Enterprise Florida’s new chief defends the economic development program

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The new head of Enterprise Florida Inc. defended the organization Monday against complaints that it doesn’t raise enough private-sector money, saying a required one-to-one match of public and private dollars applies only to operating expenses.

Chris Hart, who became president and CEO just weeks ago, cited the statute that created the economic development organization in 1996 during a meeting of the Senate Committee on Commerce and Tourism.

“We do meet our private sector match,” Hart said. “That one-to-one match that’s been required since 1996 is met, as you look at the statutory guidelines.”

The match does not apply to economic incentives paid to lure out-of-state businesses to Florida, Hart said — only to the organization’s core functions — international trade and development, including promoting the state as a place to do business; business development; and marketing.

Sen. Jack Latvala said he served in the Legislature at the time and could verify that Hart was correct.

“My memory agrees with Mr. Hart’s that it was anticipated that that (match) would be based on operating dollars,” Latvala said.

Gov. Rick Scott has asked the Legislature for $85 million for Enterprise Florida this year. House Speaker Richard Corcoran opposes such spending as “corporate welfare,” but Scott points to public support for the program.

Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez cited news reports suggesting that the taxpayers pick up as much as 90 percent of the Enterprise Florida budget.

“This is the first time I’m hearing that economic-development incentives are not operating costs,” he said. “It seems like a new argument.”

“There have been a lot of misperceptions, misconceptions,“ Hart said. In practice, most economic incentives have contained a private match — for example, an employer drawing a job-training grant would be expected to contribute its own money, too.

But it doesn’t count toward the required operations match, he said.

The contrary interpretation has emerged during the past year or two, Hart said.

“That’s new. That’s why I think we all need to talk to you as policymakers,” he said — to clarify the situation.

The meeting flared up somewhat when Rodriguez — who has filed legislation to boost oversight of the organization — asked that Enterprise Florida was doing to avoid conflicts of interest.

“Some of the criticisms have been about EFI doing business with some of its board members,” he said.

Latvala objected.

“Can we get Sen. Rodriguez to be a little more specific about what specific examples he’s referring to here?” Latvala said. “That’s a broad and accusatory statement.”

Rodriguez started to mention some examples, including that Publix has a board seat and has received incentives and “six or seven” companies “that I could identify.”

“I don’t think it would be necessary to identify any particular company,” committee chairman Bill Montford interjected. “We don’t want this to be a dog and pony show.”

Hart said Enterprise Florida is committed to reviewing its governance process — and that board members have no say in awarding incentives. The organization does that with the Department of Economic Opportunity, he said.

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.