As Florida lays off teachers, closes libraries and parks, and slashes an array of public services to deal with the recession, Hillsborough County is offering without public debate $1.2 million in tax money to an unnamed global financial services firm in return for staying put in the Tampa area. Saving jobs and growing industries that are already here is as vital as attracting new business. But taxpayers deserve to know where their money is going. State lawmakers should not extend the public records exemptions that allow this secrecy and encourage a lack of fiscal accountability.
Hillsborough's offer may be a good investment over the long haul. In return for the cash, the financial services company said it would build a $78 million office building and add 200 employees to its current roster of 1,633. The company would promise to keep the jobs for at least 10 years and be paid over time as it honored that commitment. Local officials said the county would recoup its money through property taxes and other revenue within three years. And officials hail the move as a first-ever step in Hillsborough to use incentives to retain existing businesses for the long term.
Sounds good, but who knows? Under Florida law, state and local officials are allowed to negotiate economic development deals in secret. The names of the companies seeking the subsidies are exempt from public disclosure. So are many of the details that would shed light on the risk to taxpayer funds. Even a company's expression of interest in a subsidy is exempt from disclosure. Government employees have wide latitude to extend the length of the secrecy protections. And the public does not learn until after the fact whether a company created the jobs, wages and new economic activity that it promised in return for the tax money.
Hillsborough's investment is only part of the public's cost. The state is expected to pledge another $800,000, bringing the total package for the mystery company to $2 million. This is a big sum in tough economic times. But the principle is the same if it involved a single dollar of public money. Any solid jobs-development deal will survive the light of public scrutiny. That is especially true in this sluggish recovery. If anything, the current economic climate calls for public disclosure, so taxpayers can set the right spending priorities.
Job development deals raise serious questions about fair treatment in the marketplace. They are risky enough without having a clear eye going in of the financial implications. Secrecy absolves public officials of any accountability for their vision and competence in moving a subsidies package forward. And it rewards companies for playing communities off each other. It is one thing for Florida to engage in pay-to-play. It should at least require that companies seeking public money publicly reveal their plans and their promises at the outset. Lawmakers can make that happen by allowing the secrecy provisions to expire next year instead of extending them.