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Bush seeks millions to bring Tampa Bay jobs

The Mega Fund draws fire from legislators of both parties, since the governor would have nearly unfettered access.

By SCOTT BARANCIK
Published October 21, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Jeb Bush has a message for the Tampa Bay area: Give me $190-million to woo out-of-state companies and I'll get you up to 5,000 new, high-paying jobs.

That's his pitch for the Economic Investment Mega Fund, a companion to Bush's proposal to lure a Florida branch of the Scripps Research Center to Palm Beach County.

The governor wants almost unfettered control over the $190-million, which he would use as inducements for private companies to locate to the state.

Lawmakers are skeptical.

Both Republicans and Democrats criticized Bush for trying to seize spending power. Social service advocates complained that the fund would use dollars better spent on mending the state's social safety net. Others guessed that Bush is using the proposal as a bargaining chip he would be willing to give up to win passage of the Scripps project.

Bush did not mention the fund when he addressed the Legislature on Monday.

"The Mega Fund has been kind of sidelined," House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, said. "We want to be sure we get Scripps right."

The state will spend about $40-million this year to lure companies to Florida, said Darrell Kelley, president and CEO of Enterprise Florida, the private group funded by the state to handle economic development. Getting approval to spend that money is laborious, he said.

The Mega Fund, by contrast, would give Bush the freedom to respond quickly. Money could even be given up front, in a lump sum.

Some restrictions would apply. Only companies willing to create 200 or more new jobs at 125 percent of the local average wage would qualify. Most also would have to invest at least $25-million in their Florida operations. And those failing to meet job, wage and investment goals would have to return some of the funds.

Ten of the 196 projects Enterprise Florida is managing would qualify, Kelley said. One candidate, nicknamed Project Eden, could bring 3,000 jobs paying an average annual salary of $61,000 to Hillsborough County. Project Football could bring 1,100 jobs paying an average of $92,000 to either Hillsborough, Seminole or Orange.

Project Victory could help a Pinellas satellitemaker, thought to be Raytheon Co. of Largo, add 700 jobs.

The total payoff from all 10 projects would be 10,465 jobs and $1.5-billion in capital investments.

What concerns lawmakers most is the singular power the governor would wield. After getting recommendations from Enterprise Florida and his own Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development, Bush would "consult" with the Senate president and House speaker, but the final call would be his.

Bush also wants the program exempt from public records laws.

In a letter last week to Bush, Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said legislative leaders should have an equal say and that the Legislative Budget Commission should issue final approval.

Bush's response was clear. Waiting for the commission to vote, Bush wrote, could be "the difference between winning a project and losing it to another state."

- Times staff writers Steve Bousquet, Alisa Ulferts and Kris Hundley contributed to this report. Scott Barancik can be reached at barancik@sptimes.com or 727 893-8751.

[Last modified October 21, 2003, 01:48:40]


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