Florida forces elected officials to spend public money on incentives for businesses without telling taxpayers which companies are seeking the cash, an indefensible breach of government-in-the-sunshine. But it's particularly outrageous when those elected officials themselves are in the dark.
That is what happened last week, when the Pinellas County Commission voted to award $85,000 to an unnamed company without knowing its identity. That is irresponsible, regardless of what state law says. Until the law is changed, elected officials should refuse to blindly give away the public's money.
Florida's Qualified Target Industry program allows companies to request that their identities be kept secret for up to two years as they seek tax refunds in exchange for a promise to create high-wage jobs. The unnamed applicant before the commission last week requested just such secrecy as part of its negotiation for a total of $850,000 in tax rebates from local and state governments. Breaking that vow of secrecy can result in misdemeanor charges under the law. Companies say the secrecy is necessary for proprietary and competitive reasons. But what may be in the private sector's best interests is unacceptable when those businesses are seeking a share of the taxpayers' purse.
Consider the implications of granting tax rebates to an unidentified company. Bureaucrats alone are negotiating the deal with the applicant and deciding it represents a good investment of taxpayer dollars. Elected officials are then asked to vote on blind trust that the bureaucrats got it right. It might as well be a rubber stamp.
Former County Administrator Fred Marquis understood this, calling the secrecy mandated by the QTI program "a silly game." County staff's past practice has been to privately tell commissioners the QTI applicants' names. And last year, Marquis confirmed to the media a QTI applicant's name — Jabil Circuit of St. Petersburg was seeking a whopping $34 million in tax rebates. But county attorneys now say that puts county officials at risk of being charged with breaking the law. They said last week that only staff of the county's Economic Development Department can know companies' names.
The law should be changed. Tax dollars shouldn't be given away to anonymous businesses. And Pinellas County commissioners should lobby the Legislature to change the state law so that Floridians know exactly what companies are in line to get their tax dollars. Until then, however, the commission has another alternative, which Commissioner Karen Seel courageously exercised last week. If companies aren't willing to let their names be given at least to the commissioners, then commissioners should refuse to give them the tax refunds. That would only be fair. It would also be sound public policy.