According to the Tallahassee Democrat:
Incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran said he will lead the charge to strip taxpayer funding from Enterprise Florida, saying he believes the agency has consistently failed the state.
Corcoran, who will ascend to the top House leadership position in November, would rather see money like the $23.5 million already in next year’s state budget due to take effect next month go toward the state’s secondary schools, colleges and universities.
He pointed to failed incentive deals and reports by the Naples Daily News of gross overspending by Enterprise Florida President Bill Johnson as only the latest reasons why the agency should not receive public money.
“We’re discussing whether Enterprise Florida needs to exist in its current function,” Corcoran told the Daily News on Friday. “Handing out corporate welfare checks is not something we should be engaged in.”
Corcoran said he has spoken with incoming Senate President Joe Negron. Efforts to reach him on Friday were unsuccessful.
“This is one of those things that at the end of the day, all of us will be on the same page,” Corcoran said of legislative leadership.
Corcoran said businesses that truly want to succeed in Florida are not looking for what he called corporate welfare, and the failures of Enterprise Florida have made it a public money pit. He pointed to the Sanford Burnham institute in Orlando, which received $360 million in incentives and is considering whether it should leave Florida later this month.
The Daily News also revealed that Johnson hired his closest colleagues from his former post overseeing PortMiami.
The tight executive circle he created in Miami kept much of the spending hidden from any existing Enterprise Florida leaders who work in the agency’s headquarters in Orlando.
“Time and time again they’ve made promises they could not deliver,” Corcoran said. “And then we’re hearing about the abuse in spending, which you’ve reported.”
Documents obtained through a public records request showed Johnson paid former PortMiami spokeswoman Paula Musto $158,000 over two no-bid contracts to write speeches on a part-time schedule. He also gave former PortMiami contractor and fellow Miami-Dade County employee Diana Gonzalez a $60,000 no-bid contract to help him with the transition into his new role as Enterprise Florida president.
Those contracts were managed by Johnson’s top PortMiami assistant, Lisa Ross McMillion, who also oversaw the $92,000 makeover and expansion of Enterprise Florida’s office in Coral Gables. Those purchases included $25,463 for custom-made furniture, $36,648 in technology and $4,800 for window shades, according to Enterprise Florida receipts.
Johnson gave McMillion the title of Enterprise Florida chief of staff, with duties that were similar to those of Chief Operating Officer Crystal Sircy. She was in McMillion’s role under previous Enterprise Florida President Gray Swoope.
Johnson told the Daily News through email that he acted well within the boundaries of his powers as Enterprise Florida’s chief executive officer. McMillion is still technically a PortMiami employee but the money for her $135,000 PortMiami salary was footed by Enterprise Florida.
The arrangement allowed her to remain enrolled in the lucrative pension plan within the Florida Retirement System.
“The decision to have Lisa transition as a loaned executive from Miami-Dade County was again my decision,” Johnson said. “As CEO it was within my authority to hire and fire. Over the 20 year history of (Enterprise Florida) other CEOs retained their immediate staff. Nothing was secretive.
“Like prior CEOs, I wanted to have a couple of professionals who I have known for two-plus decades join the team.”
Enterprise Florida board Vice Chair Alan Becker said Johnson’s financial and hiring decisions raised no concerns.
“I don’t see what policies we would need to change or if there’s anything wrong,” Becker said.
Johnson followed up his contract with Gonzalez by offering her a position as vice president of innovation and entrepreneurship. She said the position, which she designed to focus on promoting small business, paid her a salary of $142,000 with benefits that included a $600 a month vehicle allowance.
“There was a sense in the small business community and in the Legislature that Enterprise Florida was not doing enough for small business,” Gonzalez said. “Using entrepreneurship as that connection, that was why I was brought on.”
But House and Senate leaders during this year’s session appeared more concerned about how much money Enterprise Florida had already spent.
Led by Corcoran, then House appropriations chair, lawmakers rejected a priority request from Gov. Rick Scott to provide Enterprise Florida with $250 million in taxpayer dollars for an incentive fund. In response, Scott agreed to pay former Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins $100,000 to conduct a financial review that would suggest ways to save Enterprise Florida up to $6 million.
The agency was created in 1996 to operate evenly on public and private dollars, but the vast majority of its 2016-17 budget comes from public money.
Wilkins suggested Enterprise Florida eliminate some of its top positions. Its board will make some of those decisions during a meeting later this month.
Scott spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said the governor believes Wilkins’ suggestions will enhance Enterprise Florida’s mission of job growth.
“We hope many of these reforms are adopted at the EFI’s June board meeting,” Schenone said.
Contact Daily News reporter Arek Sarkissian at 850-559-7620
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