Sunday, January 21, 2018
Politics

Florida House votes to abolish one of Gov. Rick Scott's prized agencies, Enterprise Florida

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House shrugged off political threats from Gov. Rick Scott and stuck a dagger into the heart of his political legacy on Friday.

By an 87-28 vote, the House voted to kill Enterprise Florida, the agency Scott has relied on to hand out tax breaks to businesses in exchange for them creating jobs — a central promise in his two campaigns for governor. The House also voted 80-35 to place tough restrictions Scott opposed on Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing agency.

Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran got what he needed out of Friday's vote. With 87 votes backing the Enterprise bill, the House would be in a position to override a Scott veto because the bill passed by more than a two-thirds majority.

"I think 87 is a powerful number," said Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes.

But the Senate still needs to pass its own bill. So far, it hasn't. Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, said even though there is no similar bill currently filed in the Senate, he said the idea of killing Enterprise Florida "has life" there.

Within minutes of both House bills passing, Scott was ready with a response.

"Many politicians who voted for these bills say they are for jobs and tourism," Scott said in a statement. "But, I want to be very clear — a vote for these bills was a vote to kill tourism and jobs in Florida."

The Republican governor is resuming trips around the state to individual districts of House members, many from his own party, who voted to abolish Enterprise Florida. Scott will be in Sarasota, then Tallahassee, holding more meetings with business leaders next week to draw attention to the dispute.

Over the last few weeks, Scott has also used a political action committee he runs to fund campaign-style robocalls against Republican House members in their districts and put out a video mocking Corcoran.

Before Friday's votes, state Rep. Paul Renner, a Republican from Flagler County, said what is at issue is a "foundational principle" about the role of government. He said Enterprise Florida and the other tax incentive programs for businesses are "fundamentally unfair" because the government is interfering with the private market place, favoring some businesses and industries over others.

Scott tried to counter those arguments Tuesday in his annual State of the State address to the Legislature. He said Enterprise Florida had generated 900 job-creating projects. Scott has asked the Legislature for $23.5 million to fund Enterprise Florida's base operations next year and another $85 million of economic incentives.

It was a remarkably bad week for Enterprise Florida. On Monday, the agency's chief executive officer, Chris Hart IV, quit abruptly without much explanation. He was only on the job since January. It's the second time in nine months that its CEO left.

Eliminating Enterprise Florida — a quasi-private government agency created in the 1990s to serve as a commerce department — has a long way to go. Both chambers have to pass identical bills for it to pass the Legislature and end up on the governor's desk. Even then Scott would seemingly have the last say in vetoing the idea.

A looming veto drew Democrats into the fray. On Thursday, House Democrats had their arms twisted in "the bubble," a small private room at the back of the chamber. They were met by Corcoran's budget-writer, Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, who reminded them, in not-so subtle terms, how much this issue matters to Corcoran. It wasn't lost on anybody that Trujillo and Corcoran — not Scott — will decide which hometown spending projects find their way into the House budget.

"I don't think he's threatening or intimidating. I think it's really just giving them the information," Trujillo said of Corcoran. "But obviously, you tend to have a better relationship with those who are philosophically aligned with you than those who aren't."

Some rookie Democrats have also been called to meetings with Scott or Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera. Veteran Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, a critic of Enterprise Florida who voted for the bill, said every conversation with a Republican begins with, " 'Are you still with us? You solid?' "

Jenne said even if the Senate doesn't take up the bill, Enterprise Florida is vulnerable. He said in a few weeks the House and Senate will start working on a 2017 budget, and the House is almost certain to put no money in the budget for Enterprise Florida, regardless of whether Renner's bill moves another step. That will set up a budget showdown that could still put a spending plan on Scott's desk that would defund what Jenne called Scott's "policy baby."

Just 14 of the 79 House Republicans voted against the Renner bill. Rep. Kathleen Peters of St. Petersburg was the only Tampa Bay area Republican to vote against the bill.

Tampa Bay Times Capitol Bureau chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Contact Jeremy Wallace at [email protected] Follow @JeremySWallace.

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