in the past. "The idea that we're giving incentives to (assault weapons manufacturers) is problematic. It's hypocritical."

Sean Caranna, executive director of gun rights group Florida Carry, disagrees.

"We're talking about manufacturing jobs. High-paying manufacturing jobs that employ a lot of skilled labor here in Florida," he said. "These are firearms that are used primarily for lawful reasons."

Florida's support for the gun industry goes beyond tax dollars. The state also provides a steady stream of customers by making it easier to buy guns and take them into more and more places.

The Legislature has passed dozens of laws expanding gun rights in recent years, sparking a rapid increase in gun ownership. Florida recently surpassed 1 million concealed weapons licenses, a milestone that was hailed by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam just days after the Newtown shooting.

For its part, the National Rifle Association has blamed violent video games and films — not guns — for the string of mass shootings. Florida's business-friendly tax code subsidizes those as well.

Violent games, movies

As part of the White House's push to come up with new anti-violence proposals, Vice President Joe Biden sat down this month with executives at video game companies that make graphic shooter games. In Florida, some of the companies attending Biden's meeting are receiving millions of dollars in tax benefits, even as they develop some of the most violent video games on the market.

It's part of a $300 million effort to lure entertainment companies into the state, and much of the money has gone to violent action films and video games now blamed for fueling real-life aggression and gun violence.

Popular first-person shooter games like Medal of Honor, Call of Duty and Halo have all been singled out. Corporations involved in producing those games each collect taxpayer benefits from the state of Florida. While research is not definitive about the relationship between violent entertainment and real-life violence, some are calling for new measures to clean up what's on the screen.

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said the "steady diet" of violence children consume through video games plays a major role in spurring real-life tragedies.

"Until we solve that problem and actually deal with legislation that would make selling or dispensing these exceedingly violent games to children, we're going to continue to see this," he said.

A move to clamp down on companies that market violent games to children would be an about-face for Florida lawmakers. Bills passed by the Legislature have been a financial boon to those same companies, providing millions of dollars in taxpayer funds. Last year, about $48 million was spent on video game companies operating in Florida. Much of the money went toward creating nonviolent games.

Taxpayers are also paying to subsidize the production of violent movies filmed in Florida.

A relatively new tax incentive program has made the Sunshine State an attractive location for production studios looking to shoot high-octane action films against a Florida backdrop.

Parker, an action movie that will begin showing in theaters Friday, received $424,820 in tax credits for production in South Florida last year. The movie, starring Jason Statham, is R-rated for strong violence and its scenes are riddled with deadly gunplay. Its motto, scrawled across a cover photo featuring a shotgun-wielding Statham: "To get away clean, you have to play dirty."

Florida has also been able to attract action-packed television shows like Burn Notice to the state with millions of dollars in tax credits.

Alguien Te Mira, a telenovela that filmed some scenes in Miami, received $1.1 million in tax incentives. Beginning in 2010, the Spanish-language thriller about a love triangle and a serial assassin ran for 26 weeks and featured at least 15 murder scenes.

Mental health cuts

While the gun lobby and gun control advocates fiercely disagree about whether assault weapons or violent movies are chiefly responsible for America's mass shootings, most parties believe that any true solution to the problem must deal directly with mental health.

Advocates on both sides of the debate point out that most of the mass shooters in recent years were mentally ill young men who did not receive adequate treatment.

Mental health advocates say the number of people who fit that description is on the rise in Florida, where inadequate funding for mental health care has left hundreds of thousands untreated.

"We're only serving half of the adults with severe illnesses that need (mental health) care, and a third of the children" said Bob Sharpe, CEO and president of the Florida Council for Community Mental Health. "So we have substantial unmet needs for publicly financed care."

According to Sharpe's estimates, the state of Florida has not had any substantial increases in mental health care funding in the last 15 years and, adjusted for inflation, spending is down by more than 30 percent since 2006.

Florida currently ranks 49th in the nation for per-capita spending on mental health care, and states like Mississippi outspend the Sunshine State by a factor of three.

Last year, the Florida Senate pitched a 25 percent cut to mental health and drug abuse funding, proposing to slash the services by $87 million to help balance a tight budget. The House was able to temper what would have been the state's largest-ever reduction in mental health spending, but further damage hit the budget when it reached the governor's desk.

Scott vetoed more than $5.6 million in spending for mental health programs in different parts of the state, striking down funding for health care providers like Seminole Behavioral Healthcare in Sanford.

Scott is still deciding whether to accept federal money for an expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, a move that would provide mental health coverage for hundreds of thousands of uninsured.

Meanwhile, there are signs that growing numbers of mentally disturbed Floridians are accessing guns and committing violent acts.

In 2011, a record 1,471 people used a bullet to end their own lives, with more people dying from firearm suicides than from all homicides, according to state data. Self-inflicted gunshots account for nearly two-thirds of all suicides in Florida.

"I hope the Florida Legislature will realize that even though we've not had a situation similar to Columbine or Sandy Hook, we are vulnerable because of the level of funding that we have for our community health programs and the level of unmet need for services," said Sharpe, who will testify before the House Education Committee this week. "I hope there's action."

Contact Toluse Olorunnipa at [email protected] or on Twitter at @ToluseO.

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