Lawmakers in Tallahassee during the legislative session thus far have largely avoided conversations regarding business incentives, the topic that dominated dialogue in the state Capitol last year. In Sarasota County, though, the topic gets broached when officials study how to handle state mandates and the steady grinding down of reserves.

Mark Huey, president of the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County, says for this year he’s not concerned about the loss of funding, but he says it’s vital the tool remain available for the recruitment of businesses into the region. “The incentive funds we have in place are staying in place,” Huey says. “And most local communities around the state, certainly the ones who are serious about diversifying the economy, are being protective of local incentives.”

The use of incentives to assist business recruitment and encourage company expansion always drew detractors, who critique the offer of breaks on taxes as corporate welfare and an example of government picking winners and losers in the private sector. That conversation led to a showdown last year between Gov. Rick Scott and state Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran, which ultimately ended up in a deal to end Enterprise Florida’s control of incentives funding and instead set up an $85-million job growth grant fund with more transparency.

This year, lawmakers say there’s been no interest in jumping back into a heated discussion, either to boost incentives or scale them back. “There’s no chance of any incentives bill passing this year, across the board,” says state Rep. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota. Gruters last year was among few Republicans to buck House leadership and back continuing the incentives program at Visit Florida. But this year, he’s looked for smaller tools for building economic growth. 

He supports refunding a state fund for film incentives, and says Florida continues to lose entertainment business because of a refusal to offer anything to compare with aggressive states like Georgia. His district includes the headquarters for Feld Entertainment, which could benefit from such incentives, as could Ringling College of Art and Design, which just opened a state-of-the-art production studio available for outside use. “If we are not doing everything we can to bring film projects here, we are costing ourselves,” he says. But with incentives a non-starter this year, Gruters stood as the only Republican at a January press conference in favor of a new revolving loan program to encourage projects set up shop here. He expects there will at least be a House workshop exploring such a program where industry experts testify on the impacts on Florida’s film industry, but he acknowledges it's unlikely the legislation can pass this year.

And state Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, says he’s heard no discussions of any type of incentives large or small. “I’ve not had a single person come talk to me about it,” he says.

That leaves the conversation back at the municipal level. But even in Sarasota County, where in 2010 67 percent of voters supported a tax abatement referendum to fund incentives, the question of whether to fund incentives has been explored. Despite a robust economy right now, Sarasota last year dealt with a $5.4 million shortfall, requiring commissioners to tap into reserves. In October, county administration explored ways to fill that gap for the coming year by, among other things, turning to some $1.5 million in business incentives and redistributing that to cover needs. 

And the use of county incentives in the past drew heavy criticism, especially as certain deals failed to pay off. Most infamously, Sarasota leaders in 2010 called a press conference to announce the opening of Sanborn Studios in Sarasota, a production outfit staffed with experienced Hollywood executives. But despite $650,000 in economic incentives, the studio never delivered on promised jobs and the county had to pursue clawback provisions in its contract to recoup money. In 2016, Sanborn Studios agreed to pay back $350,000 to Sarasota County.

Sarasota County Commissioner Paul Caragiulo says incentives at the time of the Sanborn contract, before Caragiulo joined the county board, came with too little oversight and too much hard-dollar payout. “We had a couple big, colossal, high-profile breakdowns,” he says. “We were writing checks and not knowing where to take the money. But that’s not what we are doing now.” The county now won’t hand out dollars before promises get delivered upon, which has translated into less embarrassing episodes. Because of that change, he feels defunding incentives would be a mistake. Besides that, it wouldn't address budget shortfalls long-term. “It doesn’t seem like a real logical plan to deal with a fiscal issue that will not be eliminated by this,” he says. “The problem is only eliminated momentarily, and I’m not willing to take that risk.”

But the issue for many isn’t about dollars but principles. The influential Americans For Prosperity organization has heavily lobbied against business incentives in Florida, whether for corporate recruitment, film projects or sports venues. AFP spokesman Andres Molave, who once worked in Venice for then-state Rep. Doug Holder, regularly comments online about incentives and last year provided much of the information used by Corcoran in the fight against fully funding Enterprise Florida. In January, he heavily critiqued a deal to use state funding to retain the Florida Marlins. “Government shouldn’t be in the business of handing out taxpayer dollars for the entertainment industry,” he says.

AFP issued an open commentary to lawmakers this year slamming both state and local insistence on raiding coffers to lure companies. “Rather than leaning on tax breaks and giveaways to attract business, cities should concentrate on building business-friendly environments by implementing pro-growth policies that remove regulatory red tape and foster economic growth.” The piece noted that Amazon, after receiving incentives proposals from around the country, released a top 20 list of cities where it could locate its major Amazon HQ2 corporate complex. Only one Florida city, Miami, made the list despite many packages promising state incentives. Meanwhile, Texas communities Austin and Dallas and Tennessee’s Nashville made the cut without promising tax breaks.

Sarasota had put in a bid too, and did not make the cut. Huey, while proud of the bid, says he actually predicted not a single Florida community would make Amazon’s list of finalists. The local proposal did include an incentives offer, a big one tapping virtually all local dollars in hopes of bringing 50,000 new jobs to the Gulf Coast with a single relocation. But it wasn’t all incentives, he says. The Sarasota proposal included giving the undeveloped land in Lakewood Ranch’s commercial park entirely to Amazon, a land mass Huey doubts could be rivaled in any other Florida pitch.

Economic development leaders perpetually say incentives don’t provide the first or only tool in luring companies. Huey regularly suggests that a company whose first question is about incentives should be allowed a second question. The prime reasons for companies to move to the region typically involve workforce training and educational resources, or they turn on the available housing stock available in the region for workers of a certain income level. But having incentives available, he says, help determine if a community gets a seat at the table to pitch the community in the first place.

“At the EDC, we’re not ones to get all wound up on the philosophy of incentives,” Huey says. “We simply exist in a competitive world. Ever since the state eliminated its incentives, the deal flow has gone down. And with certain kinds of projects and opportunities, the state just isn’t getting a shot anymore because we don’t have the state tools. But communities that are savvy, like ours, are doing everything we can to preserve local incentives.”