For more than a decade, the mantra in Tallahassee has been the same: Florida should do more to create jobs and dedicate more and more tax dollars to sweeten the pot. But a newly released compilation of the state's economic development contracts over the past 15 years raises serious questions about the effectiveness of that approach. It also highlights the need to repeal or narrow a broad public records exemption that often prevents serious public scrutiny of deals until after they are approved. When the Republican-led Legislature reviews the exemption in the coming session, it should make it easier for taxpayers to see how their hard-earned money is being spent in a timely manner.
As Michael C. Bender of the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau reported Tuesday, the state — across an assortment of economic development programs that target everything from brownfield cleanup and transportation spending to targeted industries — has agreed to provide up to $1.7 billion in incentives since 1995 to create an estimated 225,000 jobs. But those aspirations haven't come close to panning out.
A new, bare-bones accounting provided by the Department of Economic Opportunity shows just one-third of the expected jobs materialized across the nearly 1,500 contracts, with the state ultimately spending just 43 percent of the promised incentives. And in a separate list, the department singled out six contracts worth about $37 million for renegotiation due to noncompliance, including a $12.4 million package with St. Petersburg's Jabil Circuit Inc. to create 858 jobs.
What's most striking is just how widespread the incentives are and how often they fail. State leaders were so eager to help DayJet Corp. of Delray Beach get off the ground in 2005 that the Legislature approved a specialized sales tax exemption for the air taxi service's planes. Less publicized was the $2 million the company apparently received from the state's Quick-Action Closing Fund on the promise of creating 595 jobs. Just three years later, the service shut its doors after hiring only 142 people, but the database suggests it never repaid any of the $2 million.
Short of asking for documents up to one or two years after the deal was inked, the public might never know about the incentive or the broken promise. In fact, the Times/Herald obtained the database through a public records request. It was prompted after DEO executive director Doug Darling made broad statements about his plan to review failed incentive deals.
It shouldn't be this way. It's only due to a broad exemption in Florida's public records law — up for review during the coming legislative session — that so many details of these taxpayer-backed deals are shielded from public view. Due to the exemption, state leaders and local governments often agree in public meetings to spend taxpayer money on incentives for a particular deal, but they don't reveal the company's identity. Only after a final deal is reached does the public — or surrounding property owners or business competitors — find out who is getting tax dollars to expand their business.
Economic development officials insist such secrecy is necessary to prevent other states from outbidding Florida. But as the database shows, such secrecy hasn't done much for the overall track record. The majority of deals Florida made didn't pan out, suggesting the principle of open government has been sacrificed for little gain.