By Phil Mattera, Dirt Diggers Digest
Florida and Mississippi may come close to sharing a border, but they are worlds apart in their current approach to the disclosure of economic development subsidies.
Florida has just launched an Economic Development Incentives Portal that makes it easy to discover which companies have benefited from programs such as the Quick Action Closing Fund, the Qualified Target Industry Tax Refund and the High Impact Performance Incentive.
Online subsidy disclosure is not completely new to Florida. An agency called the Governor's Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development used to post a PDF list of recipients for various programs. After Rick Scott took office as governor in 2011, that agency was put under the auspices of the new Department of Economic Opportunity, and the old disclosure site disappeared. DEO promised to restore transparency and has now made good on that promise.
The new portal, produced by DEO in partnership with Enterprise Florida, covers a dozen programs with a total of about 1,250 entries, including "every non-confidential incentive project with an executed contract since 1996 that received or is on schedule to receive payments from the state of Florida." DEO promises to add listings for confidential projects as their exemptions from disclosure requirements expire.
Searches can be targeted according to business name, county or date range. The results show company name, industry, subsidy value, county, approval date and project status. They also include both committed and actual numbers for jobs and investment, though in many cases the performance figures are listed as not available. The portal also includes projects that are inactive or have been terminated.
Florida's portal is an important advance for subsidy transparency. The site would be even more useful if it included street addresses for the subsidized facilities (to facilitate mapping) and allowed downloading of search results in spreadsheet form. At my request, DEO sent such a spreadsheet for the entire database, which I used both to prepare this piece and to upload the information to Subsidy Tracker.
Mississippi, on the other hand, is resisting online disclosure. The state legislature recently killed a bill that would have required the Mississippi Development Authority to publish an annual report on the tax credits, loans and grants it provides to companies in the name of economic development.
It turns out that the agency produced such a report for internal purposes but did not make it public. A group called the Bigger Pie Forum learned about the document -- the 2012 Mississippi Incentives Report -- and filed a successful Freedom of Information Act request. Bigger Pie was only able to get a hard copy, but it scanned the report and has posted it online here. The info in that report has also been added to Subsidy Tracker.
Despite the reluctance of state legislators, online subsidy disclosure has come to Mississippi. Perhaps the Magnolia State will realize the futility of resisting official transparency and join the Sunshine State, among about 45 others, in making subsidy information directly available to the public via the web.