Let’s Invest in U.S. Future — Transportation Secretary Chao

 

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By Elaine L. Chao, Guest Columnist, Orlando Sentinel

 

President Donald Trump has announced a bold, innovative plan for improving and investing in America’s infrastructure. The proposal is the culmination of a year-long effort between Cabinet agencies, including the Department of Transportation, with significant input from state, local, and private sector leaders. It is designed to change how infrastructure is built, financed and maintained in communities across the country.

A national discussion on how we build and fund our roads, bridges, tunnels, seaports, airports, rural infrastructure and transit systems is long overdue. As U.S. Secretary of Transportation, I’ve had countless conversations with governors and local officials across the country — including Florida Gov. Rick Scott — about strengthening America’s critical infrastructure. Florida is doing it the right way.

One project in particular is the I-4 Ultimate Project. I-4 Ultimate will help transform Central Florida by rebuilding 21 miles of interstate. From its inception in 1965, I-4 has been a vital east-west connector that cuts through Central Florida, serving as the main transportation corridor from Daytona Beach to Tampa.

I-4 Ultimate includes the addition of two new dynamic tolled Express Lanes in each direction, replacing more than 140 bridges, reconfiguring 15 major interchanges, and reconstructing the entire existing roadway. By utilizing a public-private partnership procurement method, the Florida Department of Transportation will deliver the project in seven years where standard funding options projected it would take 27 years to complete. When finished, the project is expected to decrease travel times by increasing options for commuters and visitors in central Florida.

The $2.3 billion construction project is benefiting from more than $1 billion in private financing from the concessionaire, I-4 Mobility Partners, including private bank loans, Federal TIFIA loans, and private investment. As such, the project also needs a workforce, including engineers, designers, skilled workers, as well as all that goes into supplying product and equipment along the way. This means jobs for Central Florida.

Unfortunately, Florida is the exception, not the norm. One out of every five miles of U.S. highway pavement is in poor condition. Americans spent an estimated 6.9 billion hours delayed in traffic in 2014, or 42 hours per driver. Almost 40 percent of America’s bridges are more than 50 years old.

Click here to read the complete article in the Orlando Sentinel

Florida Counties, Schools Face Higher State Pension Contributions

By Lloyd Dunkelberger, News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Florida counties will have to contribute an additional $66 million to the state pension fund in the new budget year, according to legislation that has started moving in the Senate.

As a result of a decrease in the assumed rate of investment return on the $160 billion pension fund, counties, school boards, state agencies, universities, state colleges and other government entities will have to increase their contributions in the 2018-2019 budget year to make sure there is enough money to pay retirement benefits in the long term.

The increased payments total $178.5 million, including $66.4 million for county governments, according to legislation (SB 7014) approved by the Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee last week.

School districts, whose employees represent about half of the 627,000 active pension participants, will have to contribute an additional $54.4 million.

State agencies will have to contribute another $31 million. Universities will have to contribute $11.8 million and state colleges an additional $4.8 million.

A handful of cities and special districts that participate in the state retirement system will face a $10 million contribution increase.

County governments, which face the largest contribution increase, will have to accommodate the added expense as they shape their 2018-2019 budgets.

Read the entire article in the Orlando Sentinel.

Ax Economic Incentives? Whoa, Says Florida Chamber’s Mark Wilson

Orlando Sentinel, February 21, 2017
By Michael Joe Murphy

WATCH Sentinel Opinions Editor Paul Owens checks in with Florida Chamber of Commerce CEO Mark Wilson on hot business and economic issues in the upcoming Florida legislative session.

Less than a month before the Legislature convenes for its annual session, a House subcommittee has approved a bill that would eliminate Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida, along with several tax incentives for businesses. The bill pits House Speaker Richard Corcoran, no fan of tax incentives, against Gov. Rick Scott, a champion of both agencies and of tax breaks to lure businesses here. With opposing sides hunkered down, all eyes are on the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the state’s leading business organization. To gauge chamber sentiments, the Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board interviewed Mark Wilson, chamber president and CEO.

 

Q: Where does the chamber stand in the battle over taxpayer incentives for businesses that create jobs?

