House Democrats voice disapproval of Enterprise Florida

By William Patrick of Watchdog.org

But this time, several House Democrats joined their Republican counterparts in voicing displeasure with Enterprise Florida. House Minority Leader Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, even broke ranks and voted with the GOP, although she was the only Democrat to do so on Tuesday.

The shared criticism signals an area of bipartisan agreement at the outset of a legislative process that’s sure to entail a contentious and drawn-out process of argument and amendment.

Two weeks ago, House Republicans aligned with Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, to push through committee a “corporate welfare” crackdown measure. That bill would have eliminated Enterprise Florida, the state’s chief economic incentive program, and Visit Florida, a state-funded tourism marketing corporation.

Corcoran changed course Monday, opting instead to overhaul the way Visit Florida operates and cut its annual funding from $76 million to $25 million. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, introduced a 190-page substitute amendment replacing all previous language relating to Visit Florida with what he called accountability reforms. It was adopted by voice vote, then the bill — with Enterprise Florida remaining on the chopping block — was approved 18-12.

‘I’d be happy to kill it for you’

ROUND 2: House Republicans passed a bill targeting Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida through a second committee stop on Tuesday. Some Democrats are starting to voice their disapproval as well.

Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, was perhaps the most vocal opponent of the taxpayer-funded business assistance organization during a House Appropriations Committee hearing on Tuesday.

“I have very little good to say about Enterprise Florida and the way it has been conducted in the past,” he said.

Richardson said he was disappointed that the quasi-state agency has never lived up to it’s required 50-50, public-private funding match. Legislative audits show public funding has historically hovered around 90 percent since Enterprise Florida’s founding in 1996.

“The statute as it currently reads requires that this public-private partnership be 50-50. It has never been 50-50,” he said.

The South Florida Democrat added that the 10 percent private funding has been kept separate so that it could be used as a “slush fund” for items that would never have been allowed under regular government rules and regulations, such as splurging on expensive furniture, travel and meals.

The rub, however, is that eliminating Enterprise Florida also would include reducing Visit Florida’s budget to pre-2009 levels under the substitute approved this week, something Richardson said he wasn’t prepared to do.

“But if you pull out Enterprise Florida … I’d be happy to kill it for you,” he said.

Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Sunrise, admitted that she and some of her committee colleagues were uncomfortable supporting Enterprise Florida incentives because they didn’t fully trust the performance data offered by Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s administration. Scott is currently seeking $151 million in funding for the Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida this year.

“I would venture to say that the integrity of the reports and in the numbers leaves a lot to be desired,” she said.

Edwards cited the Hertz Corp. as an example. In 2013, the rental car behemoth received an $85 million tax-incentive package to relocate its corporate headquarters from New Jersey to Estero, south of Fort Myers. Hertz committed to creating 700 jobs as part of the deal, but Edwards said the most recent information she could find was from March 2016. Three years into the arrangement, Hertz had created 150 jobs.

Edwards said it’s not enough to “issue a press release, and say, ‘Yeah, this is wonderful.’”

But the only Democratic lawmaker on the Appropriations Committee to vote in favor of killing Enterprise Florida and cutting Visit Florida’s spending by 67 percent on Tuesday was Minority Leader Cruz.

“In my family, there were consequences for bad behavior. It was usually a pretty good size whoopin’,” the Tampa Democrat said.

Peeling away Democrats

The GOP-controlled legislature is mostly divided into two camps regarding Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida.

The free-market side is headed by Corcoran and dominates the state House. The pro-business group is led by Scott, whose backers often subscribe to the argument that if other states are awarding public funds to private business, then Florida has no other choice but to do the same if the state is going to compete.

Peeling away Democrats who dislike Enterprise Florida would be a boon for the anti-incentive funding crowd heading into the 60-day formal legislative session beginning March 7.

That means a focus on “corporate welfare” over “economic development.”

“In my district, the average income is $39,000. There’s a woman in my district who works two jobs to barely make that,” Cruz said. “What’s happened here is that we’ve lost the confidence of Floridians and specifically many people in my district.”

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, the House Appropriations chairman, closed his remarks with his own constituent story.

“Near my district, there’s a gentleman who owns 500 gas stations. He’s paid taxes in the state for 40 years. He built his businesses from the ground up. He leveraged his own capital, took out his own loans and risked his entire livelihood. He’s never asked a single thing from the state,” Trujillo said.

“Meanwhile, our state is procuring one of his competitors,” Trujillo continued. “He’s now going to be competing against a competitor who’s subsidized by his own tax dollars.”

Renner closed by saying that hundreds of millions of tax dollars are going to “a privileged few,” and that it’s time to “cut up the credit card.”

The next stop for the bill is the full House, which convenes March 7.

William Patrick is Watchdog.org’s Florida reporter. His work has been featured by Fox News, the Drudge Report, and Townhall.com, as well as other national news and opinion websites. He’s also been cited and reposted by numerous state news organizations, including Florida Trend, Sunshine State News and the Miami Herald, and is a member of Investigative Reporters & Editors and the Florida Press Association. 

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