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House Rules Committee votes to kill most economic-development programs

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The House Rules committee voted, 15-3, Monday to kill state support for 23 economics development programs worth around $200 million , including Enterprise Florida, but spared Visit Florida, the state’s tourism promotion organization.

The members then voted, 15-2, to subject Visit Florida to stringent oversight, comparable to contract, pay, and disclosure requirements that apply to state agencies.

“They could come to the floor soon — perhaps as early as this week,” sponsor Paul Renner said of the bills.

“What you see is gathering momentum — bipartisan momentum, with only a couple of no votes — for what we’re trying to do,” the Palm Coast Republican sid.

“On Enterprise Florida, what we’re seeing is a bad deal for the taxpayer. It takes and redistributes money that you and your family have worked for and transfers it to a few private companies that have a pretty poor track record when it comes to jobs created in the state,” he said.

“What we’ve said is, we need to reorient that so we’re helping all businesses — small, medium, or large — by ensuring that we get the big things right” — like infrastructure, public safety, and reducing Florida’s commercial lease tax.

The votes came the same day that Enterprise Florida CEO Chris Hart resigned, citing a lack of “common vision” with Gov. Rick Scott.

Cissy Proctor, who runs the Office of Economic Opportunity, overseeing the programs involved, said the mere debate about killing the incentives has already damaged job growth, as out-of-state employers stall on coming to Florida.

“The business-friendly environment in our state no longer exists,” she said.

A host of business representatives urged retention of the programs. Development officials from rural counties were united in opposition, saying they need help building roads and other infrastructure to support new businesses.

But supporters denounced the incentives as “economic cronyism” and said they pick “winners and losers.” Some suggested privatizing the whole operation outright.

In the end, both Democrats and Republicans supported CS/HB 7005, the main bill. Support for the Visit Florida measure also crossed party lines.

The committee approved an amendment that stripped Visit Florida out of the main bill, and took up separate legislation, HB 9, that would increase oversight of the organization.

You can find details about both measures here.

Some members, and Visit Florida chief Ken Lawson, argued for an alternative, HB 889, by Joe Gruters, that would boost oversight but not as much as Renner’s bill.

HB 9 would actually impose “more government and more red tape,” Lawson said. He pointed to language requiring disclosure of employees and their salaries in companies that do business with Visit Florida.

He and other critics complained the bill would make it impossible for Visit Florida to operate as a public-private partnership.

“There are ways we can be transparent, and Rep. Gruters’ bill hits it perfectly,” Lawson said.

But he declined to be specific about which provisions in Renner’s bill were overreach.

That troubled Renner.

“These accountability measures are important. I believe in each and every one of them,” Renner said.

“The question is, which ones specifically would Visit Florida say go too far? We might find places of agreement — places where we can make modifications that are reasonable. But today was a little concerning for me.”

Democrat David Richardson called the bill “a tourism killer.”

“I am thankful that you have split these bills so we can have the conversation,” he said. “I do support transparency. I support more oversight into this. But, in my humble opinion, this overreaches where we need to be.”

Following the hearing, Renner praised Lawson but said the legislation is intended to keep an eye on “not-so-great leaders.”

“These accountability measures are important. I believe in each and every one of them. The question is, which ones specifically will Visit Florida say go too far? We may find places of agreement — places where we can make modifications that are reasonable. But today was a little concerning for me.”

On the departure at Enterprise Florida, Renner said:

“Like you, I read Chris Hart’s statement today on his disagreements with the governor. I have nothing to add to that, because I just don’t know what his motivations or his reasoning was beyond the statement he made.”

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

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