TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Rick Scott, who has made job creation his top priority since taking office, is encountering growing resistance to his efforts to use additional tax dollars in his efforts to jumpstart Florida's economy.
Scott's jobs development agency is coming under scrutiny from lawmakers increasingly skeptical of its recent track record in luring new companies and new jobs to the state. A House panel on Tuesday peppered agency officials with questions.
Top Republicans are also calling Scott's push to boost the amount of tax dollars set aside to lure new companies a tough sell. Scott wants to increase the amount from $111 million to $278 million in the coming year.
Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater and chairman of the House budget panel that oversees state spending on incentive programs, said that unless there is a big project already under consideration it may be hard persuading lawmakers to set aside so much money.
"Those are dollars we have to tie up all year," Hooper said.
Scott came into office in 2011 pledging to create 700,000 jobs over seven years by cutting taxes and restructuring the state's existing economic development efforts. He had made it clear he plans to use the drop in the state's unemployment rate as a centerpiece of his re-election effort in 2014.
But the growing unease over the use of economic incentives comes amid such high-profile failures as Digital Domain. The company last year filed for bankruptcy and shuttered its facility in Florida after it accepted incentives, including $20 million from the state. Two other companies that got help have also declared bankruptcy; the state is demanding the return of money from other companies that did not fulfill promised jobs.
Officials with Enterprise Florida, the state's public-private jobs development agency, has pointed out that Digital Domain received assistance outside of the state's normal process and should not be used to judge the state's efforts.
But legislators also are raising questions about whether money from the state's main incentive programs is going to help companies already located in Florida that may not need the help. Companies such as Publix and Wal-Mart are among the companies that have gotten state assistance in recent years.
Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, grilled Enterprise Florida officials, contending that they are not doing enough to help what he called small "Mom and Pop" businesses across the state.
"I'm not hearing from those small businesses, saying 'Wow! Enterprise Florida just showed up at my door and I'm doing great now,'" Fasano said.Griff Salmon, the chief operating officer for Enterprise Florida, told Fasano that "the assertion we only pander to large companies is frankly inaccurate."
Salmon, however, was unable to assure House members that the money now coming from Florida taxpayers was being used to hire Floridians.
There is already a bill (SB 406) moving through the Florida Senate that would increase oversight of business incentives. Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, also said the legislation could clamp down on some of the state tax credits now being handed out to businesses.
"We want the ability to understand the return on investment and the economic benefit," Gardiner said.