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At Florida Chamber gathering, a vigorous defense of economic incentives

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Florida is, too, open for business, representatives of the state’s economic development arm and business insisted during a panel discussion organized by the Florida Chamber of Commerce Wednesday.

“We’re a high performing business that’s open for business. We’ve just temporarily shut down the marketing and sales department. What we’re trying to do is make sure that’s not a permanent situation,” said Mark Wilson, the Chamber’s president and CEO.

“Florida has a lot going for it. What we need to do is fight to make sure to tell the rest of the world about it. And that we don’t, in the middle of this argument with each other, we don’t accidentally take Florida backward, and let other people brand Florida as something that it’s not.”

Discussion of whether Florida was open for business came on Day 2 of the Chamber’s annual Capitol Days, coinciding with the Legislative Session.

The “argument” is the debate over whether to abolish Enterprise Florida and other state economic incentives programs. The House has already voted to do so, although the Senate is resisting.

The mere debate has already served notice that Florida is withdrawing the welcome mat. Mike Grissom, interim director of Enterprise Florida, said the office recently lost a key prospect over fear of “instability in government.”

The state brings inherent economic advantages to the competition, including a friendly regulatory environment and labor laws, and low taxes, said Florida Power & Light President Eric Silagy.

”But we are now facing some challenges from a standpoint of perception,” he said.

“We have to be very careful managing Florida’s brand — the perception beyond our borders. It’s a fragile kind of system and, if you’re not careful, you can break it.”

Grissom and Cissy Proctor, executive director of the Department of Economic Opportunity, attempted to refute complaints that these programs constitute “corporate welfare.” Applicants are carefully vetted for economic and reputational strength, Proctor said. Incentive payments go out only after companies have lived up to their promises.

Wilson linked such complaints to the Occupy Wall Street movement, amplified by the libertarian Koch brothers and their Americans for Prosperity.

“Any politician who says, ‘This is just a slush fund that we hand money out to people,’ that’s malpractice. Any reporter who says that’s how it works, that would be fake news,” Wilson said.

Meanwhile, economic development officials in other states are capitalizing on the Florida controversy.

“They love what’s going on right now in Florida, because it’s truly creating an opportunity for them to retain companies that were looking to leave or attract others from other states who are looking to relocate,” Silagy said.

But these programs are the key to diversifying the state’s economy, he continued.

“It is not a question of whether or not there’s going to be another recession. It’s just when, and how deep will it be,” he said.

“What I worry about, if I can be blunt, is this state is going through amnesia. It wasn’t long ago when we had an economy that was absolutely in the tank and leading the country in going down the tubes that way, because our economy was not nearly as diversified as it could have been, should have been.”

Florida needs to learn from Texas, he said, which suffered much less because it had diversified its economy from oil and gas following the collapse of fuel prices during the early 1980s.

“Before I invest capital anywhere, I want to make sure I’m going to a market that wants be to be there, that welcomes me,” Silagy said.

“And that I have a view that it’s going to be good place to do business for a long period of time. One of the best ways to do that is making sure that location is invested in me. So when things do go badly, they’re standing next to me.”

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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