Jackson Laboratory's abrupt exit from Florida this month illustrates how Tallahassee's shortsighted fiscal policy undermines the state's future. Eight years after Gov. Jeb Bush started Florida on an aggressive path to wooing the biotech research industry, Gov. Rick Scott and other state leaders are abandoning that strategy. Scott claims to be all about attracting jobs to Florida. That should include nascent industries as well as traditional ones.
For two years, the nonprofit Jackson Lab has said it wanted to join Florida's fledgling biotech community by opening a facility to complement its Maine operations developing mice populations for gene-based disease research. It partnered with the University of South Florida on a plan and in 2010 persuaded the Legislature to set aside $50 million to start the project in Collier County. Then this past fall, amid the election's tea party fervor, the community balked at coming up with its own matching funds.
Jackson Lab downscaled its request from a total of $260 million in state and local government funds over several years to $200 million. It found an enthusiastic new partner in Sarasota County. But Scott, fresh in office, stayed on the sidelines. Then the 2011-12 budget contained so little economic development money that Enterprise Florida, the state's economic development agency, told Jackson Lab to dramatically reduce its request. At that point, the lab got the message and gave up.
It's possible the Jackson deal was not the best one for taxpayers and that the jobs promised wouldn't warrant the extraordinary taxpayer investment. Hillsborough County claimed as much earlier this year when it declined to compete against Sarasota. But that was never the discussion in Tallahassee. Rather, faced with a daunting budget gap and an unwillingness to consider any new sources of revenue to further the state's long-term ambitions, Florida's Republican leadership never even attempted to court Jackson Lab. There was no discussion about the implications of retreating on nearly a decade of economic development investment in biotech research.
Most surprising is that Scott — who frequently boasts he spends time every day talking to out-of-state businesses to come to Florida to create jobs — never reached out to Jackson Lab leaders to see if something might be worked out during these tight fiscal times. Compare that to Bush, who pushed through an audacious $310 million in state money to woo Scripps Research Institute to Palm Beach County in 2003, and went on to attract three more impressive biomedical research firms, including SRI International, to St. Petersburg's downtown waterfront. Gov. Charlie Crist attracted two more, including Charles Stark Draper Laboratory to Tampa Bay.
By contrast, Scott's most concrete economic development plan thus far is his unrealistic goal to make Florida the "shipping capital of the East Coast" by investing in the state's 14 ports. Port investment does make some sense, but a governor who claims to be all about business ought to be able to simultaneously juggle revitalizing traditional industries and boosting new ones.