A:  Everything we’re doing is a about job creation, and everything we’re doing is about making Florida more competitive.  It’s interesting that, in Washington, the fight’s between Republicans and Democrats, but here in Florida it’s increasingly between Republicans and Republicans.  Where we come down on the issue of job creation and economic opportunity is that Florida should keep every tool on the table … that protects taxpayers, including taxpayer incentives.

I want to be clear about this: Incentives are almost always inappropriate, and they should rarely ever be used.  In fact, they are rarely ever used.  Only about 2 percent of the time do incentives come into play.  Most jobs are created because small and mid-sized businesses say Florida is a good market … to create a job.  But to send a message to the world that Florida is closed for business and that we don’t want to create jobs here anymore… We have a – [let’s] call it a philosophical difference if you want:  We think the best way to protect taxpayers is, in fact, to have a system in place that creates jobs that generates more tax revenue so that we can fund teachers, firefighters and police [officers].   Now is not the time to send the message … that … we don’t want to create jobs anymore.

 

Q:   Few chamber members receive a taxpayer incentive for creating jobs. So isn’t there an issue of fairness when certain employers get incentives?

A:  We hear this a lot … [people ask], “Is it fair?”  Some people … talk about picking winners and losers.  What we do in Florida is very different than what’s [done] in other states.  Remember, I was here 20 years ago talking about how   … to diversify our economy in Florida.  We have an agriculture-tourism based economy, and that’s always … important, but we also need modeling and simulation, and aerospace and advance manufacturing, life sciences and so forth.  So what we say to the world is: “We want to accelerate the diversification of high-paying jobs and economic opportunity.”  For everyone in the world … in those targeted industries, “If you come to Florida, and if you create jobs, it doesn’t matter what company you are. Anyone can have access.”  So … we’re talking about diversifying … and creating more jobs and economic opportunity.  And that’s an opportunity for every single Floridian – it’s also an opportunity for every … person … in [an] industry … to create job[s].

Florida doesn’t pick this company or that company – the companies … pick Florida.  And remember, this is a competitive environment – [these companies] could pick Georgia; they could pick Brazil; they could pick Mexico; they could pick California.  This is an incredibly competitive environment when you’re talking about high-wage, high-skilled jobs.  That’s the part of the discussion I think some people are missing.

 

Q: Eliminating Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida could save taxpayers $100 million. How does the chamber view these proposals?

A:  … All proposals deserve a fair hearing.  …  What we want to look at is, “What happens when you do these proposals?”  Take tourism, as an example:  Here we are in Florida, arguably the tourism capital of the world.  [There is no] … personal income tax in Florida because of our tourism economy.  We have over 100 million people visit our state every year, and in many ways it’s because we are marketing to them.  We’re talking to them about why Florida is a good place. …  .  And some of them actually end up moving here, which helps drive our economy.

If we [were] eliminate Visit Florida, this … [would be equivalent to] a $90 million tax increase in Florida.  If we …   eliminate Enterprise Florida [and] Visit Florida – it [would amount to] an immediate $90 million increase, not to mention the over $11 billion of tax revenue that’s generated in Florida from the tourism industry alone.  So, to suggest that … with all the taxpayer protections that are in [incentives],  if we stop them [that] is somehow a way to save money, we are actually going to have to look at these like personal income taxes.

If we pull back from marketing Florida as a place for people to visit, if we send a message to the world that we’re not open for business anymore – where do you think [our] taxes [will] come from?  … [Taxes]   come from creating jobs; they come from people buying things.  And if we don’t have people coming to Florida to rent hotels, to rent cars, to buy things from small businesses … that revenue engine [would] stop.  … These programs not only pay for themselves, they provide an even bigger return back to the taxpayer, so we can have more dollars for roads like we’re [building] right now in Orlando — more dollars for teachers.  … It’s a false narrative that … [to cut] … targeted incentives [that have] … taxpayer protections, [Florida would achieve] a …  savings.  It actually [would be] a huge cost.  We could be looking at income taxes, and we could be looking at an immediate $90 million tax increase. …

 

Q:  Senate President Joe Negron has a couple of proposals:  Partner with the federal government on a $2.4 billion reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to handle polluted runoff  … and invest an additional $1 billion dollars … in higher education.  Does the Chamber have any feelings on these?

