TALLAHASSEE — In a rebuke of Gov. Rick Scott, the Florida House on Wednesday took its first step toward killing two state agencies charged with promoting tourism and economic development, two of his chief priorities.
Dozens of local economic development agencies and tourism promoters packed a committee room in Tallahassee for two hours, warning lawmakers that shuttering those agencies would hurt tourism, their industries and ultimately the state economy.
Among those was Ed Caum of Island Paradise Charters of New Port Richey, who warned that without Visit Florida small companies like his will struggle to reach visitors because they don't have the marketing might that Visit Florida provides.
"I think we will lose thousands of jobs," Caum said.
But backed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, Republicans on the Careers & Competition subcommittee voted for a bill that would kill both agencies, block counties from spending local hotel tax money on stadiums for sports franchises and end tax credits for film makers. It passed by a 10-5 vote.
State Rep. Paul Renner, R-Jacksonville, called the vote a principled stand to get back to the "secret sauce of prosperity."
"At the most basic level, incentives are fundamentally unfair to the millions — the vast majority of Floridians who work hard and try to run a business and will never see one dollar of government incentives," he said.
Dozens of tea party activists testified that they opposed taxpayer handouts to private businesses.
"It is corporate welfare," said Alexander Snitker, a New Port Richey man who in the past has run for statewide office as a Libertarian Party candidate.
The bill still has a long way to go, with more committee stops in the House. The Florida Senate appears apprehensive about dismantling both agencies. Even it if got passed in both chambers, Scott would have a chance to veto the bill.
Even so, Mark Segel of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp., said it was "unacceptable" that lawmakers were sending a message that Florida might not be willing to compete with other states and cities for businesses. He said that hurts local communities where incentives might be available because state lawmakers have created the perception that nothing is available.
"The perception is that there is no way Florida is going to be competitive, we're not going to get our opportunity," Segel said.
Mike Meidel, director of Pinellas County Economic Development, took issue with Renner suggesting incentives pick winners and losers. He said when businesses move into the area it helps everyone.
"The fundamental presuppositions to this bill are wrong," he said.
Bill Talbert of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau warned that by retreating on marketing, Florida could lose tourists.
"At the end of the day, it's about jobs," Talbert said of the impact of those tourists.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has criticized the spending of both Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida, but stopped short of endorsing the elimination of both agencies. He said he wants to "recast" them, not eliminate them like the House.
Earlier on Wednesday, Brandes held a hearing that suggested Enterprise Florida hasn't lived up to its promise of being a 50-50 partnership between the state and private industry. An audit showed that while taxpayers gave the agency $25 million, the private sector gave just $4.8 million this year.
Scott has fumed about the Legislature's opposition to a pair of agencies he says are key to Florida's economic turnaround since 2010. On Tuesday Scott vented for 15 minutes with reporters, calling into question Corcoran's motives and warning that the state's economic health was at risk.
Scott proposed a budget last week that calls for $85 million for Enterprise Florida to give tax incentives to companies to relocate and grow in Florida. He's also called for continuing record funding — $76 million — for Visit Florida.
House Republicans (and some in the Senate) have criticized both Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida. Corcoran said last week that he has no intention of giving Scott what he wants for either because he considers it corporate welfare.
"There won't be any incentives in the budget," Corcoran said last week.
Both Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida have faced major upheavals over the past 12 months. Both agencies have pushed out highly paid CEOs and been warned by Scott to clean up their finances and their transparency.
Enterprise Florida was faulted by auditors for overspending on office space, management and travel expenses plus for lacking proper financial controls. Visit Florida, meanwhile, has come under fire for spending more than $5 million to advertise the state on a race car, with a British soccer team and in a music video with pop star Pitbull.
Contact Jeremy Wallace at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @JeremySWallace.