By Jim Turner, The News Service of Tallahassee
TALLAHASSEE — As state lawmakers face a revenue shortfall amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration says a request for $50 million for business incentives wouldn’t have that large of an impact on the upcoming budget.
Adam Callaway, director of strategic business development at the Department of Economic Opportunity, said the request for the Job Growth Grant Fund program includes money carried over from the 2019-2020 fiscal year. That means only about half of the request involves new money.
“As a precaution, and because of the uncertainty of 2020, the remaining $24.4 million appropriated for that year was held in reserve through 2021,” Callaway told members of the House Infrastructure & Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday.
“And now that Florida is fully open for business, it is critical to drive job growth and job creation in the state with every tool at our disposal,” Callaway continued. “Fully funding the governor’s $50 million request, which includes the previously held back $24.4 million, will enhance Florida’s ability to continue to deliver a well-trained and agile workforce and fund infrastructure projects that will drive new business growth.”
The fund, created in 2017, provides money for job training and public infrastructure projects rather than directly funneling incentive dollars to specific businesses. The governor has five years to spend money put into the fund.
Subcommittee Chairman Jayer Williamson, R-Pace, cautioned members that in the “tight budget year” some of the functions of the Job Growth Grant Fund might overlap similar programs offered by other agencies, such as with roads and utilities. Lawmakers will draw up a 2021-2022 budget during the legislative session that will start March 2.
“If there’s similarity between programs, we need to make sure that we look at those programs and vet those things properly,” Williamson said. “There are some other programs like the road fund program that we’ve looked at with the (Department of Transportation) that have been brought to us that may have similarities with some of the programs mentioned today.”
The Job Growth Grant Fund was created as a compromise, after the House fought then-Gov. Rick Scott over the use of economic-development money that could go directly to businesses.
Republican House members at the time criticized the distribution of incentives to businesses as “corporate welfare” and “de facto socialism.”
Some Democrats have labeled the Job Growth Grant Fund a “slush fund” for the governor.
Since the fund was started, $148 million has gone to infrastructure projects and $37 million to workforce projects.
Examples of the spending include $3.02 million for the Collier County School Board to develop a training center focused on advanced manufacturing; $1.97 million to extend a runway at the Marianna Airport Commerce Park; $1.06 million for Titusville to install a new public water main within an industrial district; and $8.245 million to improve roadway access at Port Canaveral.
Scott, now a U.S. senator, received $85 million through the Job Growth Grant Fund in both 2017 and 2018. Scott distributed all the money before exiting office halfway through the 2018-2019 fiscal year.
With DeSantis in office, the program’s funding dropped to $40 million in 2019. Last June, DeSantis vetoed a $20 million appropriation for the program as part of $1 billion in budget cuts as the state dealt with economic fallout from the pandemic.