A:  … Both of those proposals are worth talking about.  Like I said earlier, we should discuss everything because beneath all of these proposals [we] get us to better policies.

…[Regarding] education policy:  We know from the Florida Chamber Foundation and research that talent is quickly replacing the tax incentive as the most important tool in the economic tool kit.  We have 500,000 people in Florida … without a job, and we have 250,000 jobs without people.  So investing more in the education to build that talent pipeline – … President Negron is on exactly the right track of investing more in higher education where the benefit is a trained work force; it benefits [research and development]. The science tells us, the economics tell us [that] this is exactly what we should be doing.

Now, on the flip side of this … Some people are suggesting building a second Lake Okeechobee south of the current lake.  … I have personally traveled to Martin County; I have personally traveled to Stuart and … seen the blue-green algae. …  It is a major problem. … But where the Florida Chamber always comes down on these issues is: We step back, and we say “Let’s take the politics out of it for a minute – what’s the right thing to do?  What did the scientists say needs to be done?”

The science on what to do about the water challenges that are in Florida are very clear.  We need to clean up the septic [tanks] north of the lake; we need to finish all the projects that the federal government has approved.  I think Governor [Rick] Scott is exactly right: We need to do a cost-sharing program where the government pays for part of this, and we ask the individual homeowners and business to pay part of the conversion to septic tanks.  So in terms of building a second Lake Okeechobee, it’s not that 10 years from now, 20 years from now, it’s  not on the list of things that should be on the table. … [Science] tells us it’s not the first thing, second thing or third thing that we should [do] …  to actually solve the problem.  And so, I don’t think it’s as easy as [asking] … “Are you against it or are you for it?”  I think the right conversation to be had is, “What’s the first thing you would do if you actually wanted to deal with the problem?” “what’s the second thing” “what’s the third thing”?”  …

[There] are a lot of things we could do with a couple of billion dollars right now, and to actually solve the blue-green algae problem in the first place.  And converting septic tanks north of the lake is the A-number-1 issue that everybody agrees on.  So it’s a matter of when you do it.  And we don’t think doing it first is what the science tells us to do.

Mark Wilson Talks to the Orlando Sentinel on Enterprise Florida and Legislative Issues

In our continued efforts to save Florida’s economic development and tourism efforts, Mark Wilson, President and CEO, Florida Chamber of Commerce recently spoke to the Orlando Sentinel. Watch the video as Mark Wilson discusses Enterprise Florida and legislative issues with Opinions Editor Paul Owens.

Expansion of Casino Gambling Draws Dire Warnings, Praise

By Scott Powers, Orlando Sentinel

If Florida increases its bet on gambling, the wager will ride on whether new casinos could become economic engines as in Baltimore, or economic vacuums as in Atlantic City.

That was the central argument in a debate over gambling during a Florida Forward forum sponsored in downtown Orlando on Tuesday by the Orlando Sentinel.

Atlantic City’s economic demise was caused by decades of Democrat rule and astronomical taxes. The casinos just delayed it a few decades.

Opponents, notably No Casinos Inc. President John Sowinski, argued that many new casinos have sucked vitality out of communities by drawing dollars away from existing restaurants, hotels and attractions. And he held up Atlantic City’s economic demise, with recent widespread casino failures, as a frightening cautionary tale.

Supporters, notably Geoff Freeman, president of the American Gaming Association, argued that many new casinos that are more wisely planned and regulated, as in Baltimore and Ohio, have been boons to their cities’ economies and could serve as role models for any Florida expansion.

The casino issue is reemerging because Florida’s five-year compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida expires this summer. It allows the tribe lucrative, exclusive rights for its seven tribal-land casinos, in exchange for more than $130 million in annual fees.

A renegotiated contract could open up what other casino operators want — expansion of competition.

Two companies, Las Vegas Sands Corp. and the Genting Group of Malaysia, have publicly pushed for Florida to allow more casinos in South Florida.

“Here’s the bottom line,” said opponent Mark Wilson, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, “Florida doesn’t need the casino industry. The casino industry … needs Florida.”

There also are eight pari-mutuel betting tracks, all in South Florida, that now operate limited-game casinos and seek more.

“We just want to be on a level playing field,” said Isadore Havernick, vice president of the Magic City Casino in Miami.