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PUT A STOP TO SECRETIVE TAX BREAKS

Pinellas County commissioners decided last week that before they grant a tax break to a specific company to spur new jobs, they don't need to know its name. The decision - based on legalities rather than sound public policy - illustrates why the law governing Florida's Qualified Target Industry incentive program must be changed. It is an affront to the taxpayer and elected officials, and puts the interests of business above those of the public.

The state law governing the QTI program - which has granted millions of dollars in tax rebates to private companies - purposely cloaks the names of companies that apply. Businesses are guaranteed confidentiality for up to two years unless they choose to waive it, which few do. The companies must supply information about their operations and plans to state and local economic development staffs reviewing their QTI applications. But the bureaucrats are forbidden from sharing the information with anyone, even the elected officials who ultimately decide on the tax break.

Some local elected officials, unwilling to make those decisions blindly, have asked their staff for the company name, with a promise to keep it quiet. That's the way it used to work in Pinellas County government and some Tampa Bay area city halls. However, the names have been leaked on a few occasions. And Pinellas staff are now warning commissioners that that practice put officials at risk. The economic development staffer who first shares the name can be charged with a misdemeanor. If a trade secret also gets out, the guilty official can be charged with a third-degree felony, Dennis Long, a county attorney, told the commission last week. Companies that can prove they were harmed by the leaks can sue the government for damages.

Those threats persuaded Pinellas commissioners to accept the scant information the law does allow them to have, which is little more than the code number assigned to the QTI application, a general description of what the company does, how many jobs the applicant plans to provide, and what percent of the local average wage those jobs will pay.

The result is tax dollars are given away with almost no public vetting. Elected officials have only two options: to accept the application on faith, or refuse it and turn away jobs that could be good for the community. That's no choice. Elected officials throughout Florida ought to be knocking on state legislators' doors demanding they change the QTI law in the next session.

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