Manatee Chamber ready to push its business focused agenda in Tallahassee

jrich@bradenton.comFebruary 18, 2013 

MANATEE -- It's an impressive list of tasks to tackle, but Manatee Chamber officials believe they are asking the 2013 Florida Legislature to take on the most important issues.

"We have been very successful the last few years in Tallahassee; however, we need to keep moving forward in making Manatee County more competitive with companies coming here," said Greg Green, chairman of Manatee Chamber's legislative committee.

Last year, seven of the top 10 issues the Manatee Chamber supported were accomplished, said Neil Spirtas, vice president of public policy and small business for the chamber.

A recent survey by the Manatee Chamber of its membership shows the top concerns are health care reform, taxes, government regulations and economic development.

On March 19, a delegation of almost a dozen people will travel to Tallahassee for three days in an effort to let legislators know where they stand.

One of the chamber's top priorities is pushing for the adoption of sport performance as a targeted industry so those industry businesses will qualify for state incentive funds.

"We have companies here that are expanding in this area like IMG," Spirtas said. "This is one of the issues we think should pass muster in Tallahassee."

The chamber also is hoping to cement a change in the funding for technical schools.

During the last two years, funding for schools like Manatee Technical Institute has improved after being underfunded since the late 1990s, chamber officials said.

"We were very fortunate in receiving these monies, however, with new leadership in key committee chairmanships, we need to strive harder to find a permanent legislative fix," said BobBartz, president of the Manatee Chamber.

"We have a consensus from our local legislative delegation on this issue," Spirtas said. "Companies like Air Products, which builds machines to liquefy natural gas and will ultimately employ 250 area workers, have taken advantage of MTI's training capabilities. Without the funding formula change, it would have greatly hindered Air Products expansion plans."

Doug Wagner, director of adult, career and technical education for the Manatee school district, says the funding change is a promise made by legislators three years ago.

"This is the final year of their promise to make a more equitable system," he said. "The funding was the same for all 44 technical centers in the state, regardless of how many students they served."

The funding shift would allow centers with higher enrollment and better performance to receive additional dollars.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Greg Steube, R-Bradenton, to promote public-private partnerships is garnering the chamber's support.

The bill sets up stipulations and requirements for facilities or projects used for public purposes but funded privately.

These could include everything from mass transit, medical or nursing care to roadways and sporting events.

"The whole arena of private and public partnership is important for funding," Spirtas said. "We have had certain companies move forward and want to build a roadway or a bridge. This would set out the criteria for that."

Steube said the state is faced with a lack of funding for capital improvement and infrastructure projects. PECO funding for those types of projects for universities and colleges is basically nonexistent.

"This would allow for individual private investors to fund projects without any expense to taxpayers," the legislator said. "It is a win-win for everybody involved."

A push to maintain the current makeup of the board for the Southwest Water Management District, better known as Swiftmud, will continue although an effort to change the board's status was recently dropped.

Two legislators -- Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, sponsor of SB 412, and Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, sponsor of HB 147 -- withdrew bills they said were aimed at creating a consistency in the composition of regional water boards.

The state's four other water management districts have nine member boards, while Swiftmud's has 13.

Under current law, the governor must appoint one resident of Manatee County to the agency's governing board. Sarasota County shares one appointment with Charlotte County.

The proposal would have paired Sarasota with Manatee in the competition for one seat.

"The bill may have been pulled, but that doesn't mean it (the issue) might not make it to the floor," Spirtas said. "There is a reason why it has come out the last two years."

The chamber also is supporting broadening the definition of economic development tax credit incentives based on capital investment for company expansions and relocations.

Gov. Rick Scott's recent announcement of support for eliminating the sales tax on manufacturing equipment is something the chamber supports, Spirtas said.

Detert has combined the issues of eliminating a manufacturers' equipment sales tax with implementing an Internet sales tax on out-of-state companies with her E-Fairness bill being supported by the Manatee and Florida chambers.

The state could have collected between $449.6 million and $454 million from e-commerce in 2012, Manatee Chamber data shows.

"It levels the playing field for all Florida retailers," said David Hart, executive vice president of the Florida Chamber.

Given the economic climate and the mood of the Legislature, Hart thinks "we have as good a shot as we've ever had in closing that loophole."

Hart sees both the House and the Senate as pro-business and pro-free enterprise.

The state chamber is focusing many of its efforts on legislation that would make Florida more competitive, he said, whether through higher education reforms or workforce development and training.

Other issues the Manatee Chamber hopes to see acted on by the Legislature include:

n The implementation of an Economic Development Zone at the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus along U.S. 41 similar to Port Manatee's encouragement zone to promote more mixed use development.

n A review of regional planning councils and streamlining of duplicative regulatory processes.

n Funding dual enrollment for students in the Florida College and State University Systems and to augment PECO funding for K-20 and restore the base budget funds for state universities.

n Expansion of options for business owners to purchase affordable health care through small group plans without cost shifting provisions often forcing employers to drop current plans.

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