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Florida Policy Wonks Debate Role of Government in Supporting Biotech Industry

September 6, 2012 - 6:00pm

President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party have spent the last several months trying to portray their rival Republicans calls for more limited government as some rallying cry for libertarian extremism.

Republicans have gone from a preference for market-based solutions to an absolutism when it comes to the marketplace; a belief that all regulations are bad; that government has no role to play, the president said in a speech back in June.

But as the Florida GOPs commitment to government support for the states burgeoning (and, by several accounts, successful) biotechnology industry shows, such characterizations bear little resemblance to reality.

Last week Sunshine State News profiled some of the fruits of the states $1.6 billion investment in the biosciences. Biotechnology (or biotech) is the use of living organisms in the development of useful products, most commonly in the diagnosis and treatment of disease and in the development of agriculture.

Frank Brogan is one of the states most prominent Republicans, and he has no qualms admitting the role, if limited, that government has to play investing taxpayer dollars in projects that will reap benefits for the local economy. Brogan was lieutenant governor of Florida from 1999 to 2003, under former Gov. Jeb Bush, and is presently chancellor of the State University System.

Both sides -- Republicans and Democrats -- recognize that while the free market is a good thing, sometimes a kick-start can get it running up faster and help it go farther by making things so attractive as to not be avoided, he told Sunshine State News.

There are always people who believe there are other things that you should invest in, beyond recruiting business and industry and spending money in that regard, he continued. If you look at it as an expenditure, thats understandable. But I dont. We looked at it as an investment: making Florida an attractive place for these companies to expand their operations. At the same time, there was a very specific covenant created ... as to what exactly the expectation would be on a return from that investment.

David Day, director of the University of Florida's Office of Technology Licensing and of the universitys Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator, agreed.

Many of the products that end up on the shelf have their origins in public university research, Day told Sunshine State News. Actually, they have their origins in tax money we pay.

When we send out our tax money we expect to get stuff back for it; a social contract, if you would: a military to protect us, firemen and police to do their jobs, we expect postmen to be at their appointed post at certain times, etc., he elaborated. For the money that goes to our research organizations, we expect basic research to get done, scientists to inquire into the nature of disease, and from time to time a discovery to occur which is actionable one on which we can build something that can relieve suffering.

Two industry reports published in June documented several of the economic returns from those investments, and Day provided a few examples of medical advancements that have come about, or are coming about, as a result of taxpayer research.

Still, not everyone is convinced that it is the proper role of the government to be subsidizing such causes, no matter how worthy they may be in and of themselves.

It is great to see that there are industries growing in Florida and we absolutely should be working to make Florida an attractive place for companies to expand, said Abigail MacIver, director of policy and external affairs for the Florida chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a free-market political advocacy group headquartered in Virginia, in an interview with Sunshine State News.

However, that doesn't mean that government should be spending billions of taxpayer dollars to do it.Instead, elected officials should focus on reforms that will establish Florida as the most business-friendly state in the nation for the long-term, like creating a low, neutral tax system, low cost of living, less burdensome regulatory system and encouraging educational achievement through competition.These are the policies that will make Florida attractive to all businesses and industries, not just biotech," she continued.

What Florida's elected officials fail to realize is that they are not only picking which industries Florida wants to attract, they are also subsidizing industries to make them financially viable. This just isn't sustainable, and what's worse is historically government subsidies haven't proven to work. Private investors, not government, should be the ones making investment choices and it should be done based on market demand, not based on political favoritism." MacIver concluded, "If there is a demand for a business someone will create it, and if we make Florida the most business-friendly state in the nation those businesses and jobs will come here.

Brogan said the biotech industry is progressively weaning itself off of state subsidies, though continued support isnt something that should necessarily be taken off the table.

Clearly the free market has taken over, he said. What was done was a kick-start to the free market. Wherever there are attractive possibilities, the state has a responsibility to at least take a look at them and consider whether its a possibility that should be supported with incentives for greater return on investment at a later date, or rejected and allowed to prosper on its own steam.

Reach Eric Giunta at egiunta@sunshinestatenews or at (850) 727-0859.

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