Smart investors don't throw good money after bad. But that's just what the Republican-led Legislature is being asked to do by Gov. Rick Scott's Department of Economic Opportunity. Despite a series of bookkeeping gaffes in recent weeks and less than impressive performance by predecessor agencies, DEO is seeking 250 percent more money in 2012-13 to woo businesses to Florida or to help those already here to expand. Last month, members of the Senate budget subcommittee that oversees the agency's spending said all the right things, but the proof will come in the action. If Republicans are true to their mantra of making government operate more like a business, they won't even consider doubling down until they have a full accounting of the money the agency and its predecessors have already spent.
A ridiculously broad public records exemption in state law makes it all but impossible to timely monitor how Florida spends its economic development funds and hold state and local officials accountable. Taxpayers have little choice but to trust that state bureaucrats and elected officials are delivering agreements that will add value to the state, not just giving sweetheart deals to some businesses. But a recent glimpse behind the curtain — provided by Scott's newly created DEO — suggests the state's economic development efforts have been less than impressive.
DEO recently provided a bare-bones accounting of business incentives over the past 15 years showing that most deals, negotiated in secret, never panned out as expected. The list, compiled after a public records request from the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau, showed just one-third of the expected jobs materialized across nearly 1,500 contracts, with the state ultimately spending just 43 percent of the promised incentives. And the department singled out six contracts worth about $37 million it was trying to renegotiate, including a $12.4 million package with St. Petersburg's Jabil Circuit Inc. to create 858 jobs.
DEO left the impression that Jabil had received the money but failed to produce the required jobs. Only problem? Last week, DEO acknowledged the accounting was wrong. Jabil hadn't gotten the cash and the state is still in negotiations to extend the deal for another two years, which would be the second extension.
Social programs or education efforts with similarly poor success rates would never have a dream of surviving in tough budget years. Yet, protected by a public records exemption, it's been all too easy for officials to avoid accountability for their misjudgments. If this is the effort that Scott wants lawmakers to invest $230 million in next fiscal year, even as the state faces a nearly $2 billion shortfall, DEO should at least provide a credible, thorough accounting of the current situation. Until then, they should not be trusted with one more dime.