By Yaël Ossowski | Florida Watchdog

ST. PETERSBURG — As Florida’s state lawmakers head back to Tallahassee this week to begin committee sessions that will largely determine the Legislature’s agenda for next year, all eyes are on House Speaker Will Weatherford.

The 32 year old Republican businessman will be sworn in on Tuesday as the first House speaker from Pasco County in more than 100 years. He says he hopes to bring a “conservative, pro-business agenda that could have been written by the Florida Chamber of Commerce,” according to the Tampa Bay Times.

He’ll push for public pension reform, lowering taxes and finding new innovations for public education, all while seeking to assure job creators that Florida is the place to do business.

But in modeling a new agenda based on attracting businesses, Weatherford will need be cautious how his actions are perceived by Florida’s taxpayers who already have seen multiple boondoggles in state agencies and public ventures with close ties to business interests.

Questions have been raised over Enterprise Florida, the state’s economic development program, and its board members’ ties to industries receiving millions in state grants and tax incentives, uncovered by Integrity Florida, a nonprofit ethics watchdog, in April of this year.

The state property insurer,Citizens Property Insurance Corp., made sundry headlines about millions in waste, fraud and abuse at the hands of its officers and employees, not to mention thebillions in low-interest loans given to private insurers in a”depopulation” program, hoping to push customers into private plans.

Weatherford will have to convince Floridians that he isn’t “pro-business,” but rather “pro-market.”

“Bailouts, monopolies and subsidies may be pro-business, in the sense that they help particular businesses, but they also lock in those businesses’ inefficient practices, and we don’t provide firms with a way of learning when they’ve made mistakes,” said Steve Horowitz, professor of economics at St. Lawrence University in New York. “It’s often the case that businesses support regulation to harm their competition or help themselves.”

For Horowitz and other economists, appealing to business directly is very different from trying to offer customers and citizens a free-market with a smaller governmental burden.

“In our view, being “pro-business” is not necessarily the same as being “pro-market” or “pro-consumer,” but neither are these terms always mutually exclusive,” said Bob Sanchez, policy director at the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee. 

“The government’s regulatory role should be akin to that of a baseball umpire, calling balls and strikes fairly, fair and foul balls, while allowing the competitors to settle matters on the field of play.”

If the government becomes “pro-business,” Sanchez said it tends to favor certain enterprises over others, allowing the government to meddle in the economy and “cronyism” to emerge.

“Being pro-business means picking favored industries that have interests with the government,” said Dean Stansel, professor of economics at Florida Gulf Coast University, adding that this would be labeled as cronyism that is not defined by market capitalism.

He told Florida Watchdog that true supporters of free markets are those prepared to defend the markets and competition over special relationships with businesses.

“Pro-free market means you have a level playing field and free competition. The latter is what we really need to get the economy moving and grow new jobs,” he said.

Nevertheless, Sanchez said he is confident that Weatherford will favor free-market policy reforms, keeping in mind that by allowing businesses to thrive by “competing vigorously and fairly in the marketplace,” it will lead to boosts to the economy and the state’s job market.

Read more: Florida Watchdog