TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- In just two-and-a-half years Florida Gov. Rick Scott has traveled overseas eight times - a record that eclipses his predecessor, Charlie Crist.
Scott arrived early Tuesday in the South American country of Chile as part of a trade mission with more than 100 people, including top officials from the state's ports and leaders of companies such as Florida Power & Light.
The governor has previously visited far-flung places such as Brazil, Colombia, Spain, Israel, and England. He heads to Paris next month on yet another trip.
Scott has already taken more trade trips than Crist made during his full four-year term and he's on a pace to match former Gov. Jeb Bush who spent eight years in office and took 16 trade missions.
Scott defends the trips as a way to open doors for Florida-based companies seeking business abroad. His office contends the trips have resulted in foreign companies investing in the state.
"I think the most important thing you do is that you build relationships for companies that wouldn't get meetings if I didn't go on the trade delegations," said Scott a few days before he left. "You allow them to network with companies overseas."
That was echoed by Eric Silagy, the president of FPL, the state's largest electric company, who is accompanying Scott to Chile.
"These trips are exceptional opportunities to showcase everything Florida's economy has to offer - from seaport infrastructure and affordable, reliable energy to great schools and a talented, diverse workforce," Silagy said in a statement about why he was going on the trip.
But House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, is skeptical about whether the trips produce as much value as Scott contends. He would like to see some "empirical data" on what has resulted from the trade missions.
Thurston, who has been pushing for Scott to call a special session to prompt legislators to reconsider their rejection of Medicaid expansion, said Scott is leaving behind "lots of important" items back home.
The Scott administration on Monday put out a list connected to the trade missions to prove their worth. Scott's office said that companies, for example, that participated in last year's trip to Colombia reported actual and expected sales of $40 million as a result of the trip. The administration tied the expansion of four Spanish companies in Miami-Dade County to Scott's trip last year to Spain.
But sometimes the connection isn't clear.
Scott's office noted that during a June 2011 visit to Canada he announced that a security company was moving its U.S. headquarters to Florida. But talks with Garda World Security Corp. had been going on for months before the decision was announced.
The governor's travel costs are picked up by Enterprise Florida, which uses private donations from large Florida-based companies to cover the costs.
For example, the trade mission last December to Colombia includes sponsors such as FPL, the Florida Ports Council, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the law firm of Holland & Knight. A 2006 opinion from the Florida Commission on Ethics maintains this arrangement does not violate the state's strict ban on gifts from companies that lobby the governor's office.
But taxpayers still have expenses on these trips because they pick up the travel tab for governor's office employees and for his security detail. Enterprise Florida, the state's economic development outfit, reported that taxpayers spent nearly $30,000 to on Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents that went on the four-day trip to Colombia.
Scott's trip to Chile comes as a time when that nation's trading relationship with Florida is growing.
Chile is currently ranked sixth among countries that receive exports from Florida. Florida ships aircraft engines, aircraft parts and other equipment to Chile, while imports from the nation include copper, fish and fruit.
"For us, it's a tremendous market," said Manny Mencia, senior vice president for international trade for Enterprise Florida. "Florida is the principal gateway between Chile and the U.S."
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