Business, Political Leaders Track Incentives Debate



Debate coursing through the halls of the state Capital has the attention of numerous business and political leaders along the Gulf Coast. With the future funding for Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida at stake, if not the very existence of the organizations, those with a stake in tourism and economic development within the region wait for the battle to play out in Tallahassee.

In the capital, Gov. Rick Scott has been trying to save funding for the agencies but House Speaker Richard Corcoran has led the charge for cutting funding, citing transparency issues with Visit Florida and problems with failed incentives efforts at Enterprise Florida. Scott has traveled the state rallying support for the agencies, which he calls necessary for job creation, while Corcoran has traveled making the case for fiscal prudence, including a recent visit to the Argus Foundation here.

But beyond the major players, local leaders also have trained focus on the debate. Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, watched with dismay when the Florida House held a floor vote in favor of stripping funding and putting heavy restrictions on Visit Florida. The restrictions, Haley says, would be so severe if they became law that her own local organization would not be able to work in conjunction with the state organization. She labeled the vote a “travesty,” the result of a speaker who demanded lock-step support from his caucus in a fight with the governor. 

But Steve Vernon, president of the Lakewood Ranch Republican Club and a board member for the Florida Citizens Alliance, says businesses and tourism shouldn’t need to be supported with taxpayer dollars. “We don’t need to spend a lot of money advertising sunshine,” he says. “It sells itself.” As for business incentives for startups and corporate relocations facilitated by Enterprise Florida, that simply violated principles of capitalism, Vernon says. “We shouldn’t believe in corporate welfare or picking one firm over another.”

Dan Lobeck, president of Control Growth Now, called incentives "corporate welfare" and says he sides with Corcoran on this debate. Enterprise Florida and other entities negotiating incentives too often end up offering deals to politically influential businesses that make hiring decisions on market conditions anyway. "It's a huge waste of taxpayer money," he says.

Interestingly, one state incentive offered to relocate North American Roofing’s corporate headquarters to Florida created a major political stir in Sarasota County last year; county commissioners ultimately voted against offering local incentives and the company located to Tampa instead. Mary Dougherty-Slapp, executive director of the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange, spoke fiercely against the incentive offer at the time because the region already serves as home to other corporate roofing companies. But she says her organization still supports Enterprise Florida as a whole. “As an organization we are supporting incentives,” she says. “We considered Mulligan (the roofing deal) an outlier.” The organization would like to see successful state efforts to attract new business to Florida, which in turn will keep commercial construction companies busy building new facilities. The state simply needs to be focused on attracting businesses that genuinely help diversify the economy.

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