Incentives Could Define Senate Race

Under The Hood

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY JUL 9, 2016

Need evidence incentives will face judgment in elections this year? The Florida arm of Americans For Prosperity sent mailers this week criticizing state Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, for his vote on an economic incentive and tax refund program this session. It didn’t sit well with Pilon, who is running for state Senate right now and just endorsed AFP’s “Reform Florida Agenda.” The mailer calls Pilon a supporter of “corporate welfare,” a charge the representative says is simply not true.

“They don’t know the difference between corporate welfare and taxpayer incentive dollars,” Pilon says. The incentives Pilon supports, he indicates, require a serious vetting and a rate of return on investment. It’s not like the Jeb Bush days of accountability-free grants. “But they don’t know the difference. They are very black and white about this. They have blinders on.”

Interestingly, AFP Florida Communications Manager Andres Malave agrees on that much. “We lay out clearly where we stand on this issue. It’s black and white for us,” Malave tells me. “We don’t move from those positions. With regard to corporate welfare in particular, we oppose it all.”

And this year, that opposition meant urging lawmakers to vote down Gov. Rick Scott’s top legislative priority, Enterprise Florida. “It’s not an easy task to look at a Republican-led Legislature, look them in the eye and say to oppose the governor’s chief piece of legislation,” Malave says. “It took enormous effort for activists.”

The Legislature did vote through a budget without $250 million in funding for Enterprise Florida something that prompted the resignation of the organization’s director—and which likely prompted the governor to veto just a little more than $250 million in spending just to make a point.

Pilon, though, notes he supported that budget, and boasted about defunding Enterprise. He says the vote being critiqued by AFP was a policy bill, one meant to reign in the organization. But it still allows for business and sports incentives, and that’s a problem for AFP.

Pilon also supported a recent decision by Sarasota County Commissioners to vote down an incentives package for a roofing company, including a match on state incentives. He’s suspicious the mailer was motivated by the ongoing Senate contest. AFP also sent a mailer praising state Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, who voted against the bill.

Malave, who once worked for former state Rep. Doug Holder, another candidate in the Senate contest, says the organization stays away from electioneering. In fact, AFP sent out letters critiquing every lawmaker who voted for this legislation, and praising everyone who voted against it. Notably, the organization last year sent out a mailer critiquing state Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, for supporting film incentives, even though she wasn’t seeking re-election (she was, as was well-known at the time, planning to run for Sarasota County Commission, a seat she recently won without opposition).

I’m certain AFP will be careful not to run afoul of rules, but the organization’s vocal stance on the issue will surely impact the Senate race, one of the most important contests in the state this year. A seven-person field (which also includes Republicans Nora Patterson and Rick Levine and Democrats Frank Alcock and Frank Cirillo) means every issue can have enormous effect in the field.

And AFP’s positions touch on local issues. The organization also praised Sarasota’s decision on the roofing incentives, and has criticized the county for engaging in negotiations trying to attract the Atlanta Braves here (incidentally, Pilon wants the team here as well, but promises to scrutinize any state incentives that may be involved). You can bet this isn’t the last time the issue comes up before voters weigh in.

Jacob Ogles is senior editor of SRQ Media Group.

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