TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ A former Marine Corps officer is approaching his job as head of Florida's new economic development agency with military fervor.
The Department of Economic Opportunity, created to help attract new business and grow jobs, becomes official Saturday under Doug Darling. He most recently served as Gov. Rick Scott's deputy chief of staff and Cabinet affairs director.
“I would maintain that we are at war,'' Darling recently told a Senate committee. “We're at war with other states. We're at war with other countries.''
Scott pushed for the new department to help him keep his campaign pledge to create 700,000 new jobs in seven years by attracting new businesses to the state.
The Republican governor, though, has since backed away from his original promise that those 700,000 would be in addition to about 1 million jobs state economists had forecast Florida would add over that span anyway.
Darling also said he'd employ the same strategy of “overwhelming fire power'' that the Marines use when engaging an enemy.
Not everyone, though, is convinced he's got the kind of fire power he needs.
Senate President Pro Tempore Mike Bennett, a Bradenton Republican and Vietnam veteran, questioned the hiring of “account executives'' who themselves lack business experience.
Their job will be to close deals set up by Enterprise Florida, an existing public-private economic development partnership.
Bennett said that the account executives lacked business experience and that none has “ever created a job yet.'' He urged Darling to instead hire people “who've actually signed the front of a paycheck.''
“If you would look to the retired community, people who have started those (businesses), people who've got some wrinkles on their face instead of some kid who has graduated from Florida State, I think you would probably do quite well,'' Bennett said.
Enterprise Florida already has the kind of people Bennett is talking about, Darling said as he defended his staff.
“They will not be bureaucrats,'' Darling said. “They will be focused on job creation.''
The new department was cobbled together from several existing agencies, including the governor's Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development, or OTTED. Also being folded in are the former Agency For Workforce Innovation, which fills the role of a labor department, and what remains of a downsized Department of Community Affairs.
Darling said it was no secret that the connectivity between OTTED and Enterprise Florida was broken. He promised the department's Division of Strategic Business Development, which has assumed most of OTTED's responsibilities, would fix that problem.
“We've heard from businesses that they would be pursued by Enterprise Florida and then when it came time to make a deal happen, the visual is Enterprise Florida would throw the package over the wall in hopes that somebody from OTTED was there to receive it,'' Darling said. “Sometimes they did and sometimes it was fumbled.''
Darling said the new department is transforming the culture of the agencies it is absorbing.
As part of that effort, he said the department will ask the Legislature to change the name of the assistance given to jobless workers.
“The governor firmly believes that we need to disincentivize people not to go to work, so we're going to propose during the next session to re-brand unemployment compensation to `re-employment assistance.'''
The remnants of Community Affairs will be part of the department's Division of Community Development. At Scott's urging, the Legislature repealed most state controls over urban sprawl and growth management that Community Affairs had overseen.
Scott contended the agency was blocking new development that could help restore Florida's economy. Environmentalists and growth management advocates disputed that claim.
They cite a report by the department showing it had approved planning amendments that will permit more than a million new housing units and 2.7 billion square feet of nonresidential construction. Former Community Affairs Secretary Tom Pelham said that's decades worth of construction.
Florida Audubon advocacy director Charles Lee called Scott's argument “the big lie.''
“Our position was and is that the changes that abolished the Department of Community Affairs were in no way necessary to facilitate Florida's economic recovery,'' Lee said.
The new department will retain limited authority to veto major projects. Lee said the question is whether it will step up to that role but in most cases the state no longer will serve as a watchdog against corrupt or inept local officials.
While in the Marines, Darling served as a congressional liaison and air wing comptroller. He also has 15 years of state government experience including stints with the departments of Education and Financial Services.
He resigned as accounting and auditing chief for Financial Services in 2008 at the request of then-Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink. She said she had lost confidence in him following a critical audit of the agency's internal controls.
Sink had ordered the audit after a $5.7 million fraud scheme was uncovered. A suspect who was arrested while trying to flee the country received a nine-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to wire fraud and theft of state funds that were supposed to go to a road contractor.