Spurred by state unemployment soon expected to top 12 percent and a political agenda keen on kick-starting a long-stalled economy, Florida lawmakers insist job creation is a priority in this legislative session. • If only it were that easy. Just as the federal government's mission to "create or save" lots of jobs has proved underwhelming, Florida's Legislature finds its financial arsenal for producing jobs extremely limited. With the state budget running another deficit, Tallahassee legislators will be hard pressed to find ways to generate real, legitimate jobs while struggling to find ways to cut government spending.
"There is no silver bullet," Florida Chamber of Commerce chief Mark Wilson says of the state government's wish to help on the troubled job front. But he says there are a number of steps lawmakers can take to encourage the private sector to create jobs and, specifically, to send a message to Florida small businesses that this is a good year to make investments in Florida.
Part of the legislative debate will be over short- versus long-term job goals. How much economic aid should be structured to deliver quick results to help Floridians already out of work? And how much should be geared years ahead to help make the state more competitive with higher-wage jobs in industry clusters like biotech?
The added confusion in Washington over economic policy has left many Florida businesses waiting on the sidelines and unwilling to hire, Wilson argues. Recent federal job-aid bills would pay a $5,000 tax credit to employers to hire a jobless person, while others would give emergency loans to chicken farmers in Arkansas and assist Caribbean rum makers. It's important, Wilson suggests, state legislators not add to the general chaos.
At a January Jobs Summit in Orlando organized by Senate president-designate Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, and House speaker-designate Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, many ideas but little consensus emerged to spark the state economy.
Bill Newton, executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network in Tampa, said the Legislature is pursuing the "folly" of promoting new jobs programs at the same time it wants to enact more tax cuts.
Newton doubts the budget can be balanced with the Legislature's current course. "Just how," he asks, "are you supposed to pay for these things?"
Haridopolos and Cannon did agree to back a plan to defer large tax hikes in unemployment insurance scheduled to go into effect this year. Instead of pushing higher taxes on to struggling businesses, Haridopolos said he preferred borrowing hundreds of millions from the federal government, even after interest fees kick in.
Halting draconian tax hikes, in this case, would at the least minimize more job layoffs, the legislators reasoned.
Still, there is some common legislative ground emerging. Several measures contained in the Senate "Jobs for Florida" package look likely to get lawmakers' attention and broad support from the Florida business community. One would expand Florida's "qualified target industry tax refund" — better known as the QTI — to provide tax relief to businesses adding new jobs in higher-wage industries pursued by the state.
Another would broaden the Capital Investment Tax Credit, traditionally given to companies adding at least 100 new jobs, and allow smaller businesses adding only 50 jobs to become eligible for the credit.
Yet another would leverage the federal Small Business Innovation Research incentive by providing any company the chance to double that incentive with Florida funds — if the firm collaborates with a Florida university in commercializing its research.
A fourth measure, backed by Wilson at the Florida Chamber, would seek to double the promotions budget for the Florida tourism industry. The idea, says Wilson, would allow state tourism advertising to increase sharply at once — while the nation's harsh and deep-snow winter is still on the minds of many — and attract more visitors from up north during the winter months.
Gov. Charlie Crist, in unveiling his state budget, had some specific job-helping ideas, too. In addition to embracing the tax revenues from casino gambling, they include a boost of $67 million for Florida's community college system, a key part in the retraining of Florida's jobless to find work in greater demand.
In the end, all Tallahassee job efforts boil down to funding. And that is in short supply. The state budget is expected to be subsidized yet again with federal stimulus funds that will not be available next year.
Even the Obama administration's grant of $1.25 billion to help start building a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando — a project expected to create 23,000 jobs — faces an uphill task of the Legislature finding at least some of the remaining billions to make the project possible.
For all the good intentions, government-driven job creation this spring will be modest at best. Some of the incentive packages offered by Tallahassee may spur private sector activity and some new jobs, but that process will take months and, in some cases, years to mature.
The greatest gift from Tallahassee may lie in reducing at least some of the uncertainty in the government's message about Florida's economy.
By then, of course, the economy may be reviving well enough on its own. But what happens if the state and federal government simply waited for jobs to return on their own? It's a scenario eerily similar to the Great Depression, and nobody — conservative or liberal — wants to head down that path.
Times staff writer Jeff Harrington contributed to this report. Robert Trigaux can be reached at email@example.com.