Ron DeSantis’ trip abroad funded by group despised by Florida GOP

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ global trade mission this week is being funded by an organization that fellow Republicans have been trying to eliminate, raising questions about whether at least some taxpayer money will be used for his ambitious round-the-world trip to Japan, South Korea, Israel and the United Kingdom.

Launched in 1996, Enterprise Florida is a public-private state agency that aims to attract businesses to the state and promote it for economic development. It has been controversial for years — and it became a sticking point between Florida House Republicans and former Gov. Rick Scott, who viewed it as an effective way to create jobs. Back then, Enterprise Florida survived, but with less funding. Private donations have typically defrayed the cost of previous trips.

DeSantis continues to travel extensively outside Florida in advance of a potential 2024 presidential bid, and he has received some criticism, including from within the GOP, over his statements about foreign policy.

Donald Trump raised the funding issue in a post on his Truth Social platform Monday, saying DeSantis would be using taxpayer money for his “emergency Round the World tour … in order to up his game and see if he can remove the stain from his failing campaign.”

“Perhaps he can, and perhaps he can’t, who really knows, but he’ll have plenty of time to think as he sits alone, on his tax payer funded airplane, riding it out and thinking, WHY???” Trump added about his likely competition in the 2024 presidential race. 

In 2019, DeSantis traveled to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with a delegation of nearly 100 people as part of a trade mission organized by Enterprise Florida.

“Just like the last one, [this trip] is not paid for at the taxpayers’ expense,” Bryan Griffin, the governor’s spokesperson, told NBC News.

But taxpayers did appear to foot at least some of the cost for the previous trip, according to the News Service of Florida, citing documents released by the state’s economic development agency. The six-day trip totaled $442,504, and private donors paid for more than two-thirds of the bill, the documents showed, but Florida taxpayers paid about $131,000, the news outlet reported. 

That covered lodging, airfare and other travel costs for several state officials, as well as security provided by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The News Service of Florida also reported that a major source of the funding came from 12 private donors, including legal and lobbying firms, according to the same documents.

This time, too, private donors will be paying for at least part of the trip through Enterprise Florida, which has not disclosed where exactly the money will be coming from. 

A spokesperson for Enterprise Florida declined to comment about the trade mission, instead referring questions to the governor’s office.

For years, some Republican legislators have railed against Enterprise Florida, arguing that the agency gives tax breaks to big businesses that really don’t need it and would have come to Florida anyway. The agency’s critics have said that it unfairly picks winners and losers — and that the money reserved for it could be better spent elsewhere.

Republican Florida House Speaker Paul Renner reiterated his desire to eliminate Enterprise Florida in an interview last week. 

“I don’t believe that taxpayer money should be used to fund corporate welfare,” he said. “We do not need to spend taxpayer dollars that could [instead] be spent on K-12 education or higher education.”

A bill filed last month, HB 5, proposed shifting Enterprise Florida’s funding to the state Department of Economic Opportunity. Renner has said $13 million in funding this year for Enterprise Florida could be better used in other areas.

On Friday, the House Appropriations Committee voted 19-7 to approve the bill, which would also change the name of the Department of Economic Opportunity to the Department of Commerce. The bill would put the commerce secretary in charge of recruiting businesses.

Renner said he opposes Enterprise Florida for the tax breaks it offers to only some corporations — for example, using taxpayer money to attract an Amazon headquarters in 2017. He argues that Florida’s lack of a state income tax and other business-friendly policies should be incentive enough to attract companies.

For some of DeSantis’ critics, the timing of the trip is suspect.

“It doesn’t square,” said Rep. Fentrice Driskell, the Democratic leader of the state House, adding that it was her “strong presumption” that at least some taxpayer money would be used given the number of government officials making the journey, in addition to the governor’s security detail. Driskell is questioning why Republicans aren’t opposed to DeSantis’ trip’s using an agency they want to dismantle. 

“It’s very hypocritical,” she said. “They’re happy to change the rules when it suits them.”

In his interview, Renner defended DeSantis’ busy travel schedule in the middle of the legislative session.

“This is a governor that gets things done,” Renner said. “And the fact that he can get things done and still travel out of state — I’m sure it’s frustrating for people, but it doesn’t change the fact that this governor is fully engaged in the issues and affairs of the people of Florida.”

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