Florida's public-private job development agency is struggling to fend off pressure from the public, lawmakers and advocacy groups questioning why Gov. Rick Scott should get more tax money spent for corporate breaks.
Enterprise Florida wants to boost economic-incentives from $111 million to $278 million this year and to open offices in Israel, China and Japan. It also is seeking $3 million for a branding campaign and another $10 million "bonus" for itself if it makes Florida the most "business-friendly" in the state.
House Economic Development budget chairman Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, said Tuesday he was being flooded with public comments on Florida's incentive programs in the wake of news media reports about them.
"The public certainly has become engaged in how we spend their money," Hoper said, calling the governor's request a tough sell.
His Senate counterpart, Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, is pushing a bill to require more intense review of incentive programs that would also include restructuring how the state gives out entertainment-industry tax credits.
"This bill's going. It's just a matter of what we add to it," Gardiner said.
The government watchdog group Integrity Florida also came out last week with a scathing report accusing Enterprise Florida of "pay-to-play" tactics with vendors and failing to create promised jobs.
But Enterprise Florida CEO Gray Swoope shot back Tuesday that the group was confusing Enterprise Florida with its predecessor, misplacing a 200,000-job goal never put on the current agency and misreading the jobs "created" and "jobs" executed to be created.
"It is rather questionable and certainly unfortunate that you continue to use innuendo and misinformation to attack Enterprise Florida ... its board and supporters of the state's economic development mission," Swoope said.
But Hooper's committee Tuesday grilled Scott's office for more evidence about what they've accomplished with the hundreds of millions in incentive-dollars awarded in recent years.
"Every time a job was created back home, don't take credit for that job," Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, told Enterprise Florida executives. "Give me proof that these small businesses are getting assistance."
Rep. Bruce Antone, D-Orlando, questioned why the state had given "high crime" incentives to Universal Studies for its Harry Potter attraction.
The Orlando Sentinel reported this month that Universal has claimed more than $2.3 million worth of state tax credits since mid-2010 based on jobs it added to accommodate the millions of travelers flocking to Wizarding World. Universal got the taxpayer help by tapping a 16-year-old program designed to encourage businesses to expand in or move into crime-plagued communities.
"What exactly has been the value of this program?" Antone said, requesting a map of how far the "high-crime" zone extended beyond the attraction.
Fasano also chastised Enterprise Florida managers Tuesday for not making the goal of drawing half its dollars from corporate sponsors that sit on its board.
"You have failed in that regard," Fasano said. "What incentive does the private sector have of giving you dollars or ponying up dollars when the taxpayers continue to put up the vast majority of the money?"
An Enterprise Florida executive said the company met the target for a decade.
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