Florida trips to Israel get buzz, but do they actually help?

Enterprise Florida, the public-private agency that organizes trade missions like the one to Israel, didn’t have information about what previous trips have accomplished readily available.
With the Mediterranean Sea as a backdrop, Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to reporters ahead of the first-full day of a Florida trade delegation trip to Israel. [Florida Governor's Office]
With the Mediterranean Sea as a backdrop, Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to reporters ahead of the first-full day of a Florida trade delegation trip to Israel. [Florida Governor's Office]
Published Jun. 3, 2019

Florida governors have crisscrossed the globe from Tokyo to Paris in hopes of returning with high-paying jobs and foreign investment.

Sometimes, they found controversy instead.

Gov. Ron DeSantis finished his first international trade mission Friday, a four-day business development trip to Israel. A delegation of more than 100 people, including lobbyists, business leaders, academics and elected officials, joined him.

DeSantis helped broker research agreements, rubbed elbows with the Israeli business community and stirred up some controversy of his own.

His decision to hold a Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem 6,000 miles away from Florida’s Capitol led to a lawsuit from open government advocates and criticism that he was giving more access to lobbyists in his trade delegation than the public who couldn’t attend. The administration responded by saying the meeting was only ceremonial.

He isn’t the only governor to hit bumps.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist’s 12-day trade mission to Europe racked up $430,000 in expenses in 2008 as the state’s economy faltered. Business executives paid for the governor’s part of the trip, but Crist faced political fallout when his $8,000 first-class airfare and $2,179-a-night suite near London’s Hyde Park were disclosed.

The tab even included $320 for his signature electric fans he used to keep himself cool when delivering speeches.

Former Gov. Rick Scott became a punch line on Spanish television in 2012 when he acknowledged a literal elephant in the room at the time he met the country’s monarch - who was embroiled in a scandal involving an elephant-hunting trip to Botswana.

“I’ve ridden elephants. I’ve never tried to shoot one,” he quipped, bringing up a touchy subject for the king.

Invariably, the trips lead to questions over whether taxpayers are footing the bill for politicians to enjoy lavish, self-serving outings at their expense.

That isn’t the case, and taxpayers are getting a good return, said Tony Villamil, who oversaw trade for former Gov. Jeb Bush. Trade missions are essential to keeping Florida competitive on the world stage, he said.

“They are not junkets,” he said. “It is critical for the CEO of the state to be out in the forefront. In the world of global trade, Florida is competing with the other 49 states.”

Villamil helped organize trips to Germany, Spain, Canada, Brazil, Mexico and Israel. He said private dollars pay most of the expenses.

But getting a firm understanding of exactly how many deals are struck can be difficult. Enterprise Florida, the public-private agency that organizes the missions, didn’t have the information readily available this week for past trips. A spokeswoman said the information is being compiled.

Ben Wilcox, research director for the government watchdog group Integrity Florida, said he thinks the state could do a better job of documenting its accomplishments and detailing who is footing the bill.

“It is really hard to tell what the benefits are,” he said. “Florida has been committed to doing them. They tend to put out some potential results right after the trade mission ends, but there is no long-term look at whether those results come to fruition.”

Historically, Enterprise Florida has used private-sector funds to pay the mission expenses for the governor, the governor’s travel aide and Florida Cabinet members, according to the agency. Other delegates, including business leaders and legislators, pay their own expenses.

Enterprise Florida’s operating budget is funded by $24.2 million from the state and $1.3 million from private contributions, according to a financial statement posted on its website.

The agency hasn’t compiled the cost of DeSantis’ trip. A governor-led trip to Israel with a delegation of about 70 in December 2017 totaled $179,177 in travel expenses, according to an expense report.

Scott took at least 16 trips abroad during his eight years in office, including two trade missions to Israel, according to an Associated Press tally. Scott also traveled to Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Japan, England, France and Spain.

Chris Hartline, a Scott spokesman, touted those trade missions as generating a $300 million increase in international sales for companies that participated. After a trade mission in December 2017, made-in-Florida goods exported to Israel totaled $400 million, a 42 percent increase over the previous year, he said, citing Enterprise Florida data.

Israel is the No. 37 export market for Florida-made goods, according to Enterprise Florida. The top five markets are Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Colombia and Germany.

Trade and foreign investment play a big role in the state’s economy, supporting 2.4 million jobs in Florida, according to the Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs of major U.S. companies.

DeSantis’ office has detailed some of the trip’s accomplishments in regards to economic development. He met with the heads of security, electronics, financial and medical device companies. Business groups signed agreements to promote trade, tourism and investment between Florida and Israel.

Florida Atlantic University and the Volcani Center, an Israeli research organization, signed an agreement to develop technologies to improve monitoring, communications, data analytics and machine learning in the agricultural industry.

More than 20 partnerships and memorandums of understanding where established, according to the governor’s office.

DeSantis also squeezed in some photo-ops that could help boost his profile with Jewish and Evangelical voters. He placed a prayer at the Western Wall for Florida’s safety during hurricane season and participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at Israel’s official Holocaust memorial.

He brushed off criticism that the trip wasn’t productive.

“We’ve been working hard ... I’m not a travel guy,” DeSantis told reporters. “I’d rather be home.”

Orlando Sentinel staff writer Gray Rohrer and Tallahassee Democrat staff writer Jeffrey Schweers contributed to this report.