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  1. Florida Politics

Leaving Rick Scott in lurch, Enterprise Florida CEO resigns after just 2 months on job

Enterprise Florida CEO Chris Hart resigned on Monday. Last month, Hart (l) testified before a Senate Committee led by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.
Enterprise Florida CEO Chris Hart resigned on Monday. Last month, Hart (l) testified before a Senate Committee led by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.
Published Mar. 7, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — In a blow to one of Gov. Rick Scott's top legislative priorities, the man entrusted to defend Florida's job creation programs before a hostile Legislature abruptly quit Monday just hours before he was expected to testify.

Chris Hart IV quit as CEO of the state's economic development agency, a job expected to pay him $200,000, without so much a phone call or handshake with the man who hired him, Scott. Instead, Hart announced his resignation in a four-paragraph letter he sent to Scott and his staff at Enterprise Florida.

Hart, a former state representative from Tampa, had only been in the job for two months. Scott hired him in January to defend Enterprise Florida in a battle with House Republicans over whether to abolish the agency because of its spending. Just three weeks ago, Hart told state senators during a hearing that he needed more time to enact new rules that would make the agency more transparent.

On Monday, Hart went in a totally different direction.

"Unfortunately, during this same time period, I have come to realize that you and I do not share a common vision or understanding for how Enterprise Florida, Inc. can best provide value within your administration," Hart wrote to Scott. "This difference of opinion is of such a critical nature that I no longer believe I can be effective in my position. Therefore, since we have been unable to reach consensus and have no formal agreement or contract in place, I tender my resignation from Enterprise Florida, Inc. effective immediately."

Hart could not be reached for comment. Caught by surprise, Scott's office didn't elaborate on what Hart was referencing.

"It is odd that Chris Hart never shared any differences of opinion or vision with the governor until we first read that he had them in his resignation letter," said Jackie Schutz, communications director for Scott.

It's a stunning setback for Scott, who delivers his annual State of the State Address today. Already faced with an awkward ceremony with his rival, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Scott is now without a leader for the agency that's central to his No. 1 campaign promise: job creation. Enterprise Florida has called an emergency meeting of its board of directors just hours after Scott delivers his speech.

Hart, 48, is the second Enterprise Florida CEO to exit in nine months. Former CEO Bill Johnson was ousted in June after an audit report found lavish spending on office future, office space and travel and poor fiscal controls that made the agency ripe for fraud, though none was uncovered.

Hart also leaves at a time that abolishing Enterprise Florida has become one of the top priorities in the House. Republican leaders — led by Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes — see tax incentives of any sort given to private businesses as a form of corporate welfare.

On Monday, about five hours after Hart resigned, the House Rules Committee considered a bill that would completely eliminate Enterprise Florida and 23 other economic development programs. With Hart nowhere to be found, the agency's defense fell to Cissy Proctor, the secretary of the Department of Economic Opportunity. Not once during her testimony did Proctor address Hart's departure.

The bill to abolish the agency passed 15-3. Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, said instead of spending millions on tax breaks for a few companies, the state needs to invest that money in things that have a wider impact, like improving schools, infrastructure or cutting taxes for all businesses.

Killing Enterprise Florida and other incentives would slash about $232 million, a tiny sliver in a budget of more than $80 billion.

On Monday, Renner did make a key concession. He removed Visit Florida, the state agency that promotes tourism, entirely from the Enterprise Florida bill. His new bill on Visit Florida would require tough new transparency measures, but would not address the agency's budget at all. That would come later in the regular budget negotiations over the next 60 days.

That bill passed the Rules Committee on a 16-2 vote.

Rules Committee Chairman Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said Hart's departure raises more concerns.

"It certainly lends credibility to the argument that something is wrong there," Oliva said.

The turmoil comes at a time Scott employed unusual tactics against fellow Republicans in the Florida House, where Hart once served. Scott held rallies in the districts of more than a half dozen GOP House members to call them out by name for voting for the bill during earlier committee stops. He has also used his political committee, called Let's Get to Work, to fund campaign style robo calls against Republicans and cut a video slamming Corcoran as a "job killer."

Contact Jeremy Wallace at jwallace@tampabay.com. Follow @ JeremySWallace.