A major change in policy was recently made in Tallahassee with no votes in any committee. House leadership insisted on a backroom deal that virtually eliminates all funding for economic development projects through Enterprise Florida Inc.
The sad part is they gutted EFI while we were making progress on tightening up the way deals are done, so taxpayers could feel better about how their dollars are used. I know the issues of incentives are sometimes divisive, but few have been more aggressive in protecting taxpayer dollars than myself. For example, EFI has a number of waivers that allow them to circumvent return on investment requirements and wage requirements. We didn't think that was right, and our bill was getting rid of waivers.
We were having good conversations in the Legislature on how we could improve the current program, but all that came to a halt when leadership agreed to zero out funding for incentives. All of this caught me by surprise, because I don't remember any member going to the microphone to argue that we should raze Enterprise Florida. In fact, I doubt there's a member who campaigned on going to Tallahassee to dismantle the state's main economic development program. But that's what has happened.
My fear is that we've got new legislators who are putting ideology first and their constituents second. While everyone may be entitled to his or her opinions, they aren't entitled to their own set of facts.
The facts are that Enterprise Florida and incentives have demonstrable results. In the Tampa Bay area alone, the work of Enterprise Florida brought us businesses that have improved the quality of life in our communities. Enterprise Florida worked to secure USAA, which is creating 1,200 jobs and a capital investment of over $160 million; Bristol-Myers Squibb, which will create over 500 jobs with a capital investment of over $20 million; and Johnson & Johnson, which will create 490 jobs and create a capital investment of over $23 million.
If EFI didn't exist, those businesses wouldn't be here.
The fact is, those businesses are going to bring more dollars back to the state than what we put in. That's not my opinion — that's according to our Office of Economic & Demographic Research. Those new jobs both keep and bring people into Florida. They put more money into people's pockets, inject more money into area businesses — like restaurants and dry cleaners — and provide additional revenue for state and local governments for priorities like education and transportation. There's a reason Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman both publicly support the work of Enterprise Florida: They know the importance of economic development to our communities and they've seen it work.
Sometimes I am amazed at how short the memories are of some of my colleagues in the Legislature. It was only a few years ago that Florida faced double-digit unemployment and the state's budget was in the hole. It was in Gov. Rick Scott's term that we got back all the jobs that were lost in the recession and then some. I suppose since Florida's economic picture became rosier, the calls for job growth have softened. What we've seen now are a bunch of ideologues running state government who have "philosophical" issues with Enterprise Florida. Well, I've got my concerns too — and that's why I'm trying to do something about it. But "no" isn't a plan, and that's all that's been put forward to date.
With time running out this session, Florida is the third-largest state in the United States and may now have an economic development program that mirrors that of a Third World country. It's sad and it's tough to stomach, but that's where we're headed.
The fact is if the naysayers win, then the responsibility of economic development will become the burden of our local communities. The reality is, Florida's top economic development program is only days away from a complete shutdown. If leaders take our future seriously, they'll get back together and figure out a way to fund something everyone can feel comfortable about. If they don't, then we'll all just have to hope for the best next time a recession comes around.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, is chairman of the Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Subcommittee on Appropriations. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.