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Testing Bush's theory

The governor's secret is out. But before legislators seal the deal, they're asking what's in it for Florida.

Published October 19, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Two friends ushered Gov. Jeb Bush into the world of biotechnology.

It happened quickly and quietly. David Gury, a Boca Raton biomedical executive who knew Bush from a 1999 trade mission to Israel, sent an e-mail to the governor in late June, promoting biotechnology as a way to diversify Florida's low-wage, service economy.

"We need to mount a major assault in this area," wrote Gury, president of Nabi Biopharmaceuticals. He had spoken to Bush on the subject before and had just heard President Bush, the governor's brother, speak at a biotech convention in Washington.

Then C. David Brown II weighed in.

The well-connected Orlando lawyer knew from a client that the prestigious Scripps Research Institute near San Diego, one of the world's largest private, nonprofit biomedical research companies, wanted to expand to the East Coast. Brown, who raised more than $100,000 for the president's 2000 campaign and has given thousands to the state Republican Party, told the governor.

"They were interested in replicating what they have out there," Brown recalled last week. "It was a combination of timing and opportunity."

Brown joined Bush on a visit to Scripps in La Jolla on July 17 during a political trip for his brother's presidential campaign. Bush's office recently hired Brown at what it says is a discounted hourly rate of $275 to help negotiate the Scripps deal on the state's behalf.

Bush's spokeswoman, Jill Bratina, said Brown was hired because of his knowledge of both biotechnology and land use law. Brown is a specialist in eminent domain law and is general counsel for the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority.

With stunning speed and a level of secrecy not seen since Disney came to Orlando in the 1960s, Bush courted Scripps with enthusiasm and intensity. He christened the secret venture "Project Air Conditioning," likening its historical significance to John Gorrie's discovery that made everyday life bearable in Florida.

"I showed more self-restraint than I thought I could," Bush said in an interview, as he described his quiet romancing of Scripps. "I've never been more intrigued and excited."

Bush offered Scripps $310-million of federal economic stimulus money. He got Palm Beach County to ante up as much as $200-million more. Land, buildings, labs, offices, equipment, even employees' salaries for seven years: Scripps would get it all for free.

In return, Bush said, Scripps would catapult Florida to the forefront of the fast growing biomedical industry, attracting thousands of well-paying jobs in the health care field while enhancing the status of state universities.

But Bush hasn't quite closed the deal.

He still has to get it through the Republican-controlled Legislature, in a five-day session starting Monday. Some leading lawmakers, while welcoming Scripps, want a thorough analysis of this unprecedented project.

Some examples:

For the first time, the state is seeking to get a private company to move to Florida by offering to use public money to pay the company's salaries and other expenses.

Draft legislation on the Scripps deal would require the company to repay Florida up to $155-million, or half of the state's investment. But the payback provision does not kick in until 2011.

The legislation calls for a five-member board known as the Scripps Florida Funding Corp. to control the money. The board, with three members chosen by Bush and two by the Legislature, would negotiate details of the Scripps deal, and would be exempt from some public records laws.

"We have not yet bought into the idea of creating this corporation," said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon. "The governor has made the deal, but we're writing the check."

Another trouble spot for Bush is his desire to create a separate $190-million "mega fund" so he could spend money to lure new companies to the state after consulting with House and Senate leaders. Full legislative approval would not be required.

"We're saying the Legislature still needs to keep a finger in the pie," said Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville.

King sent Bush a barrage of skeptical questions. He questioned not only the Scripps deal but also the rosy jobs projections by Tony Villamil of Coral Gables, a former top aide to the governor.

King suggested the state demand preferential treatment for state residents in hiring and set a minimum number of hours that Scripps would work with Florida universities.

Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said he's paying an economist to analyze the economic model Bush used to project 6,500 jobs attributable to Scripps, and 40,000 more in related companies.

"It can be a real good deal or a bad deal. It depends on the details," Gelber said. "I'm worried that we can get so excited, we can forget about doing our job."

Bush was so good at keeping the Scripps project under wraps that word of the courtship did not surface until last week.

The whirlwind romance between Florida and Scripps blossomed on both coasts.

In West Palm Beach, commissioners showered Scripps officials with praise in a special meeting. And also pledged up to $200-million to the deal. By week's end, Scripps had settled on 1,900 acres that would cost Palm Beach County $58-million to buy and millions more to improve. Scripps would get a new building on 100 acres, and the county could sell off the rest to other biomedical companies.

In California, Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings and a dozen Florida legislators were in a Scripps atrium, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, sipping cocktails and dining on sea bass and beef tenderloin.

As thick fog rolled in off the Pacific, the Florida visitors and Scripps executives met in the atrium of Scripps' Beckman Center. Three Nobel laureates on the Scripps faculty were there, as were two board members: a retired California Superior Court judge and a former director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Scripps president Richard Lerner punctuated his introductions of colleagues with offhand mentions of their considerable accomplishments.

This one started a half-dozen successful biotechs. That one just sold her spinoff company for $43-million. Another just won an award from Eli Lilly.

Jennings gushed with goodwill. "We want all of our new friends at Scripps to know how excited we are you have chosen Florida as your new home," she said. "We are committed to making sure all this works well. Come on down to Florida!"

Even before the Scripps deal surfaced, Bush was working behind the scenes to speed up the efforts to lure desirable new companies to Florida. He pushed a bill in the last legislative session that cut lawmakers out of the loop when it comes to writing checks through a separate program called the Quick Action Closing Fund.

Lawmakers passed it on the final day of the regular session and agreed to exclude the Legislative Budget Commission, a joint House-Senate committee that approves midyear budget changes, from reviewing the fund.

The change "could accelerate the decisionmaking process . . . to "close a deal' and help bring a new business to or expand an existing one in Florida," a House staff report on the bill (HB 691) said.

Bush needs approval of the Scripps deal from both the House and Senate. His earlier criticism of some key Republican senators, including Lee, during this summer's medical malpractice debate has not left their minds.

As in the past, the Senate is fiercely asserting its power over the state's purse strings, demanding answers to basic questions, such as what guarantees the state would get for its money. The Senate often refers to itself as the saucer that cools the tea: a more deliberative body of senior statesmen compared to the more raucous House.

Senators are walking a fine line between supporting the deal, which has the potential to reshape the state's economy, and making sure they can explain to constituents what they would get for their $310-million investment.

Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa, wants King to put under oath all witnesses who will answer questions about the deal in legislative hearings. The Senate caused a stir in July when it put insurance executives under oath during the medical malpractice debate.

The sworn testimony clashed dramatically with earlier statements, and became a turning point of the debate in the Senate's favor.

"The lessons gleaned from the medical malpractice hearings still resonate," Miller said. "We saw how positions of some interested parties changed once an oath was administered." King hasn't decided that issue yet.

At week's end, lawmakers were still looking for new areas of the project to scrutinize. But callers on hold to the governor's office heard the voice of Gov. Jeb Bush proclaiming Scripps as Florida's savior.

"Florida stands at the threshold of opportunity that will forever change the destiny of our state," Bush says.

- Times staff writer Kris Hundley and researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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