Another budget, another battle for Visit Florida

by | Mar 18, 2019

It’s the only legislation that the Florida Constitution requires state legislators to pass during their annual 60-day session — a state budget.

State lawmakers from the House and Senate will sit down this week to begin formulating spending plans for next year. Appropriations subcommittees in both chambers are scheduled to receive their initial allocations of state dollars to determine the best use of taxpayer dollars.

For one high-profile state agency, the budget-making process has turned into an annual battle for survival. At the center of the fight is Visit Florida, the tourism marketing agency that is responsible for promoting the state’s good weather, beaches and theme parks to the rest of the world. It’s a battle that is shaping up again in the 2019 legislative session.

“Right now, the only direction has been that we need to fund Visit Florida until it expires, and beyond that we haven’t had any intention,” House Speaker Jose Oliva said Wednesday as reported by the News Service of Florida.

Olivia believes if funding for the agency isn’t included in next year’s budget, Visit Florida will run out of money on Oct. 1 and its legal authorization will expire at that time.

“When we have issues come up like [hurricanes] Mathew, Michael, and Irma as well as red tide, they make sure that people know that we are open for business,” said Sen. Joe Gruters, who is sponsoring the Senate legislation that would continue funding the program.

Visit Florida has requested an increase in its funding level to $100 million in recent years saying the state faces intense competition from other tourism markets and needs the additional revenue to market Florida. But, each year, the agency has had to accept the same level of funding at about $76 million. The reason? Fiscal conservatives in the Florida House who have raised questions over Visit Florida’s accountability when it comes to the way it spends tax dollars.

A couple of years ago the Legislature nearly pulled the plug on the agency when then-House Speaker Richard Corcoran criticized it for its spending on a number of marketing contracts, including a $11.6 deal to sponsor a cooking show hosted by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse and a $1 million promotion contract for Miami rapper Pitbull.

Visit Florida’s funding was restored at $76 million during a special session on the budget after then Gov. Rick Scott intervened and an agreement was worked out to increase accountability and transparency over Visit Florida’s spending practices.

Two years later and the agency is once facing the threat of not being funded.

“These things will get negotiated out,” Gov. Ron DeSantis told reporters last Tuesday. “Obviously, the speaker has a very strong and principled record on some of those things and I respect that a lot.”

Visit Florida CEO Dana Young, a former lawmaker, says if the agency isn’t funded beyond this year it will result in the amount of state revenue generated  by tourism.

“We have such a positive story to tell that I can’t imagine that the elected representatives of the people of Florida would want to do away with a revenue generating agency like Visit Florida,” Young told a Senate committee Thursday. “If the budget were cut to zero there would be a hole in the budget next year, rough numbers, $160 million out of general revenue.”



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