Senate President Joe Negron backs a still-untapped $85 million “job growth” fund created this year, as Democrats continue to question the need to replenish what critics have called a “slush fund” for the governor.
Negron, a Stuart Republican, offered support for Gov. Rick Scott‘s 2018 budget request to set aside another $85 million for the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund. Negron was less specific about whether lawmakers should meet Scott’s request to spend $100 million on the tourism-marketing agency Visit Florida.
“I’ve always been supportive of the Job Growth Fund and supportive of the governor’s economic development initiatives,” Negron said Friday during an interview with The News Service of Florida. “With regard to Visit Florida, the exact amount I’ll leave up to the individual committees and members to make that decision. But I don’t think you can argue with the results.”
Scott’s tourism-marketing request would represent a $24 million increase from the current year, an increase that has drawn skepticism from some lawmakers.
Visit Florida President and CEO Ken Lawson said Wednesday before the House Transportation & Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee that the agency has seen annual visitor counts grow from 87.3 million in 2011 to more than 112 million last year, in part because of lawmakers boosting the public-private agency’s funding from $35 million in 2011 to $76 million in the current fiscal year.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, has argued in the past that people are motivated to travel more by their personal finances than by state marketing. But the increased visitor numbers seemed to hold some sway for Negron.
“From the meetings I’m having with tourism officials throughout the state, they report a very strong industry,” Negron said. “I’ll let other folks determine the amount. But apparently what we’re doing is working. I certainly don’t want to unilaterally disarm in the tourism space. That’s a very important part of our economy, and we’re competing with the rest of the world.”
Meanwhile, several Democratic members of the Senate Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee said Thursday they’d like to see how the money in the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund is used before agreeing it should be replenished next year.
“You expect us to grant this request before we have any information on the outcome from what you’re proposing,” Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, said.
Among the concerns is how the grants may be spread across the state.
“I know that in my community there has been some proposals, but if it turns out that you put all of those projects in Sen. (Bill) Galvano’s (Manatee and Hillsborough counties) district and none in mine, then how are we going to address that if we’ve already voted to give you an additional $85 million,” Thurston said, referring to another member of the subcommittee.
The program, created in June during a special Session, had attracted 217 proposals worth a combined $791 million as of last Tuesday.
The fund, established as a compromise to Scott’s initial request for Enterprise Florida to get $85 million to help attract businesses to Florida, requires the money go to regional projects rather than single businesses.
Among the largest requests:
— Hillsborough County, Apollo Beach Boulevard extension. A $33.6 million project along the “I-75 Job Corridor” linking U.S. 41 and U.S. 301 over the interstate. Request: $23 million.
— State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota STEM campus. The proposal seeks money to help secure land and make other improvements needed to support a campus. Request: $22.44 million.
— Marion County, Crossroads Commerce Park. The $272 million project, encompassing more than 900 acres, is envisioned as having distribution, warehouse and manufacturing facilities. Request: $22.24 million.
Cissy Proctor, executive director of the state Department of Economic Opportunity, defended the pace of the application review process.
Proctor said Thursday the department, reviewing the proposals with Enterprise Florida, will make recommendations for the governor to consider “as appropriate.”
We are “working as fast as we can, but understanding that we need to have accountability,” Proctor said. “We have to have strong contracts around these proposals. We need to have strong return on investment.”
Proctor said money allocated for a specific budget year would be available for five years but only toward the projects approved in that fiscal year.