By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
There is a big debate going on in Tallahassee about whether a state agency whose sole purpose is to create and keep jobs in Florida is doing its own job.
Enterprise Florida, which runs the state’s economic incentives program, has been the subject of scrutiny since Integrity Florida — an ethics watchdog — alleged in a report that the agency “has failed to accomplish its goals.” Enterprise Florida provides tax breaks to companies interested in relocating or creating jobs in to Florida.
These corporate handouts have been the bedrock of Scott’s job creation plans, along with massive tax breaks for businesses already in the state. No other governor has cut as many checks to corporations or used this program as vigorously as Scott.
Despite recent criticism of Enterprise Florida’s effectiveness, both Gov. Rick Scott and the man who runs the agency, Gray Swoope, are standing by it.
But lawmakers are now asking tough questions.
The Miami Herald/ Tampa Bay Times reports that a recent move by Scott to allocate more money to Enterprise Florida has added to the scrutiny:
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.
Another reason for concern about Integrity Florida is that the agency offers little to no transparency regarding which companies receive tax incentive money and how effective these incentives are in creating lasting jobs in Florida.
Groups have been asking the state to prove that the program — which is mostly funded by state tax dollars — is working.
Even though that hasn’t happend yet, Scott wants to increase Enterprise Florida’s budget by more than double.
One point Integrity Florida made that gets glossed over is that Enterprise Florida is no longer drawing an equal match of public and private dollars to fund its activties. Instead, taxpayers pay for about 85 percent of its operations and companies that sit as board members pay for the other 15 percent.
Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, chastized Enterprise Florida managers Tuesday for not making that goal.
“You have failed in that regard,” Fasano said. “What incenitve 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?”
Enterprise Florida is making a big ask this year: boosting economic-incentives from $111 million to $278 million, opening offices in China and Japan, $3 million for a “branding” campaign, and another $10 million “bonus” for itself it it makes Florida the most “business-friendly” in the state.
At the same time, lawmakers are asking for more disclosure from the agency about what they’ve bought for the more than $1 billion in incentives awarded over the last 17-plus years.
But controversy isn’t exclusive to Enterprise Florida. The group that first criticized the agency, Integrity Florida, has also been mired in controversy Already, two of the group’s board members have resigned because this latest report was funded in part by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political group backed by the billionaire Koch Brothers.