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If Enterprise Florida loses taxpayer incentives, can 'free market' Florida still compete?

Job recruiting agency Enterprise Florida may be shriveling and senior state legislators want to gut its funding even more. But that sure isn't stopping a bumper crop of more than 90 candidates from throwing their hats into the ring to fill its empty CEO job and run the under-pressure organization.

Be careful what you wish for. Enterprise Florida has had it nose bloodied on a number of fronts in recent years. Most recent CEO Bill Johnson fled in a hurry this past June after a series of poor political decisions involving no-bid contracts. Incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran, citing Enterprise Florida's failures, wants to strip the agency's taxpayer funding.

The blowback follows an unsuccessful bid by Gov. Rick Scott to secure $250 million in additional state funds he wanted the agency to use to bolster incentives to lure more and bigger companies here.

It gets worse. Enterprise Florida is now the target of a free market-or-bust advocacy group known as Americans for Prosperity, founded by billionaire businessman and conservative/libertarian activist David Koch.

"Not only is Enterprise Florida a cesspool of corporate welfare, but it's also long on promises and short on results," Chris Hudson, Florida state director of Americans for Prosperity, wrote in an opinion column last month in the Tampa Bay Times.

Hudson's right on many points. Enterprise Florida has been a sloppy, self-indulgent organization that needs better accountability. Departed CEO Johnson's tenure only fueled the ire against the organization. As a "public-private" partnership, Enterprise Florida's funding base is supposed to be shared between private and public sources. That mix is skewed, relying heavily on taxpayer money — a big reason that Scott's $250 million ask got nowhere with legislators.

But let's get real for a moment. The backlash against Enterprise Florida, justified though it may be, comes at a time when Florida must still compete for corporate jobs against incentive-laden deals from other states.

Ending incentives and going "free market" — Legislature leader Corcoran's mantra — may sound righteous. But Floridians may not like it when the state starts losing job recruiting contests — especially the big ones — to states still sweetening relocation deals with taxpayer money.

That's the trick. If Enterprise Florida goes cold turkey and ends taxpayer incentives, why will corporations looking to expand bother to seriously consider this state? Yes, there's no state income tax here. Yes, our winters are nice.

Hate to break the free marketeers' bubble. Those virtues won't win many corporate job expansions here if North Carolina or Texas or any number of other states continue to wave incentive money. Just ask the site selection advisers whose job is to tell corporate clients which deal is best.

As long as incentives are fundamental to job recruiting in most other states, Florida's purist obsession to end them here will simply make the Sunshine State look silly.

And not very competitive.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @venturetampabay.

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