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A Times Editorial

Secret deals for jobs corrode public trust

While Gov. Rick Scott lobbies for even more money for secretive economic incentive deals, Tampa Bay residents remain in the dark about another one unfolding here. State, Pinellas County and St. Petersburg officials have negotiated a deal to provide more than $1 million in tax refund incentives to an unnamed global Fortune 500 conglomerate that's interested in moving some kind of operation to St. Petersburg with a promise to create well-paying jobs. St. Petersburg's City Council signed off on the deal last week; the County Commission is scheduled to do the same on Tuesday.

Under state law, all officials have disclosed to taxpayers about the international company — which is looking at other locations outside Florida, by the way — is that it provides vaguely worded "shared services." On that basis alone, the public is expected to blindly accept a commitment to hand over $840,000 in state tax revenue and another $105,000 each from St. Petersburg and Pinellas County. In return, Corporation X must create 150 jobs by the end of December 2014, paying an average of at least $78,588.

It's understandable that initial discussions for incentive deals might be shielded from public view for competitive reasons. But it's wholly unacceptable and the antithesis of open government to extend that secrecy further. Approval by government officials should be contingent on a full, public disclosure of all the details and promises before a vote.

The irony is that — for all the secrecy — many deals prove a bust. State records show over the past 15 years only one-third of the 1,500 tax incentive contracts with corporations pledging to create jobs actually employed the number of people promised. And the state shelled out just 43 percent of the committed dollars. The record locally isn't better. As the St. Petersburg Times' Michael Van Sickler reported Thursday, only two of 24 companies offered tax incentives by St. Petersburg since 1996 actually fulfilled their job targets and received their full incentive.

None of that, however, minimizes the fact that secrecy in government is corrosive, undermining voters' trust and potentially inviting corruption. Before the Pinellas County Commission decides Tuesday on the Corporation X deal, commissioners should insist on giving the public all the details. Come next legislative session, so should Florida lawmakers.

Secret deals for jobs corrode public trust 12/04/11 [Last modified: Sunday, December 4, 2011 3:30am]
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