Richard Corcoran Seizes the Conservative High Ground on EFI Funding

by | Nov 1, 2016

“Therefore, the art of employing troops is that when the enemy occupies high ground, do not confront him; with his back resting on hills, do not oppose him.” –Sun Tzu

As the sun dipped below the trees on Boston’s west side on the evening of March 4th, 1776, British officers were just finishing their supper when a fresh bombardment of cannon fire erupted from the rebels in Cambridge, some distance away. The fire was inaccurate, and to the British army, a nuisance at best. Their own cannons returned fire, equally ineffective, and with that, senior British commanders retired to bed for the remainder of the night.

While they slept, General George Washington spurred his troops to move quickly and quietly up the hills of Dorchester Heights, overlooking Boston Harbor.  The Continental Army troops lined the path up the hills with hay bales to muffle the noise as they worked to build fortifications without alerting British sentries below.

When the sun came up the next morning, British General William Howe woke to find the rebels now occupied the commanding high ground overlooking the harbor and the city of Boston itself. Not only that, but Dorchester Heights now bristled with heavy cannons and fortifications that British troops would have a difficult time dislodging. It didn’t take Howe long to realize that from the high ground, the bombardments would be much more accurate and deadly than before. So dominant was Washington’s new position, that on March 17th, the British fleet sailed out of the harbor, leaving the city intact in exchange for Washington allowing them to depart unmolested.

Politics has been likened to war without bloodshed. It follows, then, that military axioms about the value of high ground have some bearing on the success of political campaigns. Incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran appears to have put the concept into practice on the question of funding for Enterprise Florida. While others have gone about the summer and fall, Richard Corcoran has kept busy installing rhetorical cannons and fortifications atop the conservative high ground overlooking those who support what he calls “corporate welfare.”

Enterprise Florida oversees economic incentives programs designed to entice companies to relocate to Florida. There are a number of different programs, but the general idea is that companies can qualify for tax breaks and direct economic incentives – cash – in exchange for meeting certain requirements, such as creating a specific number of jobs.

Backing Corcoran’s position, conservative groups, led by Americans for Prosperity, view the programs as a form of “corporate welfare,” and say that government should not be in the business of “picking winners and losers.” Governor Rick Scott preached the same mantra during the 2010 election cycle, and into the first year of his two terms of governor. But the catchy slogan was never applied to Enterprise Florida’s program, in large part because the incentives were viewed as a way to boost the governor’s job creation plan.

Now, with the 2017 legislative session fast approaching, Corcoran has taken over and fortified that same conservative high ground Scott once held. In repeated statements to the media, Corcoran has swatted away any discussion of cash handouts designed to lure companies to Florida. In an appearance on a panel in Texas earlier this month, he lobbed a rhetorical grenade at the concept, calling it “de facto socialism,” pointing out that the program takes money from the masses and gives it to the top one percent of society.

Last week, Corcoran fired another warning shot, this time at Sanford Burnham Institute, a medical research facility that has failed to meet economic expecations, yet has still received millions in incentive payments from the state, promising to “zealously protect taxpayer dollars” and “zealously go after those who abuse those funds.” A state agency under Governor Rick Scott has sinced also backed Corcoran’s call for reimbursement.

Still, some view the statements from Corcoran as mere political posturing, to be written off as little more than a starting point for negotiations when it finally comes time to approve the state’s $85 billion budget next April.

“Just about every other state is offering millions of dollars in tax breaks and incentives to lure companies and high paying jobs,” said one lobbyist who declined to be identified for this story. “Florida is going to have to do something in order to convince those companies to locate facilities here, and I’m confident Speaker Corcoran will find a way to do that in a responsible way.”

But Corcoran shot that sentiment down almost immediately upon hearing it. In a statement provided to The Capitolist, he made his intent explicitly clear:

“The belief that corporate welfare will not be in the House budget is not a negotiating position – it’s a fact,” Corcoran said. “The House subscribes to a belief in the free market doing the most good for the most people.  Free handouts and tax breaks for the politically connected has consistently resulted in jobs that never were and waste that never should’ve been.”

Such statements are not the kind of thing one says to establish a “negotiating position.” Were that the case, the language would be much softer, more nuanced. He has staked out the conservative high ground on this issue with the kind of determination and forcefulness that makes it clear he has no intention of retreating from it.

The big question now is whether or not the governor’s office or the Florida Senate will attempt to charge up the hill in an effort to win funding for EFI, or, like the British chose to do in 1776, sail quietly away, preserving political capital to fight another day?

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