- Associated Press - Friday, July 22, 2016

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Amid a major shakeup pushed by Gov. Rick Scott, the Florida agency responsible for luring jobs to the state is paying nearly a half-million dollars to departing employees.

Florida taxpayers are picking up the majority of the cost for severance payments and payouts for unused leave. Records requested by The Associated Press show that 10 departing employees at Enterprise Florida are receiving more than $430,000.

Rank-and-file state workers are not allowed to receive severance payments, but employees at Enterprise Florida aren’t considered state workers even though taxpayers pick up most of the tab for the economic development organization.

Many Enterprise Florida employees - including the president and CEO- have resigned or were forced out as part of an overhaul initiated by Scott, who also serves as the chairman of the Enterprise Florida board.

Scott and the board agreed earlier this month to streamline the operations of the 20-year outfit, including eliminating jobs, shuttering international offices and cancelling contracts with outside consultants. The cuts are expected to save about $6 million.

“EFI is current undergoing a restructuring of its core functions to ensure our personnel contacts are the most cost effective,” said Mike Grissom, a senior vice president with Enterprise Florida.

But those employees who are leaving had contracts that guaranteed them severance payments.

Bill Johnson, the head of the organization who appears to have been forced to resign earlier this year, received a severance check of $132,500 and he also was paid more than $14,000 for unused leave. Grissom said that private donations were used to pay Johnson.

Johnson took over the post in 2015 at the start of Scott’s second term. But he wound up clashing several times with the Florida Legislature over the amount of money needed to lure new companies to the state.

Scott wanted legislators this year to set aside $250 million for a new fund that would be used for business incentives. But legislators rejected the entire request and some top Republicans such as incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran contend that the incentives are a form of “corporate welfare.”

Nine other employees at Enterprise Florida - ranging from an office manager to a senior vice president - received severance payments paid from public money that ranged from $5,000 to $60,000. Two senior vice presidents were given nearly $30,000 in lump sum payments for unused leave.

So far, Scott and Enterprise Florida officials have not said what they will do with the roughly $6 million cut from the budget of the organization. Enterprise Florida can’t legally direct it to the programs that the Legislature refused to fund. Grissom said the board will discuss in September what it plans to do with the savings generated from the cuts.

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Follow Gary Fineout on Twitter: https://twitter.com/fineout

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