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Business Leaders Warily Watch Incentives Debate

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ORLANDO (CBSMiami/NSF) – Several hundred business leaders met Thursday in Orlando to talk about job creation across Florida, with a focus clearly on Tallahassee.

The kickoff of a two-day “jobs summit” hosted by Gov. Rick Scott at the Caribe Royale Orlando at times painted a bleak picture of the state’s economic future if lawmakers follow a hardline stance maintained by state House leaders against business-recruitment incentives and tourism marketing.

Scott has called for lawmakers to back his $85 million request for business-recruitment incentives at Enterprise Florida and $76 million for tourism marketing through Visit Florida. Proponents at the jobs summit echoed the governor’s concern that the state won’t be braced for the next economic recession if such economic-development efforts are allowed to lag.

“If we don’t have a strong, diverse economy, we will suffer,” Florida Power & Light President and CEO Eric Silagy said.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, long rumored to have his eye on a gubernatorial run in 2018, said “now is not the time to take the foot off the accelerator,” related to spending on economic development, education and marketing.

“The state that just seven years ago was having obituaries written about it, leads the nation in job creation,” Putnam said. “You can’t raise cattle by accident. You can’t build world-class attractions by accident. You can’t attract 105 million visitors to our state by accident.”

Putnam later expressed his support for both Enterprise Florida, which met earlier in the day in Orlando, and Visit Florida.

“I’m hopeful that by the end of session there will be a way forward that reinforces the signal that Florida is open for business,” Putnam told reporters, referring to the upcoming legislative session. “Some of the messaging that is out there now is mixed, and what we heard from site selectors this morning at Enterprise Florida’s board meeting is that that’s costing us opportunities.”

Putnam also rejected the argument that Florida will continue to attract its current level of tourists without marketing.

“Disney is pretty successful, and they still run ads,” Putnam said.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran a Land O’ Lakes Republican who has questioned the need for Visit Florida, has argued that people will come to Florida with or without taxpayer marketing. He also has likened business incentives to “corporate welfare.” A 172-page bill that will go before the House Careers & Competition Subcommittee on Wednesday seeks to abolish both Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida.

Another message hammered during the stream of panel discussions and speakers at the summit was that while the state continues to experience job growth, it will be tougher to market the state to businesses seeking to relocate or maintain the growth in tourism if lawmakers limit the job creation “took kit.”

Kelly Smallridge, president of Palm Beach County’s Business Development Board, said the state is already experiencing the impact of the House leaders’ stance against economic incentives.

“I can already see a slowdown in the prospect pipeline, which is pretty scary,” Smallridge said.

Public declarations by House leaders that no incentives will be approved this year isn’t helping, she said.

“If you’re a big company and you’re looking at Florida right now, they start to Google, they start to search ‘what’s the environment like in Florida?'” Smallridge said. “Companies need clarity as to the business environment and the attitude towards economic development in order to determine whether or not if Florida is the right site for their significant capital investment. You’re not going to move your family into a neighborhood if you don’t what is going on in and around it.”

Scott opened the summit by repeating his call for support from the business community for the economic incentives and tourism marketing.

“We all have to get more politically active,” Scott said.

However, Scott made a similar plea to Enterprise Florida members a year ago and then failed to land a request for $250 million in business-recruitment incentives.

During an annual Associated Press event Tuesday at the Capitol, Corcoran said “there won’t be any incentives in the budget.”

House Minority Leader Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, lent her support to Corcoran, saying the state has “misplaced priorities.”

“I understand the importance of attracting business, but in a good economy, do we really need to spend that money to attract businesses?” Cruz said. “I think in a good economy these corporations find their way to Tampa without incentives.”

The 172-page bill that would abolish Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida likely will ratchet up the debate in Tallahassee.

Asked if he would sign such a bill, Scott talked of the need to back the agencies.

“Whoever doesn’t support Enterprise Florida, doesn’t support Visit Florida, does not understand how business works, and is not focused on how you help families in every part of this state get a job,” Scott told reporters.

The conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity Florida on Thursday called the proposed House bill “bold steps to eliminating corporate welfare to level the playing field for Sunshine State taxpayers.”

Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican who attended the summit, said the “House has to do whatever it does.” However, he doesn’t expect the Senate to support any effort to abolish Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida.

The News Service of Florida’s Jim Turner contributed to this report.

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