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Agency merger gets a green light

By Sascha Cordoner

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-962430.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – The Florida House Select Committee on Government Reorganization looked at one of Governor Rick Scott's top priorities this session. Scott wants to consolidate a variety of economic development agencies under one entity. Scott made a special appearance to address the committee to drive home point. But As Sascha Cordner reports, even though many members applauded parts of the bill some questioned why the governor wanted to move, the states tourism marketing agency, VISIT FLORIDA.

Florida Governor Rick Scott kicked off the bill's first committee stop within Select Committee on Government Reorganization with a special guest appearance. The bill proposes to create the Department of Economic Opportunity, which would be responsible for many different agencies, including workforce development, community planning and development, and economic development. Though critics call it a power grab, Scott showed up praising the committee for helping him with his idea of helping the unemployed.

"Thanks to you and your staff for working with my staff to ensure we have a laser focus on getting Floridians back to work. As you know, over 1-million Floridians are without jobs. We were all elected do one thing, make Florida best place the best state to start, grow, or start a business, and that way we will get businesses what they need to create private sector jobs."

Many members including Speaker pro tempore John Legg of Port Richey. Republican Representative Debbie Mayfield of Vero Beach, and Democratic Representative Leonard Bembry helped draft the bill, and Scott says he is happy the members were able to get on the same page as him.

"When I requested a consolidated Economic Development Agency: I requested three things; bring together economic development and workforce development, two: provide a single point of contact over economic development and our public-private partnerships, and three: give us flexibility in funding that will allow us to react quickly to business opportunities."

Under the original draft of the bill, the Early Learning Services, a program dedicated to helping children and their parents with an education, would be located within the Agency for Workforce Innovation to the Department of Economic Opportunity. But, after listening to much public testimony, The Bill's Sponsor John Legg of Port Richey says he and other members decided to take that under consideration and wait and see to make that decision. Republican Representative Debbie Mayfield of Vero Beach, who helped to work on this bill, answered that question about how they were unsure of what they should do about Early Learning and Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten, or V-P-K.

"And, we don't want to make a move that we're not sure of. And, I think by keeping it intact, and we're keeping it intact exactly the way it is right now and have the study done, and have the agencies get together and let them come back and tell us, based on our evaluation, based on where the functions are right now, based on how we're operating, where do we need to be?"

Many lawmakers talked about how they were for the most part in support of this bill, but several lawmakers had a problem with the Tourism aspect of it. One lawmaker Democratic representative John Patrick Julien of Miami Dade, who was opposed, had the same question many lawmakers brought up throughout the 3-hour meeting: What about VISIT Florida?

"One of concerns that a lot of folks from throughout the state have is they wanted to understand what kind of changes this merger would make, or what kind of impact it would have on VISIT FLORIDA, would the tourism industry or would the marketing of Florida change in any way as a result of this merger?"

One person who came up for public testimony in opposition to the bill was Thomas Waits, who was part of the founding leadership of VISIT FLORIDA. He says the tourism industry will not send money to government-regulated industry, and Florida will lose jobs. He also asked the members why they were trying to fix something that wasn't broken.

"Every other state wants to copy Florida, and you want to change it, It doesn't make sense, and I suggest to you that you set Visit Florida aside. Let them go. Watch them as carefully as you want to, use them as a pattern. It is the best public-private partnership in this country."

Other people shared the same sentiments as Waits about how there is nothing wrong with Visit Florida, and how it is a model for the United States.
But, Chris Doolan, who is with 35 rural communities spoke in favor of the bill, and said he is happy Representative Bembry worked hard to get the smaller communities a seat at the Tourism table.

"So, local partners, local folks, get ready, get your names, and what you did today, you provided an amendment that said it has to be geographically distributed, rural and urban, everybody gets a shot on those nomination lists. So, everybody get your best foothold, and start participating."

The Bill's Sponsor Legg closed with saying Visit Florida should be one of the programs that should get a little revamping to make it a more competitive agency and welcomes Governor Scott's support of the legislation.

The Governor spoke for about three minutes at the start of the meeting. He was already thanking the committee for coming to a solution regarding the combination of the agencies.

"Thank you for asking my call in consolidation and flexibility. I appreciate each of your hard work and the hard work of your counterparts in the Senate. These reforms are needed to make Florida into the number one place to start, grow, or bring a business. I'm looking forward to working with each of you to ensure we make this the most effective legislation it can be."

The bill did eventually pass favorably with 17 in favor and 6 against. The measure is expected to go to another committee stop before going to the House Floor.