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Legislators give Gov. Rick Scott's jobs czar an earful over incentive deals

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott's top jobs officials were told Tuesday to find a better way to track tax incentives the state has spent or else risk getting less cash next year.

"I want us to be nimble, but it has to come with accountability," said Rep. Mike Horner, a Kissimmee Republican in charge of the House committee that oversees tax incentives.

Scott's new Department of Economic Opportunity has asked lawmakers for $230 million in cash incentives, about 21/2 times more than it received this year. But the request follows a tumultuous several weeks as the department and its partner, Enterprise Florida, have struggled to work out the details of more than 1,600 incentive contracts worth $739 million that the state has signed since 1995.

"I'm confident all the projects are accounted for, all the funds are accounted for," Enterprise Florida CEO Gray Swoope said.

In the Senate, budget writers made more demands of Swoope, asking for details about any stalled incentive projects and for the creation of a new, user-friendly website that would outline the companies that received state tax incentives, when the contract was signed and from what fund the money was taken.

Swoope did not commit to the website, citing a detailed project-by-project report that lawmakers already have required by the end of the year.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said the state was "tying up an extraordinary amount of cash" waiting for projects to start. The state has at least $43.3 million in an escrow account for 15 different projects, including $12.4 million for Jabil Inc., in St. Petersburg.

"Is there a cash issue here that we could do a better job with?" Gaetz asked.

The Senate Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Appropriations used the department's data to show tax incentives from Florida's Qualified Target Industry Tax Refund — the most widely used incentive program — have created about 6,000 out of the 40,000 jobs the state predicted in the past three years.

Swoope noted that the contracts only pay out after jobs are created, but said, "We'll look for ways to improve upon that."

Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, told Swoope the state should not pay any companies for the "privilege" to relocate to Florida.

He said the state should do a better job of "taking care of existing businesses" and that low taxes and fewer regulations should be incentive enough to attract new job creators.

"They don't need to be paid to move here because normally when you pay a company to move here, as soon as that incentive is done they're looking for the next state that's going to put some more money on the table, and they relocate again because they've already proven themselves at being prostitutes," Bennett said.

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, chairwoman of the subcommittee, scolded Bennett for the ribald language saying, "It's a little early in the morning for that, Sen. Bennett."

Swoope, whom Scott recruited from Mississippi, told Bennett the incentives are a "key piece of our competitiveness."

Benacquisto, R-Wellington, echoed Horner's concerns, saying there was "worry on behalf of members of this committee and maybe the public at large" about whether the state was holding companies accountable for the tax incentives.

"You're not going to see a backing down from all of us of our expectations," she said.

Michael C. Bender can be reached at mbender@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelCBender.

Legislators give Gov. Rick Scott's jobs czar an earful over incentive deals 11/15/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 15, 2011 10:59pm]
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