If Tallahassee is ready to be more accountable to taxpayers on economic development deals, the proof will be in the details. Last week's move by Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, against a ridiculously broad public records exemption, followed by the tacit support of Gov. Rick Scott's jobs czar, is promising. But neither Detert nor Enterprise Florida CEO Gray Swoope are fully committed to what should happen: making the process transparent and timely enough so that taxpayers can promptly discern whether the state is giving reasonable taxpayer-financed incentives to businesses or just providing sweetheart deals.
For too long, Florida has sacrificed its proud tradition of open government to the secrecy that insiders insist is necessary to lure businesses with public money. Taxpayers have almost no way of knowing whether such government incentives for individual businesses actually deliver the promised jobs or capital investment until it's too late. Lawmakers have shielded much of the information from the public until up to two years after the deals are inked on the premise that businesses require such secrecy to commit.
But a recent bare-bones accounting of such economic development incentives over the past 15 years belies that premise. The fact: Most deals, negotiated in secret, never panned out as expected. The list compiled by the Department of Economic Opportunity in response to a public records request by the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau shows just one-third of the expected jobs materialized across nearly 1,500 contracts, with the state ultimately spending just 43 percent of the promised incentives. And now the department has 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.
"I want to know how much taxpayer dollars went into something and if we get our money's worth," Detert said last week as she delayed consideration of an extension of the public records exemption (SB 7014) in the committee she chairs, the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee. Detert said she was open to continuing to shield businesses' trade secrets or intellectual property from public record, but that "taxpayer dollars need to be accounted for."
Yet a day later, both she and Swoope clarified that they weren't interested in disclosing significant details of deals until after they were signed — which would still make it impossible for taxpayers (or even competing businesses) to weigh in before the ink was dry. Any significant reduction in the two-year waiting period would be an improvement. But at the most crucial moment of decisionmaking, taxpayers still would be in the dark and have to blindly trust that government employees and elected officials are being fiscally responsible and acting in the public interest. For legislators who claim to distrust big government and value the free market, that should be unacceptable.