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From horse trading to horse whipping: budget talks break down over economic incentives

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A day after Transportation & Economic Development budget conference chair state Sen. Jack Latvala touted his open, public approach to dealmaking with the House, things got testy at a Monday morning meeting as budget offers grew further apart and the conversation was brought to an abrupt end.

Committee vice chair state Rep. Clay Ingram, like Latvala a Republican, began to present the House’s second bite of the TED conference apple on Monday, walking through a 10-page packet detailing his chamber’s positions on more than 400 budget items.

But he got no further than line item 27, on page one: $39 million for Enterprise Florida, the state’s public-private business development agency and favored vessel of Gov. Rick Scott.

That’s when Latvala abruptly commandeered the meeting, refusing to hear the rest of the offer, against the explicit objection of House Majority Leader Dana Young — newly returned from a cruise that removed her from the first week of budget conference — as well as the visible shock of many attendees.

EFI President & CEO Bill Johnson called the lack of funding “shameful” during a conference call earlier Monday morning urgently asking the Legislature for increased public dollars, saying calling the relative lack of funding could completely undo the program: “This is the moment in the 11th hour,” he said, adding “we’re either going to be competitive, we’re going to be in the game, or not.”

“If we don’t have the resources, there’s no need to have an EFI,” he said.

To which Senate President Andy Gardiner said, “Be careful what you wish for,” addressing media following a meeting of the full Senate.

Latvala called the House offer — which increased proposed spending for EFI by $14 million, galling the Senate, which had offered almost $20 million less — an unprecedented backtrack and a breach of good faith, charging the House with “changing its mind on something we had been working on for a year.”

“If the approach that we mutually took and the levels of funding that we mutually had were good enough for the regular session and good enough for us to virtually have matching offers up until this morning, what changed in the dark of the night, to where it’s not a good idea anymore?

“I can tell you right up front that I’m not happy with it; I’m not sure we really need to hear the rest of it,” Latvala said, before unilaterally ending the meeting.

Latvala’s objections to greater funding to Enterprise Florida centered around a Wells Fargo escrow account into which some $90 million in state funds is housed for the purposes of courting out-of-state businesses to relocate to Florida.

While EFI is asking for $85 million for the 2015-2016 fiscal year, it spent only $9 million last year. Latvala was displeased with a perceived hoarding of public funds by the Scott-chaired organization, and he let it show.

The House released the following statement after the morning budget blow-up:

“I am very proud of the way Chair Ingram conducted himself in the difficult meeting today. He has proven himself to be a true statesman. We look forward to continuing to work hard with our Senate partners to pass a balanced budget.”

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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