The Florida Legislature's determination to stop spending so much public money on questionable job incentives, lavish tourism promotion and other areas is generally a positive development. Some programs, such as Gov. Rick Scott's tens of millions in incentives to private companies that create jobs, were poorly focused and produced questionable results. But there is a difference between wildly throwing around taxpayers' cash and investing in targeted programs that enrich communities and produce concrete results.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, and other Republicans deserve credit for bringing Scott's corporate welfare to a screeching halt and questioning the free-spending Visit Florida, the state's tourism arm. They should not be so eager to ban spending state money on professional sports stadiums and movie production incentives as long as those investments are limited, well-vetted and produce a significant return. Those investments would be modest compared to the other programs lawmakers are cutting, and they would provide a broader benefit to the overall culture and life of communities across the state.
Without state sales tax money that helped pay for Raymond James Stadium, Tampa Bay would not be hosting college football's national championship Monday night. There would be no Tampa Bay Lightning, because state sales tax money helped pay for Amalie Arena. There would be no Tampa Bay Rays, because state sales tax money helped pay for Tropicana Field. The state's contribution to these stadiums has been modest compared to the combined investment by local taxpayers and the team owners.
Three years ago, Sen. Jack Latvala brought some order to vetting proposals for using state money to help build or improve professional sports facilities. The Clearwater Republican's legislation created the Sports Development Program, which makes available up to $13 million a year in state sales taxes for stadiums. Applicants are evaluated and recommended by the state Department of Economic Opportunity. There are requirements for local government involvement and annual attendance levels, and the facility must directly generate at least $2 million a year in sales taxes.
Yet the Legislature has failed to carry out the intent of the law. With Corcoran's heavy hand, House Republicans have blocked spending sales tax money on state-approved applications for improvements to stadiums for the Miami Dolphins and the Jacksonville Jaguars, and for Daytona International Speedway. Now Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, has filed legislation to repeal the law and has Corcoran's support. That is particularly shortsighted for Tampa Bay lawmakers who can see the benefits of such investment in their own region.
It's easy to grandstand against public investment in pricey sports stadiums and the entitlement of wealthy team owners. But there is a legitimate public purpose for spending a reasonable amount of state money to build or renovate stadiums, particularly when there is a larger financial commitment from local public and private sources. Florida has a logical system in place for vetting proposals and a cap on how much state money can be spent, and the law should be carried out rather than repealed.
Tampa Bay will need that state money to help pay a modest portion of the cost for a new stadium for the Rays — or would Corcoran and Lee rather explain how they helped the region lose its Major League Baseball franchise?
Zeroing out incentives for the film industry makes no sense, either.
The Legislature launched a state incentive program for the film industry in 2010, setting aside $296 million over three years that was supposed to pay for the program through 2016. But no new money was added after 2012, and the fund was depleted by 2014. Critics pointed to a state study that found the return on investment at 43 cents on the dollar — a money-loser. But that figure from the Legislature's Economic and Demographic Research Office is misleading, since it looked only at tax receipts generated by the incentives and not private spending on equipment, wages and other film expenses, and intangible benefits such as tourism and publicity from being featured in movies and television.
Florida used to be the No. 3 location for the film industry, behind California and New York. Now the state's shortsightedness and heavy spending by other states such as Georgia has put an entire industry — actors, grips, production crews, caterers and others — in jeopardy. Television shows like Burn Notice, filmed in Miami, showcased the diversity and excitement of Florida. Officials said attendance quadrupled at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in the year after the major film Dolphin Tale, which received $5 million in incentives, was filmed there in 2010.
The incentive program was certainly flawed. The money was rewarded on a first-come, first-served basis, which didn't allow the state to set priorities on how to promote the Sunshine State. While TV projects consumed the biggest chunk of the money, the state spent more on video game production than movies. That is a poor use of taxpayer money and a lost marketing opportunity.
But the way to address these problems is to fix the program, not end it. Hillsborough and other counties stepped up to the plate, offering incentives of their own, targeting productions that brought attention and economic impact to their areas. This case-by-case examination is a sensible approach that maximizes public spending and complements the efforts counties and the state are already making to market Florida as a tourist destination.
Something's wrong when it's cheaper for Hollywood to film in Brunswick, Ga., for a movie set in Tampa's Ybor City. In the last three years, with the lack of incentives, Florida has lost out on $650 million in film projects, amounting to billions in lost revenue, according to the industry's state association. This affects tens of thousands of jobs and thousands of talented new graduates and other job-seekers entering the industry each year. For an industry whose salaries are two-thirds higher than the statewide average, this is a self-induced and senseless loss that requires new thinking.