- Associated Press - Thursday, August 20, 2015

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Gov. Rick Scott, reigniting a budget fight with the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature, says the state is nearly out of money to lure companies to Florida.

Scott delivered that stinging message Thursday during a meeting of the board of directors of Enterprise Florida Inc., the state’s economic development agency that met in Ponte Vedra Beach.

Scott and Enterprise Florida officials say the state has only about $9 million left in the main account it uses to offer incentives for companies. Bill Johnson, the president and CEO of Enterprise Florida, said that money will likely be gone in weeks.

“We will not able to get deals done going forward,” Scott said.

Scott asked the Florida Legislature for $85 million this year to use for business incentives, but legislators set aside about half that amount during a contentious special session where legislators were divided over health care and the state budget.

Republican legislators contend Enterprise Florida did not need as much money as Scott wants because it has not been spending all the money it’s gotten in recent years. A recent budget document prepared by the Legislature states that since 2009, more than $37 million has been returned to the state because it wasn’t spent by Enterprise Florida. That has prompted legislators to ratchet down how much they have appropriated. This year there was $43 million provided - a decrease from more than $66 million in 2014.

“I understand the desire for unfettered funds for Enterprise Florida,” said Rep. Clay Ingram, a Pensacola Republican and chairman of the House budget committee that oversees Enterprise Florida. “The challenge is that we are dealing with taxpayer funds, not private funds. I am certainly open to any ways we can improve the process which must strike a balance between flexibility and accountability.”

But Johnson, who said much of the money is already in escrow for previous deals or is connected to pending deals, said the organization is already warning local economic development agencies the state may not be able to help them. Many times the state matches local incentives offered by cities and counties as part of a deal to convince a company to relocate or expand in Florida.

“We’re definitely going to run out of the money,” Johnson said. “This is what I call a reality check.”

Johnson had warned legislators earlier this year that they were not providing enough money for the organization but some of his comments drew the ire of Republican legislators in charge of his budget. He told Enterprise Florida board members that his organization would be $45 million short if it closes on all the pending deals now in the pipeline. He said those projects would create 8,000 additional jobs.

Scott asked Enterprise Florida board members - who include other elected officials as well as top business executives around the state - to reach out to legislators to ask for more money to help the organization. Scott warned Florida will not be able to match the job creation numbers of states such as Texas if it does not have more money for incentives.

He defended spending millions on incentives as part of an effort to diversify the state’s economy. Scott first ran in 2010 on a platform of job creation and has made it one of his top priorities while in office. Scott said that the state will lose out on big company relocations without a larger pot of taxpayer money to use for incentives.

“We can’t always just rely on tourism and home sales and construction for our economy,” Scott said. “I don’t want to go through another recession where we lose 800,000 some jobs.”

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