Economic Development Battle Looms Over Legislative Session

Mar 6, 2017
Originally published on March 3, 2017 4:35 pm

One of the big debates taking shape this legislative session is about state involvement in economic development. The capitol’s powerbrokers are picking sides in the battle, which is threatening to derail session before it even begins.

It all began with the rapper Pitbull, and a secret million dollar contract with the state’s tourism branch Visit Florida. The deal riled up the new Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran, who’s making a name for himself as a conservative crusader. He believes the state doesn’t need to spend money to attract new businesses and tourists, calling the practice corporate welfare. Now Visit Florida, Enterprise Florida and the Lottery are all squarely in his crosshairs.

“They’re not consistent with our principles, and that’s what we’ve talked about, that principles matter,” Corcoran said.

House lawmakers are falling into step behind the new leader, and are ready to partially defund Visit Florida and abolish Enterprise Florida entirely. But for Governor Rick Scott, these programs are not frivolous. He built his administration on the promise of job creation, and sees the programs as essential. Now he’s taking his argument on the road. And the lawmakers that voted to cut funding? He’s calling them out by name in their own districts.

“Travis Cummings voted to eliminate Enterprise Florida and voted to cut the funding for visit Florida by two thirds. That’s gonna impact families’ jobs. So I’m gonna travel the state and tell everybody look, call your house member. Let them know jobs are important in your community,” Scott said.

Matt Thompson owns the Tallahassee restaurant Madison Social, which sits a block away from Doak Campbell Stadium. His business directly depends on college football fans, who flock from around the state for home games. And he sees tourism marketing as an international arms race.

“If you’re going to get state funding and tax payers’ dollars you need to be able to answer the call and showcase what you’re doing and have transparency. But to even entertain removing funding? That’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” Thompson said.

Some powerful Senators are taking sides as well. As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala holds the purse strings. And he intends to fund the economic development programs.

“We’ve got 1.2 million jobs in Florida that depend on tourists. I don't want to give away those jobs just because one guy or three guys did a bad job,” Latvala said.

Senate President Joe Negron remains optimistic the two chambers can agree on a budget. And in recent weeks, Corcoran is softening his tone, but he’s not backing down.

“We have a position on an issue and we believe in our position on that issue and we’ll fight for our position on that issue, and we’ll try to do it as civilly and as honorably as we can,” Corcoran said.

And the Governor isn’t letting up either. And that tension may not bode well for passing a budget on time. But some politicos warn the feud may not end with this year’s lawmaking session. Both Scott and Corcoran are expected to run for statewide office in 2018.

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