Thursday, November 23, 2017
Business

For a Better Florida: The battle over Florida's free market

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This spring, some leading lawmakers in the Florida Legislature are smitten with a searing desire to inject more "free market" principles into Florida's economy.

Job incentives be damned. Tourism marketing? A waste of tax dollars.

On the surface, business should cheer more free market competition in Florida. For decades, most business complaints leveled against the federal and state governments have involved excessive regulation, compliance costs and taxes.

"Just let us compete" has been the default cry of Florida businesses since the beginning.

Until now.

This year, Gov. Rick Scott finds himself oddly positioned, painted as a big lefty spender and market meddler. His nemesis: House Speaker Richard Corcoran, the defender-in-theory of free markets and smaller government.

Much of this session may become secondary to this wrestling match over power and desire to set the business agenda for the state. Corcoran's scorched earth premise says it is better to eliminate Enterprise Florida, the state's public-private job recruiting organization, as well as Visit Florida, the state's public-private promoter of tourism, than to waste one more public penny.

Seen through the Corcoran lens, government should not be picking the winners and losers through business deals subsidized by taxpayer incentives.

No question, Scott's done a lousy job of picking people to run Enterprise Florida. Before his premature departure, tone-deaf Enterprise Florida president Bill Johnson gave big-buck contracts to employees who used to work with him at PortMiami. In 2015, Enterprise Florida employees received more than $633,000 in bonuses.

Visit Florida, too, grew too confident as tourism rainmaker as the state racked up year after year of record numbers of visitors. As its marketing budget ballooned from $29 million in 2009 to $78 million, Visit Florida arrogantly cut pitchman deals topping $1 million apiece with performers like Pitbull and a second-tier British soccer team. Visit Florida refused to disclose how much these deals were worth, sparking a backlash that led to the departure of the top executive. Now it's a favorite target of Corcoran and his fiscal hawks to cut down to size.

One bill already in the works would slash Visit Florida's budget to $25 million, less than it was eight years ago.

In response, Scott's reached out statewide to rally tourism executives and regional economic development groups, including the Tampa Hillsborough EDC, to seek $85 million in job incentives.

Scott argues that Corcoran and his ideological base don't get the way business and economic development work. Besides, Scott notes correctly, the state government is awash in incentives. Why pick on these two if preserving the free market is so paramount?

When big businesses shop for places to expand, they consider a whole package of criteria. Near the top are the size and breadth of incentives from competing states. Sever Florida from its incentives, Scott warns, and big deals will migrate elsewhere. It's really that simple.

Where does this schoolyard shoving match leave Florida's economy?

Here's one likely scenario. The hellfire approach of the House will be tempered in the Senate. Neither Enterprise Florida nor Visit Florida will be sacrificed to free-market principles. But their House-controlled budgets will be reined in as political punishment though, it is hoped, with stronger accountability.

All this Florida gamesmanship takes place, of course, against the vastly bigger and unpredictable economic backdrop of President Donald Trump. He's the one pressuring U.S. companies to expand jobs in this country and not overseas. How? By threatening businesses with higher trade tariffs and taxes if companies opt to have their goods made overseas but sold in the United States.

That's hardly a free-market approach. Funny how we have not heard Florida's House Speaker condemn President Trump for such corporate arm-twisting.

Scott. Corcoran. Trump. Florida's business community will struggle to interpret a painfully mixed message on how our economy will, rather than should, operate.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @venturetampabay.

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