By Yaël Ossowski | Florida Watchdog
ST. PETERSBURG — Jobs numbers are growing, public debt is under control and Gov. Rick Scott is making sure the government can claim the credit.
Since Dec. 2010, unemployment in Florida has dropped faster than all other states, thanks to robust partnerships between government and businesses, according to the governor.
“During the past year, Enterprise Florida and its economic development partners excelled in creating and retaining jobs for Florida families,” wrote Scott in a news release.
He credits Enterprise Florida, the state’s economic development agency, for its part in helping job growth in the Sunshine State, steering tax credits and public investment opportunities to the right industries.
“These outcomes are crucial to helping us recruit more businesses to the state and higher-wage jobs for Floridians,” said Gary Swoope, Enterprise Florida‘s CEO, in the same release.
But while the state government talks up its close ties to business interests, critics point to the overall effectiveness of these programs, and if the taxpayers are really getting their money’s worth when public dollars begin flowing into select companies.
“The truth is: you’ve got to pay to play,” saidChris Barry, spokesman for Florida Tax Watch, a nonprofit taxpayer accountability group based in Tallahassee. He told Florida Watchdog that economic development giveaways by state and local governments have become a part of the game.
“You’ve got to be very judicious in what you’re giving out. A healthy dose of caution is very much in order,” said Barry. “But done right, wisely, and consistent with values of actual assets, locations, and talented work force, it’ll work.”
He said Florida has been more disciplined than other states in regard to investing public money in private firms.
“Nowadays, it’s an unfortunate necessity, but we’ve got a real great team in Florida. These kind of deals have existed since before Scott, and they’ll continue afterward,” he added.
On the other hand, Dean Stansel, professor of economics at Florida Gulf Coast University, said politicians shouldn’t even contemplate playing venture capitalist with taxpayer dollars.
“By targeting selected industries or businesses, politicians assume that they know better what the economy needs than do individual entrepreneurs with their own money at risk,” said Stansel. “Unfortunately, politicians spending other people’s money are uniquely unqualified to play the role of venture capitalist, and they have a dismal track record at doing so.”
He points to a 2010 analysis from the Gulf Coast Business Review, which reviews eight bio-tech projects across Florida that have received nearly $1.6 billion in taxpayer subsidies going back to 2004.
“Together, these firms employ about 1,143 workers. But that means the state spent about $1.4 million per job. Not exactly a bargain,” said Stansel.
Stansel recognizes certain job growth may have occurred with the help ofEnterprise Florida, but cautions it may not be as rosy as it seems.
“It’s easy to identify specific jobs that are created by economic development ventures,” he told Florida Watchdog. “It’s much harder to identify the specific jobs that are not created because of the economic distortions created by those ventures and by the taxes needed to fund that corporate welfare.”