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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Rick Scott takes control of Florida's purse string

From The Palm Beach Post

by John Kennedy

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott signed into law Tuesday the bill that he says he needs to more quickly react to opportunities to develop business and create jobs in Florida.

The wide-ranging legislation (SB 2156) eliminates the state's primary growth-management department, reorganizes the state's economic development agencies into a new Department of Economic Opportunity reporting to the governor, and gives Scott more power to hand out state incentive dollars.

Scott signed the bill while meeting with Enterprise Florida business leaders in Orlando. The head of the public-private Enterprise Florida, Gray Swoope, who Scott recruited from a similar post in Mississippi, also becomes Florida's secretary of commerce under the legislation.

"In today's globally competitive marketplace, Florida must be able to respond quickly and decisively when business opportunities come our way," Scott said. "The bill I signed today provides us flexibility to seize opportunities created by developing markets and effectively respond to the changing needs of the businesses that grow our economy."

Florida had a single Commerce Department until 1996, when it was disbanded under Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles in favor of the multi-agency approach, now discarded under the new law.

Environmentalists had urged Scott to veto the bill. They said its abolishment of the Department of Community Affairs would threaten state oversight of major residential and commercial projects.

Scott, however, sought the dismantling of the department, which he and Republican legislative leaders blame for inhibiting development with red tape. Democrats differ, saying Florida's economic woes derive, in part, from overbuilding during the boom that lasted until 2007.

Scott also wanted lawmakers to give him virtually full command of state job recruitment efforts through the consolidation of economic development agencies and by giving him control of hundreds of millions of dollars in incentive money formerly steered by the state's Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development.

The legislation eliminates that department, but lawmakers were reluctant to give Scott all the authority he wanted.

Instead, the law gives the governor the power to approve incentive awards of less than $2 million without legislative approval and requires him only to give legislative leaders a simple notice when awarding up to $5 million to any company or industry committing to Florida.

Awards topping $5 million require approval from the 14-member Legislative Budget Commission.

"Speed is essential, especially since we are competing with other states to land companies," said Brian Burgess, Scott's communications director.

Scott campaigned for governor pledging that he would create 700,000 jobs in seven years. Since taking office in January, he has steadily repeated that vow, but meeting expectations has been tough.

According to the state's Agency for Workforce Innovation, which, itself, will be subsumed by the new Department of Economic Opportunity, Florida has added 54,600 jobs between January and April, the latest period for which statistics are available.

Unemployment has dropped from 11.9 percent in January when Scott was sworn-in, to 10.8 percent in April. It's Florida's lowest mark in two years, but still among the highest rates in the nation.

Meanwhile, the $69.1 million state budget Scott signed into law last month cuts 4,500 state positions and is forcing school districts, hospitals and social service organizations to propose thousands of other job cuts because of a loss of state funding.

"There's only so much a president, governor or locally elected official can do to create jobs and turn around the economy," said Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida. "It's not the state's corporate income tax rate, or the structure of the economic development agencies that's hurting Florida. We're still dealing with the fallout from a three-year recession."

Scott's early efforts at luring companies to Florida also have proved uneven, according to many analysts.

Last week, Scott used a trade mission to Canada to announce the decision by Garda Worldwide Security to relocate its U.S. headquarters to Boca Raton from California, bringing with it 100 jobs, but Palm Beach County officials said the move was agreed to months ago.

Similarly, a few earlier Scott recruitments -- Bing Energy to Tallahassee and Vision Airlines' expansion in the Florida Panhandle - had been in the works before the governor took office.

"Lackluster is how I see it," said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. "He's basically trying to claim credit for a lot of things in place before he got here."

Business organizations, though, said Scott deserves credit for keeping job creation on the front-burner. The new legislation will help, they said.

"We know he's making the phone calls, he's making himself available to CEOs across the country," said Jose Gonzalez, a vice-president at Associated Industries of Florida, the business lobbying organization. "It's a very difficult economy to be growing jobs anywhere, but his goals are laser-focused."

The legislation signed Tuesday also removes from the governor's oversight initiatives that had been close to Scott's predecessor, former Gov. Charlie Crist. The measure eliminates the Florida Energy and Climate Commission and transfers the governor's energy office to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam had sought out the new duties and indicated he would use them to help expand Florida's renewable energy efforts.

"We look forward to working closely with the governor and the Legislature to develop a state energy policy that will nurture and incubate new technologies and create jobs across the state," Putnam said.

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