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THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
Go For Gusto On Hispanic Economic Development
By Myriam Marquez
May 8, 2003
State Rep. John Quiñones promises to keep on fighting for issues vital to his constituents. The upcoming special session gives Central Florida's freshman legislator a chance to flex his political muscle to deliver real gains.
At the forefront of his Hispanic constituents' concerns are education and jobs. Both go hand in hand.
Yet during the past session Quiñones grabbed education with gusto but seemed to let the other pivotal issue -- a proven economic-development program that has helped start and grow thousands of small businesses owned by Hispanics in the Orlando area -- slip by.
One might wonder if this was some sort of ugly payback for a bitter political feud. The program seeking funding, the Hispanic Business Initiative Fund, was run until recently by Jose Fernandez, Quiñones' Democrat opponent for the legislative seat last year. But the sour-grapes scenario seemed odd to me. After all, Quiñones won in a campaign that sought Puerto Rican Democrats to shift their allegiance to the Republican Quiñones because of his Puerto Rican roots. Many of them did. Wasn't that enough of a payback?
And besides, the Nicaraguan-born Fernandez, tapped by Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer to serve as city clerk, has said he's not interested in running for the Legislature any time soon.
Quiñones clarified Wednesday that there was no plot to undermine HBIF. Quiñones said he simply wasn't asked to help find money for the program until late into the session. Previously, other legislators, such as Randy Johnson, had secured the state funding.
In fact, Quiñones characterized HBIF, which began in Tampa in 1990 and in Central Florida in 1995, as "worth saving" and promised "to be part of the implementation so the program can thrive."
Good, because HBIF is a solid program that falls right into the governor's One Florida initiative to encourage diversity in entrepreneurship. It has served 3,678 people in the Orlando area since 1995, an average of about 500 a year. They attended seminars on how to run a business or received assistance to develop a marketing plan or a business plan. They also obtained more than $9 million in loans from area banks. In all, HBIF has helped small businesses create 1,100 jobs since 1995 in Central Florida alone.
HBIF does wonders with very little money. The Orlando program, which covers six counties, operates on about $450,000 a year. More than one-third of its funding comes from local governments, with another chunk coming from the local business community. The state's contribution of $400,000 would be split among several communities in Florida, with Orlando's program getting $150,000.
Quiñones said his one concern was that the HBIF board allowed Fernandez to continue working while he was running a political campaign. "I don't want the HBIF used as a political tool," Quiñones said, noting that government workers who run for office leave their posts to do so. The HBIF, though, is a not-for-profit entity. Still, Quiñones brings up a valid point: There's state money involved.
Certainly HBIF has tried to stay out of partisan politics. Its board members are diverse politically, as they should be.
Despite his freshman status, Quiñones has a lot of clout. He's the only freshman to be rewarded by the Republican leadership with a chairmanship to head the House Commerce subcommittee on work-force and economic development.
One idea he hopes to seal into a real deal soon is the designation of Osceola County as a Hispanic Business Sector to attract high-wage companies from Puerto Rico, Latin America and Spain to an area that pays among the lowest wages in the state. Osceola County offers a lot of appeal for businesses that hope to capitalize on a bilingual, bicultural market.
Quiñones also got bipartisan support in the House for a plan to help students learning English as a second language earn their high-school diploma without having to pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Instead, his revised plan, backed by Gov. Jeb Bush, allowed any students who flunk the FCAT, whether native English speakers or not, to take a comparable exam to enter community college or get free tutoring over the summer to retake the FCAT. Unfortunately, his plan got bogged down in the Senate.
Quiñones hopes to deliver on both the education and economic-development fronts in the next few weeks. Surely, his fellow Republicans know what's at stake. All Quiñones has to do is remind them that his heavily Democratic and Hispanic district turned out for Al Gore in 2000.