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Florida House Republicans ready to kill jobs program despite Rick Scott's protests

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State Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, answers questions about his plan to kill Enterprise Florida during a debate on the floor of the Florida House of Representatives on Thursday. State Rep. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican and ardent defender of the agency, watches on. (Photo: Scott Keeler/Tampa Bay Times)

@JeremySWallace

Despite unusual political pressure from Gov. Rick Scott over a period of weeks, Florida House Republicans shrugged off his stinging attacks and took a big step toward destroying his No. 1 legislative priority.

On Thursday the Florida House started debate on a bill that would kill Enterprise Florida, the economic development agency Scott has relied on to hand out tax breaks to companies in exchange for them creating jobs in Florida. The bill is now almost certain to pass the Republican-led Florida House on Friday, a stunning act of defiance of the sitting Republican governor and his top legislative priority.

State Rep. Paul Renner, a Republican from Flagler County in northeast Florida, offered no apologies as he rolled out his plan that would kill 24 difference economic development and tax credit programs in Florida in a quest to rid government of what House leaders have called “corporate welfare.” Renner said Enterprise Florida is selective in picking companies to get subsidies, often over competitors.

“These incentives violate principles of fairness and they also pick winners and losers,” Renner said.

To hammer home his point, Renner took a subtle jab at Scott, proposing a scenario in which a doughnut shop, which gets no incentives, watches another one open across the street with the help of government incentives paid for by taxpayers. Scott famously touts his days of running a doughnut shop in the 1970s as his start to becoming a businessman.

Better than handing out tax breaks to a few companies, Renner said the government should use that money to improve education, infrastructure or cut taxes more broadly.

It’s not just Renner gunning for Enterprise Florida, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, has been an ardent opponent of the tax break programs despite Scott admonishing both him and Florida House members over the last two months for taking him on over the issue.

In an unprecedented series of political steps since February:

-Scott has personally visited House districts around Florida and personally called out Republicans who voted to kill Enterprise Florida in earlier committee stops including Renner,
-he paid for robo calls through a political committee he runs to rip Republicans like Renner in their home districts
-and used his political committee, Let's Get to Work, to make a campaign-like video mocking Corcoran and calling him a “job killer” for pushing the idea.

Scott’s reaction is partly due to how important Enterprise Florida has been to his political legacy. In 2010, he ran for governor as a self-proclaimed jobs governor who would create 700,000 private sector jobs in 7 years. In his State of the State address on Tuesday to the Florida Legislature, he credited Enterprise Florida for generating 900 job-creating projects since he was elected in 2010 and pushed back against the criticism from Renner and Corcoran.

“It’s easy to throw out catch phrases like ‘picking winners and losers’ and ‘corporate welfare,’” Scott said. “By the way, I don’t like either of those things. I doubt anyone in this chamber does. But that’s not what we are doing.  We are competing with 49 other states and hundreds of countries for jobs.  When we bring new jobs to Florida, there are only winners.”

That speech did little to sidetrack the House Republicans from their mission of killing that agency, which is suddenly without a leader. On Monday, with little notice, Enterprise Florida’s CEO Chris Hart IV quit with a terse note to Scott. Hart was set to make $200,000 a year and had only been on the job since January. He’s the agency’s second CEO to hit the exit in just nine months. In June 2016, former CEO Bill Johnson had his contract terminated after and audit criticized the agency for spending too much money on offices, travel, and middle management and having poor financial controls that could have made it ripe for abuses.

The only reprieve on Thursday for Scott came in the form of the House easing up on their original plan to kill Visit Florida too. Corcoran had pushed for eliminating that agency too, ever since Miami pop star Pitbull disclosed that he was paid $1 million by Visit Florida in a mostly secret contract to promote Florida as a “Sexy Beaches” destination. But earlier this week, the House agreed to remove Visit Florida from the chopping block, and instead put out a separate bill that would require tough new restrictions on the agency that includes forcing it to get approval from House and Senate leaders for any future contracts they agree to that are over $750,000 - a provision the Pitbull contract inspired. No other government agencies in Florida has to get prior approval for contracts over $750,000, state Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, noted in question Renner’s legislation. But Renner said they are treating Visit Florida different from other agencies because it has lost the confidence of the public because of their past spending practices.

“We won’t have any more Pitbull contracts that don’t get legislative oversight,” Renner says.

Even though the Visit Florida bill is less damaging for the agency than the original plan to kill it, Scott’s office has opposed the legislation saying some go too far. They say Visit Florida needs to be able to operate more nimbly and not have so much redtape to cut through to get deals done in the private sector.

The House cannot kill Enterprise Florida on its own. In order for the bill to become law, it also must clear the Florida Senate, which has no similar legislation moving. Even if the Senate were to pass the same measure it would go to Scott, who as governor could veto the bill anyway.

But as is typically the case in Tallahassee, the issue is not that simple. Later this spring when the Legislature writes the annual budget, the House could renew the fight by barring funding to Enterprise Florida, setting up a fight with the Senate and the Governor over the budget.
 
Scott has asked the Legislature for $23.5 million to fund Enterprise Florida’s base operations next year and has sought another $85 million for economic incentives to convince companies to move to Florida.

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