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Florida film tax incentives package gets through House Committee

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A Florida House Committee today passed a bill (HB 451) that would replenish a tax incentives program to woo Hollywood film, television and digital productions to Florida, but it wasn’t easy.

Orlando Republican Mike Miller is sponsoring the bill in the House, while Nancy Detert from Venice is carrying it once again in the Senate. For the past few years, similar efforts to allow Florida to become competitive with neighboring states in providing tax incentives for entertainment productions has proved to be a bridge too far for the Florida Legislature, and there is still considerable doubt about whether it will get through this year.

Supporters are not only going up against the firepower of Americans for Prosperity, which has run radio ads throughout the state calling on citizens to contact their representatives in Tallahassee to oppose such a bill, but also a report produced by the Florida Office of Economic and Demographic Research, which released a study in January that said since the state’s tax incentive program began in 2010, only 43 cents in tax revenues is returned for every dollar of tax credits used.

But Matt Gaetz, the chairman of the House Committee on Finance and Tax, said he could support Miller’s bill today in part because there are no actual dollars or incentives being given away. That’s because the new bill transfers the state film office from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity to Enterprise Florida, a public-private entity that entices businesses to relocate to Florida.

One thing is for certain: those in the state who work in the film, TV and/or digital industry desperately want and need the bill to pass.

“I own a business that sends a lot of our money outside of the state,” said John Patrick Gines, who said he came from Southern California to study at Florida State University’s acclaimed film school. “In order to get crew or to get rental equipment a lot of times we’ve got to go to Georgia and Louisiana.”

“I’ve had 700 independent contractors, and I’ve lost 300 of those to other states,” said Kelly Page, who runs a talent agency in Tarpon Springs and a satellite office in Tampa. She said that her and many others in the industry have been doing their work well before tax incentives for film productions became an issue, but now that they’re here, she says, it’s incumbent for Florida to get back into the game.

“Just give us a little bit — make it consistent,” she pleaded. “So we can, along with our industry, keep putting our kids through college, keep our independent contractors happy, and live happily ever after.” She said that the city of Jacksonville recently lost a “huge movie” starring Oscar Award-winning actress Reese Witherspoon because of the lack of incentives, and it’s a well- known story that Tampa may not get the opportunity to play host to the Ben Affleck acted and directed film Live By Night unless the state can offer those producers tax incentives.

Speaking of drama, there was a bit of that in the hearing, when Skylar Zander from Americans for Prosperity said that his group didn’t believe “that tax dollars should be invested,” before being interrupted by Gaetz, who asked him what tax dollars was he referring to, since the bill itself does not have any tax credits mentioned in the bill.

Zander stood his ground, but Gaetz was determined to win the argument. “You would concede that there’s no element of the bill that provides any funding for the industry, right?”

Zander said he’d need to get back to Gaetz, leading Gaetz to have an aide hand him a physical copy of the bill to leaf through.

In debate, Pensacola Republican Mike Hill said he could not support the bill, since the return on investment has been historically lousy for state taxpayers. He also mentioned how other states are now reducing or killing their own tax incentive programs because they’ve determined that it’s not a good investment.

“I think the jury is still out on whether we should have any public money in these film and entertainment incentives,” Rep. Gaetz said in concluding the discussion. He ended up supporting the legislation, as did a majority of the committee, though it received several opposing votes.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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