Florida’s Historic Capitol and Florida State Capitol, Tallahassee, Fla. Photo by Michael Rivera.
Florida’s tourist industry is booming as we head into the summer vacation season, but the agency in charge of enticing visitors to the Sunshine State may not survive to see the year-end holidays.
This is very good news if you are in the hospitality industry in places like New Jersey or Kansas. For us Floridians, not so much.
The state Senate is expected to vote this week on a bill that would authorize the state’s public-private tourism promotion entity, Visit Florida, to operate for the next eight years. The Florida House wants the entity’s authorization to expire on Oct. 1 this year, which would happen automatically under current law.
Tourism not only remains Florida’s biggest industry, but it has been going gangbusters in recent years despite hurricanes, red tide, algae blooms and the exodus of film and TV production from the state after government incentives expired. Approximately 116.5 million tourists visited Florida in 2017, setting a new record; in 2018, that number climbed to more than 126 million visitors. Every dollar the state treasury spends on Visit Florida returns more than $2 to that same treasury, due to the considerable sales and lodging taxes tourists pay while demanding minimal services. (Sales taxes account for more than three-quarters of state revenues in income-tax-free Florida.) Visit Florida already must raise one dollar from private sector sponsors – most of the state’s major tourism players are on board – for every dollar of state money it spends.
What more could a legislator ask?
In the GOP-controlled state Senate, nothing. Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican, originally proposed to authorize Visit Florida indefinitely. His bill was amended in committee to provide a sunset after eight years, on the principle that even a worthy state activity ought to be reviewed periodically. I have no quarrel with that.
But Visit Florida is again fighting for its life in the Florida House. Newly installed House Speaker Jose Oliva is as much an opponent of the agency as was his predecessor, Richard Corcoran, who left office due to term limit rules. (Corcoran is now the state education commissioner in the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis.) The objections are, at their core, purely ideological.
Back in late 2016, Visit Florida’s then-CEO Will Seccombe oversaw a controversial promotion featuring Miami rapper Pitbull. While the promotion coincided with an increase in tourism – the campaign’s goal – lawmakers protested at the opacity of the rapper’s contract terms. After the House filed a lawsuit, Pitbull himself made the contract’s terms public, at which point lawmakers promptly complained that the $1 million deal was too generous. Then-Gov. Rick Scott asked for, and received, Seccombe’s resignation. But some legislators weren’t satisfied.
Instead, citing the Pitbull contract and another significant deal with an auto racing team, lawmakers seriously considered cutting or eliminating the agency’s funding. Eventually, in part due to the governor’s strong support for Visit Florida, lawmakers instead altered the organization’s structure and its contract-reporting requirements. The agency’s funding was also set at a level of $76 million annually.
Scott’s strenuous intervention saved Visit Florida in 2017. It may take similar efforts by DeSantis to provide political and intellectual cover to House Republicans to get the agency reauthorized. DeSantis has requested $76 million for Visit Florida in the next year; the Senate’s current budget proposal sets aside only $50 million, and the House earmarked a mere $19 million to see the agency through the end of September.
I understand where House Republicans are coming from, at least in part. Republicans generally want the private sector to stand on its own two feet, without government support beyond a minimally restrictive and burdensome fiscal and regulatory environment. Left to its own devices, the private sector will succeed.
But tourism, like other industries, isn’t actually left to its own devices practically anywhere. Absent state support, even vigorous sectors that benefit from Florida’s natural advantages can wither. Our sharply curtailed film business is exhibit A.
Besides, given the strong returns on dollars invested in the tourism sector, Visit Florida really plays a primarily coordinating role. When an activity produces a net financial gain, the money spent is genuinely an investment, rather than a subsidy.
You would think that at least Oliva, coming from a county that is one of the state’s primary tourism hot spots, would recognize this. But Florida House Republicans apparently need a gubernatorial reminder once again that the best defense of our state’s pro-business political environment is a Legislature that remains genuinely pro-business. Especially when it comes to tourism, the biggest business of all in Florida.