Enterprise Florida Future in Crosshairs

Legislature

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY FRESHLY SQUEEZED CONTENT EVERY MORNING TUESDAY FEB 14, 2017

The continued existence of two state agencies focused on marketing Florida to outsiders could be at the center of the biggest political battle in Tallahassee this legislative session. And when legislation proposing an end to both Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida was passed in a committee vote last week, it also showed a fault division between lawmakers representing the Gulf Coast.

Rep. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, was the only Republican to vote against the bill, a measure that has been heavily pushed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran. “The whole conversation needs to be focused on jobs,” says Gruters, who feels both Enterprise Florida’s efforts to attract employers to the state and Visit Florida’s marketing aimed at bringing more tourists here both provide critical enrichment to the state economy. Gruters says the incentives and other business services overseen by Visit Florida play a major role in better diversifying the state economy, something important to prepare the state better for the next economic opportunity, while Visit Florida’s efforts to boost tourism, “the lifeblood of Florida,” ensure more people keep falling in love with the Sunshine State, then deciding to move here.

But among those voting against the bill was Rep. Julio Gonzalez, R-Venice, who says the issue doesn’t revolve around whether business recruitment or visitor marketing are useful services but around whether these state agencies have been responsible with tax dollars. He remains concerned money has been misspent on high-priced secret contracts with entertainers—a $1-million contract with rapper Pitbull garnered Visit Florida negative attention last year and led to the resignation of Chief Marketing Officer Paul Phipps—and on programs that sometimes show favoritism regarding competition businesses. “It may be worth revisiting those programs to see if they are working the way we want and if they still serve a purpose,” Gonzalez says.  

Gonzalez stressed, though, that the bill passed out of committee last week in a 10-5 vote would almost certainly evolve as the session continues. Gov. Rick Scott responded to the committee vote by tweeting House politicians “turned their back on jobs today by supporting job killing legislation.” That obviously doesn’t bode well for the bill making it past the governor’s desk, Gonzalez says, but by moving past the first committee, that guarantees a rigorous discussion happens this year about what can be done to prevent misuse of state funds by these agencies—or whatever agencies end up taking on the task of marketing the state to businesses and visitors.

But both Gruters and Gonzalez say a conversation about reform in both agencies is needed. “What we need to be doing is making sure these programs are better,” Gruters says. Gonzalez isn’t completely opposed to public incentives or state funding for marketing, but management of taxpayer dollars needs to be done in a positive way. “There is a proper role to help diversify our economy and help attract business from other states, particularly when we are considered in competition with states actively involved in this kind of activity,” he says. “Whether it’s Enterprise Florida or some reformed incarnation of Enterprise Florida, I’m still debating.”

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