Peek at Florida corporate handouts isn't pretty

Published June 30, 2012

Oops. Gov. Rick Scott's administration late last month inadvertently gave Floridians a more complete picture of how their tax money is being given away to corporations in an expensive attempt to create jobs. It's not a pretty sight, and it raises more questions about corporate welfare, secrecy and whether the money would be better spent investing in the state.

A spreadsheet the state released by mistake reveals Florida has pledged nearly $155 million in tax breaks and other incentives since January 2011 in return for promises to create up to 32,570 jobs. Scott and his top aides argued that the list should not be made public because about 30 percent of the deals remained confidential and are exempt from public records laws. But the list is truthful information that was lawfully obtained by Integrity Florida, a new nonprofit research group, and sent to several news organizations by the First Amendment Foundation, which promotes open government. (Full disclosure: Tampa Bay Times Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens is chairman of the First Amendment Foundation.)

While it's understandable that incentive deals in some stages might be kept from public view for competitive reasons, taxpayers deserve to know how their money is being spent before the deals are approved by public officials.

For example, the list reveals that the Fortune 500 company that will receive $1.05 million in incentives for creating up to 150 jobs in St. Petersburg is CBS Corporate Services. The St. Petersburg City Council and the Pinellas County Commission approved the deal in December, but state law prevented the disclosure of the company's name even as elected officials were voting on the tax breaks. Voters should not be left in the dark on these deals, but the Legislature renewed the public records exemptions this spring that relate to these arrangements. In some cases, taxpayers don't know who is getting their money even months after the tax breaks are approved.

Even when some tax breaks are publicized, it turns out there are millions more on the table that have not been disclosed. The public already knew that Raymond James Financial is receiving millions in incentives from Pasco County and the state to add up to 750 jobs in two new office towers in the Wesley Chapel area. But the state list also shows another $1.75 million was approved in September for Raymond James for 350 jobs. Neither the state nor the company would explain why the public numbers do not match the private ones.

Here's a question: Why is the state handing out tax breaks to large companies such as Raymond James, Darden Restaurants, Publix Super Markets and Winn-Dixie that already have a large presence in Florida? While Scott has talked about calling CEOs himself and luring companies from out of state, an Orlando Sentinel analysis shows most of tax incentive deals under his administration are going to companies that are already here.

Of course, tax breaks for the promise of jobs are not new. The Sentinel reports Gov. Jeb Bush handed out tax rebates and credits worth $796 million to 645 companies, or an average of $1.2 million per company. Gov. Charlie Crist gave out $611.9 million to 331 companies, or slightly more than $1.8 million per company. Scott has had less money to work with in a bad economy, and the $155 million to 203 companies is an average of $763,000 each. While the tens of millions both Bush and Crist handed to biotech companies skews their totals, at least they had a focus. What is Scott's?

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Of course Florida needs to create jobs. But there should be a healthy public debate about whether the best way to do that is to invest in public schools, higher education and other priorities that make for an attractive place to work and live — or to promise more tax breaks for jobs that too often don't materialize. That's a difficult discussion to have when the public cannot see the full picture of how much public money is being handed out to which big corporations.