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'How do you justify your existence?' And other lawmaker questions for Enterprise Fla.

“Why do we need $3 million to create a state business brand?”

“Do we have a way to show how much cash has been given out and what we’ve got for it”?

“Have you given any raises over the last five years?”

“How do you assure us that those board members that are paying $50,000 to sit on tyour board  are not receiving  special treatment?”

“How do you justify your existence?”

It was a series of tough questions Tuesday morning for Enterprise Florida, the public-private organization that helps run Florida’s job creation efforts.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle peppered EFI executives with questions about how the company is managing the state’s economic incentives program.

The program uses taxpayer funds and tax credits to draw companies to Florida—or, more often, to get companies that are already here to stay or expand.

Gov. Rick Scott released his budget proposal last month, including a massive increase in spending for these types of incentives. Scott wants legislators to approve nearly $300 million in incentives, up from about $110 million approved last year.

That proposal—and the high profile bankruptcy of Digital Domain, which received $20 million from taxpayers—has led to much more scrutiny into the economic incentives program. 

That has landed Enterprise Florida in the hot seat, with officials being called to testify before the Legislature more than a dozen times in the last few weeks.

 “You can see why this is important,” said Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater. “You’re asking for a lot of money that we’re going to set aside in our budget strictly for [projects that] may come about, and what may not.”

The questions came fast and pointed for Enterprise Florida’s chief operating officer, who was standing in for CEO Gray Swoope. Rep. Hazelle Rogers, D-Lauderdale Lakes, wanted to know if EFI has given out raises to employees, even as it has failed to meet its 50-percent threshold for private matching funds.

The company approved a $70,000 bonus for its CEO and hundreds of thousands more for staff members last year. Meanwhile, taxpayers funded 85 percent of its balance sheet, much higher than the desired 50-percent threshold. Despite the 85-percent taxpayer funding, EFI staff operates under different rules from regular government employees, who have not seen pay raises in more than six years.

EFI said that its compensation levels are still not where they should be.

The company answered other questions about its operations by highlighting that it has exceeded requirements on most of its economic incentives deals.

It also gave lawmakers a point-by-point rebuttal to a scathing report released last week by Integrity Florida and Americans for Prosperity. The report accused Enterprise Florida of self-dealing and failing to live up to job creation goals.

Enterprise Florida called into question Integrity Florida’s integrity, saying the organization’s funding from the Koch brothers-funded group AFP clouded its independence.

“It is rather questionable and certainly unfortunate that you continue to use innuendo and misinformation to attack Enterprise Florida,” Swoope wrote in a letter to Integrity Florida.

Integrity Florida responded by stating: “The people of Florida deserve better than the secrecy and lack of accountability exhibited byEnterprise Florida."

See Integrity Florida’s report here

See Enterprise Florida’s full rebuttal here.