Caught in crossfire between Rick Scott and Richard Corcoran, group fights for survival

A flight crew boards a KC-135 R Stratotanker at the U.S. Central Command at MacDill Airforce Base. [Scott Martin | Associated Press]
A flight crew boards a KC-135 R Stratotanker at the U.S. Central Command at MacDill Airforce Base. [Scott Martin | Associated Press]
Published March 22, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — While the prospect of another round of military base closures is getting more talk in Washington, the Florida Legislature is taking steps to kill off a non-profit created to help keep Florida bases off the chopping block.

A 187-page bill passed by the Florida House earlier this month that kills two dozen tax credits includes a clause that wipes out the Florida Defense Alliance, a mostly volunteer advocacy group created in the 1990s to work with local communities to protect the state's 20 remaining military installations, including MacDill Air Force Base.

Gov. Rick Scott calls the group "crucial" to staving off future base closures, but the Florida House argues that it is redundant and expendable. Regardless of who is right, the Alliance has become a proxy in the battle between Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran over the fate of Enterprise Florida, the state's corporate recruitment agency.

Scott credits Enterprise Florida with helping create 1.3 million jobs since he was elected in 2010. The bill that the House passed two weeks ago eliminates it — and the Florida Defense Alliance.

The fact that the Alliance could be in jeopardy is surprising to Tim Ford, CEO of the Association of Defense Communities, a nonprofit that helps communities protect their bases.

"Most states are gearing up their efforts to protect their bases," Ford said. "There are few states that are actually ramping down."

Scott was even more direct.

"The military has a major presence in our state, with our unified commands and all of our military bases on top of our National Guard," Scott told reporter on Tuesday during an event to celebrate the Florida National Guard. "It's important to make sure that we help them continue to fulfill their missions and that's what (Florida Defense Alliance) does. I would be shocked that anybody would vote to hurt any military base's ability to fulfill its mission."

But Florida House spokesman Fred Piccolo said the Florida Defense Alliance is redundant. He said the House is leaving alone the Florida Defense Support Task Force, which gets $2 million a year from the state to help the state respond to needs of military installations.

The task force hands out grants to help bases. For instance, in February that group gave $110,000 to the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce to create a South Florida Defense Alliance aimed at helping coordinate with the United State Southern Command, Homestead Air Reserve Base and the 7th Coast Guard District headquarters — representing 56,000 jobs in the region.

By comparison, the Florida Defense Alliance doesn't have much of a budget. It hosts meetings twice a year to share information with other groups about how to better defend bases. These meetings are one of few Alliance expenditures. Its last gathering cost taxpayers less than $4,000, according to Enterprise Florida records.

Despite the low costs, the Alliance has one large political liability. It's housed within Enterprise Florida, which has become a target for Corcoran in his larger battle with Scott. He's called the agency an "absolute cesspool" that's beyond reform. He mostly objects to Enterprise Florida's deals with private businesses that give them hundreds of millions of dollars in tax credits in exchange for them creating jobs. Corcoran wants the whole agency abolished even as Scott has touted it as key to helping the state create jobs.

Lisa Monnet, president of the Tampa Bay Defense Alliance, is stunned that the statewide group has gotten caught up in the fight. She said her local group counts on the statewide alliance to help coordinate and share information so all of the communities with bases are doing everything they can to help protect, not just MacDill, but the state's military footprint. For instance, she said the statewide Alliance has helped with a 3-year battle to buy development restrictions on key property near MacDill to prevent any type of use that could be incompatible with the base.

"The Florida Defense Alliance is a critical part of the defense mission in Florida," Monnet said. "Anytime I need resources, they are available."

President Donald Trump has promised to boost military spending, but that doesn't mean another round of base closures won't happen. The Pentagon continues to clamor for base closures and realignments to save money. According to a Pentagon report, the U.S. has 32 percent excess capacity among Air Force operations and 33 percent excess capacity for Army.

Congress has mostly resisted because of community pressures. But key players in the U.S. Senate, including Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., have called for "seriously considering" another round of base closures to cut down on waste. Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Republican from the Florida Panhandle told the Pensacola News-Journal that he expects the next round of base closures to happen sometime during the Trump administration.

Since the 1990s, Florida has lost four U.S. Navy bases and an Air Force base to federal base closures.

While the House has proposed killing the Florida Defense Alliance, Rep. Paul Renner, a Flagler County Republican, said they mostly have tried to preserve various grant programs and tax credits that help the defense industry.

"The guideline was to leave harmless the defense side of things," Renner, a Navy veteran, told the Times/Herald.

Renner said it wasn't his idea to cut the Alliance and would love a shot to pull it out if the Senate takes up the bill in negotiations with the House.

The fact that Florida lawmakers would consider killing the alliance is ill timed, said Ford. He said other states have been trying to mimic what Florida does because it doesn't just wait for base closures to be announced to become active.

"For many years, we have used Florida as the gold standard because of how it has organized itself," Ford said.

Times Capitol Bureau Chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.