Originally posted on the Orlando Sentinel website
Movie and television industry advocates are hoping this year’s effort to renew a tax incentive program is a classic underdog story like “Rocky,” “Rudy” or “Hoosiers.”
But political tensions, budget constraints and a resistance to using taxpayer cash for short-term job creation mean lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott might bring on an unhappy ending.
“It has to happen. Otherwise people are going to leave in a mass exodus to Atlanta,” Julie Brown, film commissioner for Bay County, said of the need for incentives.
The entertainment tax credit program failed in the Legislature earlier this year despite a hard push by the industry. With the start of the 2016 session looming in January, the odds of a restart are long, officials say.
Lawmakers in 2010 set aside $296 million for the entertainment industry tax incentive program paying tax rebates to movie, television, commercial, music video and other productions that filmed in Florida. The money was supposed to last until 2016, but ran out after three years.
Meanwhile, the Orlando Sentinel reported in 2013 that lobbyists for Electronic Arts, a Maitland-based video game maker, helped draft a change to the law that allowed the company to reap millions in tax credits.
Lawmakers who support a rewrite of film incentives have been frustrated by the lack of traction the idea has received in the Capitol. Although some Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature back it, many are skeptical of “picking winners and losers” using taxpayer funds.
Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami, worried out loud last week about the “downward spiral” of large businesses playing taxpayers in different jurisdictions off against each other to get ever-larger incentive deals.
“Their incentive is to get the best deal that they can,” Oliva said.
Now, the move to fund the program must overcome friction between some senators who support the idea and Scott’s office.
Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, who chairs a key committee and has sponsored the film incentive bill in recent years, grilled Niki Welge, Florida’s film commissioner. She believes Welge hasn’t been doing enough to support their efforts. Her office is under the Department of Economic Opportunity, which is controlled by Scott.
“I’ve been doing a film bill for three years. I’ve had zero input from you,” said Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice.
But Detert also suggested she was likely taking orders from Scott and hasn’t received much support from lawmakers. Welge said budget cuts last year led to cutting the hours of their Los Angeles-based staff, but maintained they’re still promoting Florida as a shooting location for the industry.
Budget constraints are another hurdle for the program. Scott is already pushing for $1 billion in tax cuts next year, which would make funding the program difficult, since the state has a projected $635 million surplus next year and lawmakers have consistently supported increased funding for education and health care.
But film and entertainment industry advocates say the incentives are crucial to prevent losing jobs to Georgia and Louisiana, states with robust tax incentive programs.
“All they have to do is sit back and look at the other states around us who say, ‘This is the best thing we’ve ever done,'” Brown said.
The industry often cites its own study from 2013 claiming the program generated a return on investment of $4.60 for every dollar spent, but a report from state economists earlier this year disputes that, saying the program didn’t generate as much money as it spent. The entertainment industry isn’t quitting yet, and is hoping its story will eventually sell during session.
“I understand a lot of people don’t want to put money out there to make money, but the return on investment should be incentive enough,” Brown said. “It always comes down to the bottom line.”
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