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Buckhorn backs Scott plan for millions more to lure businesses

TAMPA — Facing criticism from some fellow Republicans over his plan to spend $250 million to attract more companies to the state, Gov. Rick Scott found a new ally Monday in Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

Scott is proposing a reform of Enterprise Florida, the private-public partnership that negotiates financial incentives with companies considering bringing new jobs to Florida.

He is asking state lawmakers to set aside $250 million from the 2016 budget so it can better compete with other states. He also wants to streamline the approval process for the award of incentives and require a return on investment within 10 years.

As a safeguard, the speaker of the House and Senate president would be required to sign off on deals amounting to $1 million or more.

Buckhorn, a Democrat, came out publicly in support of the plan Monday. He said incentives provided through Enterprise Florida were critical in getting firms including Johnson & Johnson, Bristol Myers Squibb, Ashley Furniture and others to bring new jobs to Tampa.

“This incentive money has been hugely helpful in attracting companies and in retaining companies, in helping us change our economies for the better,” Buckhorn said. “For me, it’s all about results and this money has allowed us to get results.”

The backing of Buckhorn, mayor of Florida’s third largest city and a potential candidate for governor in 2018, is something of a coup for Scott, whose plan was greeted with skepticism by some Republicans.

Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group founded and funded by Charles and David Koch, derided the proposal as “corporate welfare” and a bad use of tax dollars.

“Governor Scott should not be asking for $250 million for additional incentive money for Enterprise Florida’s corporate welfare, or any other gross examples of crony capitalism,” the group’s Florida director, Chris Hudson, said in a statement. “Governor Scott should be focused on giving that money back to Florida families or using these dollars for essential services.”

Members of the Florida Senate have also questioned the plan, pointing out that Enterprise Florida has millions of dollars sitting unused in escrow accounts because some companies have not met job creation goals.

Scott wants the 2016 funding to go into a new trust fund where the money will earn interest until companies fulfill job creation contracts.

The funding level he is seeking would dwarf spending on attracting new jobs by other states. New York allocates $150 million for job incentives and Texas $90 million. States closer to Florida spend even less, with South Carolina at $58 million and Georgia at $46 million.

This year, Scott asked lawmakers for $85 million. They allocated about $43 million.

Incentives offered to companies typically include local and state dollars. Companies are eligible for more money if they create higher paying jobs.

For example, pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb qualified for $2.1 million in tax incentives for opening a new center close to Tampa International Airport. The state is committed to giving another $4.8 million more if the company meets its goal of creating roughly 580 new jobs.

Those enticements are needed to sell the state over other destinations, Buckhorn told the Tribune.

“We are competing with other states and other cities that are far more aggressive and offer far more incentives for companies to come,” Buckhorn said. “Without incentives, we’re not in the game at all.”

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said lawmakers are still mulling Scott’s proposal.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “I have no idea whether the level of money he’s asking for will be practical or not.”

Lawmakers may also develop their own plan for recruiting companies, Latvala said, although he declined to elaborate on specifics.

“We want to contribute to a comprehensive plan,” he said.

Scott’s plan was also endorsed Monday by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, who has publicly stated that he wants to persuade a major company to relocate its headquarters to Tampa to help anchor his $2 billion redevelopment plan for a 40-acre area around Amalie Arena.

“I’ll leave it to the governor for politics, but I do say that for this state to be competitive with other states, we do need incentive money to attract companies,” Vinik said Monday after speaking to the Thought Leaders group at Tampa’s Centre Club.

“It’s an important ingredient in the calculation when companies decide where to move. So I applaud the fact that the governor thinks it’s important to have incentive money and is pushing for it.”

Tribune writer Jerome R. Stockfisch contributed to this story.

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