FILE - Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

Florida lawmakers didn’t approve Gov. Ron DeSantis’ $85 million request for the state’s Job Growth Grant Fund, allocating $40 million for the program in Florida’s $90.98 billion Fiscal Year 2020 budget.

Nevertheless, it was one of the first items DeSantis touted last week after the fiscal year began on July 1 when he announced the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) and Enterprise Florida Inc. (EFI) are accepting proposals for workforce and infrastructure development projects that could be funded under the program.

“We know the importance infrastructure projects and workforce training has on economic development,” DeSantis said in a statement. “The Florida Job Growth Grant Fund will help Florida communities ensure they are resilient, prepared for all economic possibilities and have the opportunity to achieve their economic goals.”

Created in 2017, the job growth fund has been a source of controversy after former Gov. Rick Scott, now one of Florida’s two U.S. Senators, in 2016 requested $250 million in economic development initiatives be directly allocated to qualifying businesses identified by the Governor’s Office.

Democrats called Scott’s proposed program a “slush fund” with little oversight and former House Speaker Richard Corcoran described the incentives offered by the fund as “corporate welfare.”

In a compromise with the Republican-controlled Legislature, which wanted to axe the EFI, lawmakers agreed to create the fund with projects selected through an application process coordinated by the EFI and the DEO.

The governor, however, still ultimately retained the final say in what selected applicants received the grants.

During the last two years of his administration, Scott allocated $170 million from the Job Growth Grant Fund to 56 projects.

In the days before he departed Tallahassee for Washington, Scott drained what remained unspent in the $85 million approved for FY19, distributing $5 million to the town of Callahan to provide water and wastewater service to an industrial site; $4.7 million to the city of Lakeland to build two hangar facilities at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, which proved pivotal in securing an agreement with Amazon to house part of its ‘Prime Air’ there; and $2.3 million for Bradford County to build an access road through an airport.

Those were among projects selected by Scott from more than 100 applicants, totaling more than $620 million in funding, who submitted proposals to the DEO.

DeSantis in his budget request asked for the same $85 million Scott received during the program’s first two years but lawmakers, citing previously stated concerns about granting the chief executive too much discretion in doling out the grants, acted on those reservations with a new administration in Tallahassee and provided only $40 million for the program.

There was no reference to the reduced allocation in the Governor’s Office announcement that the DEO and EFI were accepting applications for the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund.

The money will be funneled to projects “that focus on rapidly developing a highly skilled workforce and on infrastructure initiatives that attract businesses, create jobs and promote economic growth,” according to the Governor’s Office.

“The Florida Job Growth Grant Fund will allow our agencies to continue making smart strategic investments in Florida communities to improve lives and support sustainable economic growth,” DEO Executive Director Ken Lawson said in a statement. “Gov. DeSantis’ commitment to enhancing Florida’s infrastructure and workforce training is creating a brighter future for all Floridians.”

The July 1 statement from DeSantis that the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund was seeking applicants for $40 million in available FY 20 grants was followed by a July 5 announcement by the Governor’s Office that he had approved $240,000 in Competitive Florida Partnership grant awards to six rural communities.

Of the six $40,000 grants, three were awarded to communities in three counties west of Lake Okeechobee – Fort Meade, LaBelle, Okeechobee – and three to Panhandle cities, Crestview, Midway and Panacea.

“Rural communities across the state should be able to attract businesses, support a highly-trained workforce and generate sustainable economic growth – while still highlighting what makes them unique,” DeSantis said in the announcement. “Competitive Florida allows these communities to create the blueprint to achieve their economic goals.”

The communities were chosen based on their economic needs and community support for the partnerships, the governor’s Office said.