Scott struggles to find good news on jobs front

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20 October 2011
With Florida's employment market stagnating and budget revenues declining, Gov. Rick Scott jumped on the good economic news he could find Thursday, touting a new biotech company's decision to move to the Tampa Bay area.

But the firm's addition of 40 new jobs will hardly put a dent in Scott's promise to create 700,000 positions in seven years, and the billing of Thursday's event as a "major" jobs announcement underscored the yearning for positive economic signs.

After declining for the first five months of Scott's administration, Florida's unemployment rate has been stuck in neutral for three months, at 10.6 percent. September unemployment numbers released today could indicate whether Florida's economy is reviving or sliding back into a funk after a strong start to 2011.

But the signs don't look good. Sales tax collections are down, and state leaders are preparing for another yawning budget gap between projected revenues and spending needs.

Scott is facing increasing questions about his ability to deliver on his campaign job creation promise. Hoping to jump start economic growth, he is on a trade mission to Brazil.

The governor has also eagerly promoted any news of companies moving to Florida, although even Scott joked that he wished the 40 jobs relocating to St. Petersburg by IRX Therapeutics were closer to 400.

The company, which is entering the final clinical trial phase for an anti-cancer drug developed with technology patented at the University of South Florida, has the potential to create more than 280 jobs if the trial goes well and the drug progresses to the manufacturing stage.

The state contributed $600,000 in economic incentive funds to lure IRX from New York City. St. Petersburg, Pinellas County and USF provided another $600,000 in cash and incentives.

Scott said he flew to New York to personally recruit IRX to Florida and noted the deal would help him deliver on a promise to boost employment in Florida.

"It's one of the things I ran on, my seven steps to 700,000 jobs," Scott said in announcing the deal.

But in recent weeks, Scott has seemed to hedge on the jobs pledge when confronted with questions about the struggling economy and his campaign commitment reach his jobs goal in addition to 1 million positions state economists forecast will be created regardless of who is leading Florida.

Scott told a conservative radio host last week that, "I could argue that I don't have to create any jobs. I just have to make sure we don't lose jobs."

Scott told the audience of about 100 people at the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library at USF St. Petersburg that Florida has "turned a corner" and is no longer losing jobs, with 87,200 private sector positions added since December.

But outside the library, where a group of protesters had gathered, Amy Ritter with the liberal group Florida Watch Action criticized Scott's "job killing, anti-middle class policies," including deep cuts to the public sector workforce, reductions in social services and rejection of federal funding for various programs.

Florida still has nearly 1 million unemployed residents. Federally funded initiatives — including a proposed high-speed rail link between Tampa and Orlando — would have brought thousands of jobs to the state, Ritter said, but were rejected by Scott because of Washington money.

The latest jobs announcement seemed ironic given that the city of St. Petersburg used an economic redevelopment program that has received federal funding to help lure IRX, Ritter added.

The debate over job creation will continue through the legislative session that begins in January, with Scott announcing last week that his agenda will again include a mix of tax cuts, deregulation and economic incentive policy proposals.

Scott wants to phase out the state's corporate income tax and roll back regulations he views as bad for business.

Asked if he would reevaluate his policies if the unemployment rate continues to stagnate or worsens, Scott focused on the positive trends.

"Every month since I've been in office we've generated jobs but one," he said. "Unemployment dropped for the first five months."

"We are on the right track," he added.

Thursday's announcement was also an important showcase for USF's science and research programs. Florida's 11 public universities are drawing increased scrutiny from Scott, who announced last week that higher education reform would be one of his top priorities next year. The governor has been especially critical of universities for failing to devote enough resources to math, science, engineering and technology programs, the so-called STEM disciplines.

Scott praised USF's research programs Thursday.

"This is exactly what ought to be happening in St. Pete and around USF," Scott said. "It's research, it's teaming up our research and the talent in our universities with the private sector."

USF President Judy Genshaft said universities need to do a better job showcasing their science and research programs.

"It's our responsibility to continually teach leaders what universities, and particularly research universities, are all about," she said.

By Zac Anderson

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