A start-up nonprofit focused on statewide ethics reform is encouraged that Gov. Rick Scott and Secretary of Commerce Gray Swoope will open Enterprise Florida to more public disclosure when it comes to state contracts and tax dollars.
Integrity Florida gave high marks to the state webpage Transparency Florida, and to public disclosure efforts by Gov. Rick Scott for posting the salaries of state university and college employees online.
But in a recently released report, Integrity Florida was highly critical of how Enterprise Florida operates, from contracts going to companies such as Publix Super Markets and Embraer Aircraft that have members of the Enterprise Florida board of directors, to a need for more advanced notice of board agendas.
Enterprise Florida needs a spotlight, needs more accountability and more eyes following them, said Dan Krassner, Integrity Florida's executive director. Most of the corruption risk indicators we researched were there long before Secretary Swoope arrived, before Governor Scott arrived.
Speaking to Sunshine State News on Monday, Krassner said Enterprise Florida could begin a good-faith transparency campaign by circulating its meeting notices and an agenda in a timely manner. That isn't happening now, he said.
Addressing the media after the report was released, Scott supported the idea of taxpayers knowing how the state is spending money, but added that in order for the state to remain competitive, such disclosures must be balanced with being able to compete with other states to attract jobs through confidential negotiations.
What I try to think about every day is, were going provide money to companies to move to Florida, to expand to Florida, and I think about where that money is coming from, Scott said.
A family that is making $40,000 a year, theyre paying sales taxes, paying property taxes, so I think they need to know as much as we can give them, and we have to make sure we dont put ourselves at a disadvantage to be able to recruit companies here to create jobs.
Its a trade-off: Weve got to make sure we compete with these other states; weve got to make sure people know how their dollars are spent.
Swoope, meanwhile, called the Integrity Florida report misleading, noting that Enterprise Florida board members dont have input on individual projects and those incentives, while negotiated by staff, are reviewed and approved by the Department of Economic Opportunity.
Incentives paid are listed by company name in the Annual Incentive Report published by Enterprise Florida, which is also posted online at the eflorida.com website, the response from Swoope stated.
Also, Enterprise Florida and the Department of Economic Opportunity have a webpage planned to come on line in July providing incentive award information. Krassner said a goal of the study is to speed the time incentive-laced contracts for businesses are available to the public.
The governor, I think, is taking the right approach on the state budget, with many state agencies, with new accountability measures, with rankings, with assessments of return on investment and Enterprise Florida needs that too, said Krassner, a veteran public policy consultant who worked as a strategy and communications officer at the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
Last Wednesday, Integrity Florida released a report questioning how contracts using taxpayer dollars are awarded by Enterprise Florida.
Integrity gave Enterprise Florida a C-minus grade for corruption risk, noting that little detail is available from the millions of dollars in government contracts that have been awarded during the 16-year history of Enterprise Florida, which serves as a public-private economic development arm.
The report doesnt support or oppose the idea of business incentives, but questions the process.
Currently, an awarded contract isnt posted until 180 days after the award is granted, and the company may request the timeline be extended another year and a half.
Youll see a number of companies listed as confidential in that report; totals about $6 million for the last budget year, Krassner said. We still dont know who received the money.
Krassner said the state should be making the contracts, as well as details about what was negotiated, about 48 hours after the deal is signed.
Information about negotiations that didnt produce a contract should also eventually be made available, he said.
All those decisions are important; all those decisions will let Floridians know if their money is being spent well, Krassner said.
Swoope noted that the additional time before disclosure is needed is often for land or building purchases, where sellers may artificially inflate prices knowing the company just received a state grant or impacted a companys stock value.
The Florida Legislature recognizes that public disclosure, while the job creation/investment project is still active, would constitute a major competitive disadvantage for Florida, Swoope wrote.
Integrity, which has collaborated with, but is not affiliated with, the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International, was started in January in the wake of an ethics coalition that brought together the League of Women Voters, the business community and local tea party members in Palm Beach County after four county commissioners went to jail.
Krassner teamed with Ben Wilcox, the former chief of Common Cause Florida, to put the Enterprise Florida report together.
"We have to take a businesslike approach to assessing all of our state's challenges and coming up with solutions," Krassner said. "I'm pro-business and pro-jobs, but If we're spending taxpayers dollars to get jobs here, is it working?"
Integrity Florida's next project will be a county-by-county look at ethics reform efforts.
Reach Jim Turner at email@example.com or at (772) 215-9889.