TALLAHASSEE -- When TV viewers around the country watched Burn Notice, a drama that ended in 2013, they saw the streets and beaches of Miami beckoning.
The show, which filmed in South Florida for seven seasons and hired thousands of people along the way, is a favorite example for lawmakers pushing to continue investing state money in the entertainment industry by giving tax breaks to productions that come here.
“Florida has done a lot in film in the last few years,” said Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, who has pushed for changes to the system for years. “Then, we kind of lost our standing.”
Detert and Rep. Mike Miller, R-Winter Park, say the existing tax credit program is flawed with its “first-come, first served” process of allocating millions of dollars in state tax breaks to film projects that apply first, whether or not they merit funding.
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Instead, Detert and Miller have sponsored bills that seek to speed up the approval process and give the state’s film commissioner leeway to fund proposals that seem likely to have the biggest economic impact. The current version of both bills maintains the current first-come, first-served system, but Detert said that will be replaced with a ranking process, likely in the House.
Detert won’t say exactly how much she wants to set aside for program funding, and there’s a reason she’s treading lightly. In a legislative process that forces a fight for every dollar of taxpayer money, this isn’t always the most popular budget item for the House and Senate to rally behind.
This past decade, the film industry has increasingly relied on tax incentives from state and local governments. In the wake of that shift and as other states have offered more tax incentives, Florida has struggled to compete, according to a January report from the Legislature’s nonpartisan policy analysis office, which paints a gloomy scene.
Florida’s losing ground to New York, Louisiana and Georgia.
Supporters of an incentive program, including Detert and Miller, say jobs, tourism and small business growth are leaving the state because they’ll get more government funding elsewhere.
Since 2010, Florida has allocated $296 million in tax credits to attract TV shows, commercials and films such as Spring Breakers and Dolphin Tale, which were shot in the Tampa Bay area.
But for all the big-time films and series, there have also been duds, like Missionary, a 2013 film that the Internet Movie Database and Rotten Tomatoes estimate brought in about $2,100 at the box office.
Quality control and the speed with which funds run out each year are two of the driving forces behind legislation to overhaul the film incentive program being considered this year.
“We think that redesigning the entire system, offering a decent amount of money to come to the state of Florida and streamlining the process,” Detert said, “will make us more than competitive with all the other states.”
But they’re likely to face staunch opposition from those in the Legislature who oppose industry tax credits on principle.
“Incentives are tantamount to corporate welfare,” said Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, who chairs the House Economic Affairs Committee that will consider the bill in the coming weeks. “People have a tendency to believe that pro-business means doing anything you can to get business here, even if it means unleveling the playing field and spending taxpayer dollars.”
If some in the Legislature worry about a film program existing at all, others say the changes proposed by Detert go too far. Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, said the current program works well but needs to be consistent.
“I think we [should] just say this is a regular thing we fund,” she said. “They need to know year to year that they can rely on it.”
Despite her view that the current system works, Rehwinkel Vasilinda said she’ll support Detert’s plan because it’s the best chance for funding incentives moving forward.
The chances for an overhaul this year aren’t clear this early in session. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, is the chairman of the Finance and Tax Committee and a critical gatekeeper to the issue’s success or failure in the House.
Gaetz said a hearing in the House isn’t a guarantee, but Detert and Miller are on the right track.
“They’re working to redefine that program in a way that will provide a better return on investment to the citizens of the state of Florida,” he said. “There are a lot of people in the House appropriately focused on the fact that this program has not provided the ROI that was promised.”
House Speaker Steve Crisafulli has been similarly vague in his support but hinted at lawmakers’ interest in addressing the issue this session.
“It’s an impact all over our state,” he said. “We’re trying to compete with other states around the country, so we’ll look at it.”