Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Politics

Pitbull flap raises questions over contract at Space Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Another agency's controversial contract with a Miami rapper, and its aftermath, was on the mind of Space Florida officials Friday, as they reaffirmed a $1 million line of credit for an unnamed company.

In voting to maintain the credit line, Space Florida board member Jason Steele advised his colleagues at the state's aerospace agency of the need to fully disclose contract details as they become available. His comments came after state House leaders last week filed a lawsuit involving Visit Florida, the state's tourism-marketing arm.

"We have not had a target on our back, but I promise you, my crystal ball is very clear, the target will be on our back," Steele said.

The House lawsuit sought previously undisclosed details of a now-expired $1 million contract between Visit Florida and hip-hop artist Armando Christian Perez, better known as Pitbull.

"Visit Florida maintains Pitbull is returning ($9) for every $1 they put in," Steele said. "What I want Space Florida people to do is to be able to share with the general public what our rate of return is on our investments with these firms, so that we have the tools in our toolbox, before these questions start to be asked. And they will be asked."

The House lawsuit expanded a months-long controversy that eventually resulted in Visit Florida President and CEO Will Seccombe being asked Friday by Gov. Rick Scott to step down.

Pitbull released the disputed contract on Thursday, and Seccombe said last week the agency has stopped approving contracts in which the details cannot be made public.

The Space Florida Board of Directors first agreed to extend the line of credit to the company — listed in records of the private-public agency as Project Ice — last January.

A new vote was needed as a third-party portion of the overall $3.5 million public-private deal has been restructured as the undisclosed company's timeline to manufacture fiber optics in space has been sped up.

According to Space Florida, the potential return on investment from Project Ice will depend on the interest rate on the line of credit, which has yet to be negotiated.

Officials for Space Florida, which generates revenue through the management of the former Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Center as a testing ground for new companies and technologies, noted that unlike most incentive deals approved by the state that require reaching performance benchmarks for payouts, the company listed as Project Ice must repay its loan.

Space Florida, which anticipates the Project Ice company's growth will help increase the number of launches from Cape Canaveral, hopes to be able to publicly disclose the deal early next year.

The company's equipment — expected to be sent on round-trip missions into space — is part of the collateral.

Steele noted he was expressing his concern because House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, and House Rules & Policy Chairman Jose Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican who is next in line to become speaker, have already targeted Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida, the state's business-recruitment agency.

Corcoran has repeatedly called incentives "corporate welfare."

Early this year, Corcoran and Oliva led a successful House effort to block Scott's request for $250 million in business recruitment incentives for Enterprise Florida.

Scott is seeking $85 million for Enterprise Florida in the 2017 legislative session to use as incentives to attract businesses to Florida. Visit Florida has requested $76 million. Space Florida wants $7 million.

Space Florida received $17.5 million from the Legislature for the current fiscal year. The state money includes $1.5 million to promote businesses involved in space tourism.

In June, a report from the state Department of Economic Opportunity found in an audit of Visit Florida and Space Florida that the agencies appear fiscally sound, but that some tweaking could be made for more "accountability and efficiency."

The audit also called for further review of the Space Florida's "unique funding mechanisms."

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