Integrity Florida works with Koch brothers group to go after Florida's economic incentives. (Photo via Integrity Florida)

Integrity Florida received funding from a Koch brothers group to study Florida’s economic incentives. (Photo courtesy of Integrity Florida.)

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Americans for Prosperity, a group best known for its conservative political work and connection to the Koch brothers, helped fund a study of Florida’s economic incentives program authored by Integrity Florida, an ethics watchdog in Tallahassee. The study criticized the state for using millions of tax dollars for handouts to private business while failing to spur job creation, which was the program’s main purpose.

Integrity Florida has long criticized the program. The state’s economic incentives program has included more tax dollars than ever and has been increasingly opaque — but the group’s connection to AFP for this study has received the bulk of the attention.

Gray Swoope, who runs the state’s economic incentives program, fired back at Integrity Florida for working with AFP, which he said has opposed any business subsidy.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, Swoope said of Integrity Florida:

“Integrity Florida has claimed to be a non-partisan, non-profit organization with no policy agenda. However, a report on economic incentives for job creation funded by a group that so publicly opposes these incentives is deeply troubling,” Swoope wrote in a letter back to Integrity Florida director Dan Krassner.

“Due to our increased concerns about the independence and balance of your analysis of our economic development tools, we are requesting that you publicly post and distribute our response to your report in the same manner that you have publicized your initial report. This response will include information left out of your report, including the aggressive actions the state has taken (and is currently undertaking) to pin down bad actors and ensure they are prosecuted to the full extent of the law, where laws are found to be violated.”

Other people are also not pleased with this collaboration. The Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times reported that one of the members of the group’s board, Martin Dyckman, severed his ties with Integrity Florida:

Dyckman, the retired associated editor for the Tampa Bay Times and long-time columnist and reporter, resigned his position on the all-volunteer board because of the sponsorship. Dyckman said he objected to the decision to accept money to finance the research but would have preferred that they accept contributions for general funding as other sources have done.

“I was very deeply concerned about the idea of any special entity being able to sponsor any research,” Dyckman told the Herald/Times on Tuesday. “As much as I personally detest Americans for Prosperity, I would not have any grounds for objections if they accept support for the organization in general…This creates the perception that a well-researched report is an attack by Americans For Prosperity.”

Despite the recent outrage, Integrity Florida has been one of a handful of groups that have consistently taken issue with program. Last year, a group of progressives tried to force some transparency into the program, but that has not come to fruition yet.

And according to the group’s latest study, there are still glaring problems:

Floridians have entrusted Enterprise Florida, a public–private partnership focused on economic development, with significant public resources to deliver high quality job creation results, yet the organization has failed to accomplish its goals. Why has Enterprise Florida struggled as an economic development program? To better understand its operations, we take a close look at the incentive agreements executed by Enterprise Florida in the 2012 fiscal year. We selected 2012 because it presents the most recent data. It’s also a year that the Florida Secretary of Commerce has boasted of being an exemplar of success, referring to previous years’ efforts as “marginal at best.”

In addition to illustrating the failure to meet legislative expectations, this report documents Enterprise Florida’s apparent conflicts of interest, the appearance of a pay-to-play scheme for winning favorable treatment and its repeated practice of picking winners and losers in the marketplace through targeted business, favoritism, and selective incentive deals.

Last year, the program was dealt a heavy blow when a movie company to which the state gave $20 million in economic incentives filed for bankruptcy. In one day, hundreds of workers in the state lost their jobs.

The economic incentives program in Florida has been around for decades. It was started by Lawton Chiles and was used heavily by former Gov. Charlie Crist. So far, the state has spent millions on these corporate handouts in the hopes that the incentives would generate more jobs or keep current jobs in the state. However, during Gov. Rick Scott’s administration, these incentives, along with large tax breaks, have formed the bedrock of the state’s job creation plans and have been used more than ever before.

Despite all the pushback, Dan Krassner told Tampa’s Creative Loafing he was glad to have AFP’s involvement.

Even though a group that typically backs Republicans helped fund the report, Democrats recently introduced in the state House and Senate a bill to reform the state’s economic incentives program.