Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Politics

Florida lawmakers play starring role in film industry tax incentive plan

TALLAHASSEE — Lights. Camera. Incentives.

Actors, producers and film crew members descended on Tallahassee on Wednesday to support the proposed expansion of the entertainment industry incentive program, which provides tax credits to film and television projects based in Florida.

Their collective lobbying helped persuade a Senate panel to approve a plan adding $300 million in tax credits over the next six years — a first step toward the bill becoming law.

But the advocates had their eye on a much larger prize: a long-shot House proposal that would provide the entertainment industry with nearly four times as much support.

"Our existing incentive programs have kept us competitive with Georgia and Louisiana," Miami-Dade Film and Entertainment Commissioner Sandy Lighterman said. "We have things that they don't have. But we need the additional tax credits, because otherwise, we are off the map."

Florida has had an entertainment industry incentive program since 2003. But the program has already distributed its allocated $296 million in tax credits.

As of November, 297 projects had received awards, including feature films like Dolphin Tale and Spring Breakers and television shows like Burn Notice and Magic City. Industry officials say the projects pumped nearly $1.6 billion into Florida's economy and created more than 190,000 temporary jobs.

Expanding the program is a priority for the Miami-Dade legislative delegation.

Earlier this month, the Miami Omni Community Redevelopment Agency awarded EUE/Screen Gems Studios a contract to develop and operate the new Miami Entertainment Complex. Omni CRA chairman Marc Sarnoff said the move "(secured) Miami as one of the top destinations for film production in the Southeast."

But film industry advocates say it will take more than new facilities to lure Hollywood studios to the Sunshine State.

"We know they want to come here," said Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, who is sponsoring the measure in the House. "In order for us to be competitive, we need some sort of incentive."

Diaz said he already knew of telenovelas that were interested in filming in Doral and Hialeah. But he added that the measure was important for the entire state.

More than 200 members of Film Florida, a coalition representing the state's entertainment industry, traveled to Tallahassee this week to make that case. They argued that the proposal could have a $4.1 billion impact on the state's economy.

Kelly Paige, president of Level Talent Group in Tampa, said the bill would benefit more than cast and crew members.

"It would help out the mom-and-pop restaurant owners and the dry cleaners," she said.

Paige said the measure would also stimulate tourism.

"People come to see the sets where Burn Notice was filmed, they come see Winter the Dolphin," she said. "We have a project that could do for Ybor City what Miami Vice did for Miami Beach."

Hillsborough County commissioners agreed earlier this month to spend up to $300,000 to try to lure two projects to the Tampa Bay area. The bulk of the county money — $250,000 — was earmarked for The Infiltrator, based on the true story of a U.S. Customs agent who spent years working undercover as a Tampa-based money launderer investigating Pablo Escobar's cocaine cartel and the banks that helped drug suppliers and smugglers hide money. Commissioners also earmarked $50,000 for the makers of Saat Hindustani, a Bollywood movie about seven Indian college students studying abroad. Any county money would be paid post production — after the filmmakers provide documentation showing they reached economic goals, such as hiring a certain number of locals or spending a set amount of money on local vendors.

On Wednesday, the Senate proposal won unanimous support from the Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee. But Chairman Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, pointed out that his committee handles policy issues, not the budget impact. And that will be a tougher sell.

Even if the Senate version (SB 1640) advances, the fate of the proposal is uncertain.

The version in the House (HB 983) has stalled, due partly to the large price tag.

Diaz conceded that the bill could be tough to pass the bill because Gov. Rick Scott is pushing $500 million in tax cuts.

The House budget proposal currently does not include the $200 million for additional entertainment industry tax credits. House Speaker Will Weatherford said the issue would likely be addressed during the budget conference process.

Another nagging concern: The nonpartisan watchdog group Integrity Florida recently raised questions about the transparency and efficiency of the film industry incentive program.

In a February report, Integrity Florida directors Ben Wilcox and Dan Krassner said the program should disclose more information about its deals and "increase fiscal responsibility" by offering incentives to the projects with the highest rate of return, not the projects that apply first.

Advocates plan to continue their theatrical approach to lobbying.

Take film industry veteran Steve Lasky, who rode his bicycle from Pinellas County to Tallahassee to promote the proposal this week.

"I've seen Florida become one of the major areas for entertainment and I've seen us dip down again," said Lasky, who has dabbled in writing, directing and producing. "I don't want to see us lose the industry."

Kathleen McGrory can be reached at [email protected]

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