Gubernatorial candidates divided on cure for economy

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s three leading contenders for governor are divided on how to kick-start the state’s stalled economy, particularly on how to dole out tax incentives to business groups and industries.

While Democrat Alex Sink and Republican Paula Dockery both promote the idea of offering tax breaks to spur job-creation, Republican Bill McCollum said the approach is not a panacea.

“Targeted tax credits, in my experience in Washington, were minimally effective,” said McCollum, a former 10-term congressman from the Orlando-area.

“They can be in the short run, but in the long run they are not effective,” he added. “But I think all of us wish there were a simple solution to the recreation of jobs in Florida.”

To balance the budget in these bleak economic times, Florida is simply going to have to cut the budget, McCollum said, though he said he wasn't prepared yet to say in any detail where those cuts should be.

McCollum’s stark assessment of tax giveaways is a departure from the approach advanced by fellow Republican, Gov. Charlie Crist, who has recommended $293.7 million in direct business tax credits and incentives in his $69.2 billion budget proposal to the Legislature.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, also has advanced a wide-ranging package of tax credits with a pricetag easily topping $100 million. Dockery, a Lakeland Senate Republican, sided more closely with Gaetz by saying she is working on a more modest line-up of tax incentives tied to job creation.

Sink, the state’s chief financial officer, said she sees tax breaks as being part of Florida’s effort toward recovery.

“I would certainly support tax incentives – they have to be designed properly,” Sink said. “If they are able to design a tax credit or incentive for businesses that grow employment, that gets us the results we really want.”

The three contenders spoke Monday at a forum in Tallahassee sponsored by the National Federation of Independent Business and Florida TaxWatch. Few specifics were on the table — but the candidates all hinted they plan to play an aggressive role during the upcoming legislative session in reviving the state’s economy.

Dockery said she would try to help businesses by streamlining permitting and paperwork. Although it may sound paradoxical, she said that as governor, she would appoint a “Red Tape Elimination Commission.”

“Regulation has its place, but it has to meet the test of common sense,” Dockery said.

Dockery, Sink and McCollum all support delay of a sharp increase in the state’s unemployment compensation tax that businesses now face paying on April 1.

Sink said she would support revamping the state’s unemployment compensation system – embracing the so-called alternative base system – to make more jobless workers eligible for benefits. The move could draw an additional $444.3 million in federal stimulus to Florida but is opposed by the state’s leading business organizations.

“If we can take the $400 million and when the money runs out and it is the option of the state to change the rules back to where we are today, I would support taking the $400 million,” Sink said. “It is $400 million.”

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