“I think it's absurd that we play that silly game." Interim Pinellas County administrator Fred Marquis chose exactly the right words to describe the state's requirement for confidentiality when private companies seek tax refunds in exchange for creating new jobs. This is bad law, and the Legislature needs to fix it.
The confidentiality requirement prevents elected officials from adequately vetting companies before voting on millions of dollars in tax rebates, leaves the public out of the process entirely, and fosters an improper climate of secrecy in a state that prizes its government-in-the-sunshine ethic. Only private companies and economic development officials get to be players in this insiders-only game.
Companies applying for the state's Qualified Target Industry tax refund program can, and often do, request confidentiality so other companies can't learn about their plans. Economic development officials who know the details are forbidden by state law from identifying the company during the application and approval process.
The result is the sort of silliness we saw at the Aug. 26 Pinellas County Commission meeting, when commissioners considered $177,600 in tax refunds for a company identified only as "Project B5041850956."
As usual when QTI incentive items come up for a vote, there was zero discussion by commissioners. If nothing else, they could announce the information in their agenda packet, which in this case stated that the company is a Pinellas aviation firm that plans to hire an additional 222 employees and wants a tax refund of $4,000 for each new job.
At least that item was listed on the commission's regular agenda and required a separate vote. In June, when the St. Petersburg City Council approved $1.55-million in local incentives for an anonymous company later determined to be Jabil Circuit, the item was so low profile that it appeared only on the consent agenda, a list approved en masse with one voice vote. Some council members have since acknowledged that they knew too little about the item.
By requiring confidentiality when companies request it, the state forces public officials to put companies' proprietary interests above the interests of the residents of Florida. These are tax dollars that could help support the needs of the public. If a company wants the taxes it pays refunded in exchange for creating new jobs, the local officials making that decision and residents of the impacted community should have the name of the company and the opportunity to examine the company's record. Is the company healthy? Will its expansion require new roads and other infrastructure? Does it, like the Nielsen Co. in Oldsmar, have a record of outsourcing jobs to foreign workers after receiving tax rebates for creating local jobs?
There are lots of holes in the state's QTI process that need to be plugged by legislators. The one that promotes government secrecy and keeps local communities in the dark is among the most offensive.