Commentary: Floridians kept in dark about secret taxpayer-funded projects



Taxpayers in the Sunshine State are being kept in the dark about how our money is spent on economic development projects.

Enterprise Florida, my state’s official economic development organization, is secretly planning new tax-dollar giveaways with code names like "Project Bacon," "Project Mae West," "Project Suite Spot" and "Project Snake Eyes."  A review of an Orlando Sentinel database uncovered that Enterprise Florida has given Walmart more than $18 million over the years.  It's also given money to GE, Coca-Cola, Burger King and a long list of other companies.

I am not opposed to economic incentives that attract new jobs and capital investment, but Enterprise Florida must operate with more accountability, performance metrics and transparency.

As Michael Bender reported for the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald last year, "New data shows Florida has signed contracts worth $1.7 billion since 1995 in return for promises of 225,000 new jobs.  But only about one-third of those jobs have been filled while the state has paid out 43 percent of the contracts."

The 869,000 jobless Floridians need more from Enterprise Florida than 20,000 jobs created or retained each year.

Sen. Paula Dockery (pictured, right), R-Lakeland pointed out in the Hernando Today that Florida received a C-minus for corruption risk on State Integrity Investigation’s Corruption Risk Report Card. On a report that graded the state for transparency and accountability, Florida had several categories with poor grades, including a D+ for Public Access to Information.  Are the secretive practices of Enterprise Florida increasing Florida’s corruption risk?

According to a February 2012 Enterprise Florida news release, the organization’s top legislative priorities were maintaining its own confidentiality.  A corporate seat on the Enterprise Florida board of directors is typically obtained with a $50,000 annual investment and the Tampa Bay Times has reported about board member companies reaping tax incentive benefits.

Enterprise Florida board meetings are subject to the state's sunshine laws, but their internal staff decisions about which incentives to approve are kept confidential for up to two years, in some cases.

In 2012, the Florida Legislature passed CS/HB 7115, sponsored by Rep. Jimmy Patronis and Sen. Evelyn Lynn, a bill that shortens the secrecy period for public records disclosure of some finalized Enterprise Florida projects from two years to 180 days. Gov. Rick Scott signed this bill on March 23 following a 39-0 vote in the Senate and a 116-0 vote in the House.  But since some contracts for taxpayer-funded deals can still be kept confidential for up to two years, there remains a need to close that records loophole.

I encourage our state legislators to require the public posting of all Enterprise Florida contracts online.  If we need to redact the name, that's fine, but let's tell the public how much money we’re spending and how many jobs we are going to get in return.

Enterprise Florida would serve taxpayers well by using a return-on-investment calculator that's proven successful in Ohio.  It reveals how much money is spent on economic development projects and how many jobs are expected before a deadline.

Enterprise Florida presently has another 300 projects in the works.  How much longer will taxpayer-funded projects be approved and funded in secret with such little accountability for actual job creation?

Dan Krassner is the executive director of Integrity Florida, a Tallahassee-based nonpartisan research institute whose mission is to promote integrity in government and expose public corruption.  Integrity Florida plans to release its first research report in April on its website.  Track their progress via Twitter @IntegrityFL and @dankrassner.

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