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Senate panel rakes over state’s film commissioner and incentives deal

State Sens. Nancy Detert and Jack Latvala delivered a one-two punch to the state’s moribund Film Office, essentially telling Film Commissioner Niki Welge she was being set up for failure.

Welge appeared Tuesday before the Senate Commerce and Tourism committee, which Detert — a Venice Republican — chairs. Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, is another member.

Latvala noted that the Department of Economic Opportunity, which oversees the Florida Office of Film and Entertainment and reports to Gov. Rick Scott, didn’t include film incentives in its budget request for next year.

“That’s pretty much putting up a sign at the state line saying, ‘We don’t want any film business’ … and I think that’s pretty sorry,” he said.

Five years ago, lawmakers set aside nearly $300 million for incentives to bring movies and television projects to Florida. That money has run dry and lawmakers have been disinclined to set aside any more money.

The film incentives take the form of tax credits granted a production after it wraps in the state and undergoes a thorough audit, including being able to show it provided jobs for Floridians.

“Either we’re in the film business or we’re not,” Detert told Welge, suggesting the Legislature may well decide to put her out of a job by defunding the entire office.

“If you have no new business in your pipeline, you’re pretty much going out of business,” Detert said. “I don’t think you were ever empowered to do your job.”

Scott is focused on his proposal for lawmakers to give Enterprise Florida, the public-private economic development organization, $250 million for incentives to lure out-of-state companies and their jobs.

Detert had started in early, telling Welge, “You would think we would have heard from you before.” Welge, appointed last year, was promoted from within after working in the office for the past decade.

Detert then asked other senators whether they had ever met or heard from Welge. None said they had.

Welge gamely went through a set of PowerPoint slides, pointing out that her office recruited “more than 1,360 productions” last fiscal year, with about three-quarters of them resulting in projects shooting in Florida.

Film Office records show film and entertainment companies spent more than $743 million in the state and employed 80,000 people since 2010. But after being given almost $300 million, the office has spent its credits.

That’s because they were all claimed within “minutes” of the program’s release five years ago, said Sen. Aaron Bean, a Fernandina Beach Republican.

That was but one complaint of how the program was actually run; the others included being “first come, first served” instead of using some sort of subjective review, and making people physically stand in line to apply for the credits.

“That’s not what we had intended,” Detert said. “I wanted to see an energetic film (office). You, as film commissioner, must have seen these flaws. That’s when you come to us … and give us an opportunity to fix them.”

Latvala drilled in at one point, asking Welge whether she was “able to join us as a partner, come to us with suggestions, and not just answer a phone?”

His intimation was that her relative invisibility in the legislative process wasn’t her choice.

“We’re always happy to assist in any way we can,” Welge said.

“If we ask?” Latvala said.

“Any time,” Welge said.

“I think we got our answer,” Latvala said.

Written By

Jim Rosica is the Tallahassee-based Senior Editor for Florida Politics. He previously was the Tampa Tribune’s statehouse reporter. Before that, he covered three legislative sessions in Florida for The Associated Press. Jim graduated from law school in 2009 after spending nearly a decade covering courts for the Tallahassee Democrat, including reporting on the 2000 presidential recount. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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