State Politics

Bill aimed at Fla. workforce boards

TALLAHASSEE — Evidence that regional job-creation boards have spent some $600,000 on food and drink and contracted to do business with their own members has led to a bill that would set ethics standards for the 24 panels.

The measure (SB 1646) won unanimous approval Friday from the Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Committee.

It would prohibit board members and their relatives from doing business with their own boards. It also would bar them from spending state or federal dollars for food, beverage and entertainment for board members and employees.

County commissioners in the area served by the board would have to approve the hiring of executive directors.

Sally Hill, spokeswoman for the Suncoast Workforce Board, said the agency would have no comment on the pending legislation. Steve Mixson, the board’s chairman, referred questions to Hill.

The proposal has drawn sharp criticism from some of those executive directors in e-mails cited by Sen. Mike Fasano, the committee’s chairman.

“It seems as though we must have hit a nerve because some of these executive directors, not all of them, but a few of the 24 that exist out there, are not happy about our bill, so we must be doing something right,” the New Port Richey Republican said after the meeting.

The bill next goes to the Senate Ways and Means Committee before a floor vote and doesn’t have a House companion. It also doesn’t have the backing of Fasano’s House counterpart, Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City.

Glorioso has said he supports more oversight of the boards but thinks the Senate bill may go too far because it may be difficult to find business people in rural areas to serve on the panels if they cannot contract with them.

The bill includes an exception to the ban on doing business with a board member or relative for public and nonprofit entities if those contracts are approved by a two-thirds vote of the board. The member seeking the contract would have to abstain from that vote.

Cynthia Lorenzo, director of the Agency for Workforce Innovation, told the panel the ban on spending federal dollars for food and drink may run into a conflict with federal law, which permits “necessary and allowable expenses,” a much looser standard.

Lorenzo’s agency, which is in effect Florida’s labor department, conducted an inspector general’s investigation following allegations of misuse of funds by the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance.

That investigation identified more than $100,000 in improper or questionable spending on food, drink and entertainment, including restaurant meals of more than $30 per person.

Fasano said the statewide figure for food and drink has been put at $600,000 or more. Some examples of boards doing business with their members also have turned up, but Fasano asked Lorenzo to find out how many of those contracts exist statewide.