Editorial: Abolish Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida? Not so fast!

by Alan S. Becker

Alan S. BeckerWhen Texas, Georgia, California, New York and a host of other states are busy marketing themselves to businesses and enticing them to relocate, you just don’t decide to be the exception and quit.

That would be like owning a major league baseball team and deciding you weren’t going to pay those multi-million dollar contracts because you long for the old days when players got by on salaries that resembled truck drivers’ more than movie stars’.
Try that, and you’d better get used to a lot of losing. Because the other teams
are still writing checks for better players.

Similarly, to abandon programs that promote our state is to condemn Florida to a competitive disadvantage. You might not like this game of state versus state — it’s an inefficient allotment of national resources, it’s frequently gravy for already-prospering corporations — but it’s the game that exists.

Undaunted by those realities, Republicans in the Florida House are cooking up a plan to abolish the economic-development agency Enterprise Florida and its tourist-promoting  sister,  Visit  Florida.  A  House  subcommittee  moved  a bill last week (PCB CCS 17-01) meant to eliminate the two agencies, sparking the most furious fight to date in the budding legislative session.

Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran are in an escalating war of words, Corcoran railing against “corporate welfare” and Scott firing back that critics “didn’t care about jobs.”

Last year, Corcoran rejected the Republican governor’s $250 million request for Enterprise Florida. This year, Scott is seeking $85 million in business- incentive funding for Enterprise Florida and $76 million for Visit Florida.

Corcoran has vowed that the House won’t approve a dime.

The agencies have hurt their own case by having made some poor decisions,
particularly Visit Florida’s secretive $1 million contract with the rapper Pitbull in 2015. The sorry result was a music video called “Sexy Beaches,” which promotes Florida as a place for easy hook-ups with bikinied women, and fireworks over “trade secrets” that kept the contract from public view until the House of Representatives sued.

In December, a legislative research office found that Florida’s economic development efforts “underperformed” in certain industry sectors including high-wage job creation in manufacturing and information services.

No doubt, reforms are needed. A good start is Senate bill (SB 216), which, among other things, would require Enterprise Florida to publish annual, independent audits of the performance of each business receiving tax- supported economic incentives.
But there’s another side of the ledger besides stumbles and failures. Enterprise Florida has landed some big companies: Hertz’s corporate headquarters, in Lee County (700 jobs); the Navy Federal Credit Union, in the Panhandle (10,000 jobs planned); Northrop Grumman, on the Space Coast (1,800). Its delegations of small companies to foreign countries have sparked “nearly $2 billion of Florida exports in the past two years through our grant programs, trade shows and foreign-trade missions,” according to vice chair Alan Becker.

Becker credits Enterprise Florida with gains in aviation, medical devices and financial services — diversifying the state’s economy with better-paying jobs.
Corcoran has a philosophical objection to anything like Enterprise Florida, saying it’s not government’s role to interfere in the free market by picking “winners and losers.”
But incentives aren’t distorting this market, the one where states compete for the attention and location of businesses. “Incentives are the marketplace,” Becker told the Post Editorial Board last week.

We disagree with much of Gov. Scott’s agenda, such as his keen desire for
$618 million in tax cuts, mostly to business — money better spent on public education and other needs. We wish that both he and Corcoran would dial back their dire rhetoric, as if the fate of the whole state rested on a pair of marketing agencies.
We believe that the most important thing Florida’s government could do for job creation is to aggressively improve higher education. In the end, a highly skilled workforce is the biggest draw for 21st century employers.

But in today’s competitive America, there is no denying that a well-run marketing agency is a must for a state that seeks economic growth. Otherwise, we’re just playing softball.