Friday, May 25, 2018
Opinion

Enterprise Florida's secrecy, crony deals

Enterprise Florida, the state's official economic development organization, claims it has been "creating jobs and economic wealth for Floridians." However, Enterprise Florida has doled out nearly $2 billion of taxpayer money to corporations since 1995 and has yet to deliver the 250,000 new jobs it promised.

The Tampa Bay Times editorial "Corporate handouts need accountability" on April 29 pointed out that "over the past 15 years, only one-third of the 1,500 tax incentive contracts actually resulted in employing the number of people promised."

To make matters worse, Enterprise Florida has engaged in secrecy, by not posting meeting agendas online, and self-dealing, including giving contracts to its private funders. Many of the 28 corporations, which pay on average $50,000 for a seat on the Enterprise Florida board, are getting vendor contracts and taxpayer-funded incentives in return for their investments.

In just the last fiscal year, $22,449,500 in taxpayer-funded incentive awards went to Enterprise Florida board member companies, including Publix, Darden, Embraer, Harris and Lockheed Martin. Those companies promised a total of 1,494 new jobs with no public timeline of when they will be here.

In May, the Enterprise Florida board steered vendor contracts for undisclosed amounts or terms to fellow board member companies Wells Fargo, TD Bank and Blue Cross Blue Shield (Florida Blue).

The Legislature allocated Enterprise Florida $86 million in the last fiscal year to use for incentive deals. The Enterprise Florida board will reward its staff with a $427,500 bonus pool for providing public money to private companies, which pledged a total of 14,421 new jobs sometime in the future.

The bonus pool comes from funds private companies pay the group to sit on its board alongside the governor, Cabinet officials, state agency heads and legislative leaders. They get to hire and fire the secretary of commerce as well. Is it merely a coincidence that these companies are doing so well getting their proposals for tax incentives and vendor contracts greenlighted by the Enterprise Florida staff and fellow board members?

Last legislative session, Gov. Rick Scott and state legislators passed HB 7023 in response to reports of malfeasance and crony contracts at Florida's 24 regional workforce boards.

The new law requires that any contracts to members of the regional workforce boards must be approved by a two-thirds vote of the board, and any such contract in excess of $25,000 must also be approved by the state workforce board. It is time for the governor and legislators to also hold the Enterprise Florida board accountable for irresponsible spending of taxpayer dollars with similar legislation.

In April, Integrity Florida published "Corruption Risk Report: Enterprise Florida," which examined Enterprise Florida's commitment to public access to information, accountability, performance metrics and transparency. Our research report called for Enterprise Florida to make a number of transparency and accountability reforms, including creation of a publicly accessible online database of all state and local taxpayer-funded incentives.

Taxpayers deserve to know about all economic development deals, the amount of tax dollars committed, exactly how many new jobs are expected to be created and a firm deadline for the job creation results.

The Enterprise Florida board gathers at St. Pete Beach's Don CeSar hotel this week. The hotel's website describes its history as "born in the Great Gatsby era as a playground for the rich and famous." What a perfect setting for pay-to-play crony contracts to be celebrated while 816,000 out-of-work Floridians wonder when the jobs are coming.

Let's hope that the governor, as chairman of the board, begins a new dialogue with fellow board members about the need for greater transparency and accountability to restore credibility to Enterprise Florida.

Dan Krassner is executive director of Integrity Florida, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute and government watchdog whose mission is to promote integrity in government and expose public corruption. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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