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In a stinging rebuke to Florida Gov. Rick Scott, the GOP-controlled Florida House on Friday voted overwhelmingly to eliminate and place stringent new controls on two of the governor’s prized programs dealing with economic development and state tourism.
State legislators took the step even though Scott has ratcheted up political pressure, going so far as to have his political committee make calls to voters living in the districts of Republican members who are bucking the governor.
The House approved two bills: One would dismantle Florida’s economic development agency completely, while the second measure would clamp down on Visit Florida, the agency that spends millions on ads trying to lure tourists to the Sunshine State.
The agency in the past year came under fire for approving a secret $1 million deal with rapper Pitbull to promote the state including filming a new video for his song “Sexy Beaches.”
Scott in a statement sharply criticized legislators for their votes.
“Many politicians who voted for these bills say they are for jobs and tourism,” Scott said in a statement. “But, I want to be very clear – a vote for these bills was a vote to kill tourism and jobs in Florida.”
House Speaker Richard Corcoran had made the elimination of Enterprise Florida, the state’s economic development agency, a top priority. Enterprise Florida is responsible for helping lure businesses to the state, sometimes through the use of tax credits and cash payments.
Corcoran has called Enterprise Florida “corporate welfare,” a position shared by a number of fellow Republicans who have questioned whether the programs truly work.
“Subsidizing private companies is not anyone’s priority in this chamber,” said Rep. Paul Renner, a Palm Coast Republican who sponsored the bill to shutter the agency.
The bill (HB 7005) to eliminate Enterprise Florida was approved 87-28 and did not follow usual party lines, with several Republicans voting against the majority.
“I understand the philosophy, but I fear killing this program will hurt people,” said Rep. Jay Fant, a Jacksonville Republican. “I will not be a part of this.”
The vote, while expected, was still remarkable since many Republican legislators just a year earlier had voted in favor of a bill to keep Enterprise Florida intact. Renner suggested their loss of enthusiasm for that program was the result of their learning more about it, not because Corcoran was now in charge.
The House also voted 80-35 in favor of the bill (HB 9) that would subject Visit Florida to a long line of new restrictions, such as requiring that contracts worth $750,000 or more obtain legislative approval. It would also cap salaries and prevent Visit Florida from keeping contracts secret.
So far, Senate leaders have shown little enthusiasm for the House proposals, which are expected to get drawn into negotiations over a new state budget.