The Florida House is continuing its efforts to crackdown on local tourist and economic development agencies to make them more transparent and accountable in their business dealings.
“Florida is second to none as a tourism and economic development destination. Many local agencies do great work to keep Florida in that position,” said House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes. “Some, however, continue to waste taxpayer dollars and then insist that taxpayers have no right to see what their money is being spent on.”
Corcoran unveiled a legislative package on Thursday aimed at making these local tourism and economic development boards more accountable for the tax dollars they spend.
Part of that package includes legislation that would require the local agencies to post all vendor contracts worth $5,000 or more on their websites. Any contract over $250,000 would have to be approved by the local county commission.
“If they’re spending taxpayers’ dollars then they need to reveal what they’re doing. It’s as simple as that,” said Rep. Mike Grant, R-Port Charlotte, the sponsor of the bill. “It’s all our money and we should know how that money is being spent.”
The proposal would require local tourism boards receiving more than $30 million in local tourist development taxes to be audited every other year. Others that spend less than $30 million would be subject to random audits.
Another piece of legislation in Corcoran’s proposal would do away with a public records exemption on “trade secrets” involving financial transactions.
“Essentially the things we all classically understand as trade secrets: the formula for Coca-Cola, the recipe for KFC chicken,” said Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, who is sponsoring that legislation. “It does not include contractual agreements between public entities and the private sector.”
Corcoran has spent a big part of the past year pushing for greater accountability involving tourism and economic development boards, focusing initially on state agencies. He was critical of Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing agency, for entering into a secretive $1 million contract with rap artist Pitbull to promote Florida in a music video.
Details of the contract were kept private as the result of a trade secret agreement written into the contract. The rapper released the details of the contract after Corcoran threatened to sue to have the document released.
The House gutted funding for Visit Florida in the state budget earlier this year, agreeing to restore revenue to the agency in a special session and only after lawmakers enacted tougher accountability and transparency measures for the state agency.
Those tougher measures resulted in a dozen local tourism board–including Miami, Orlando, Tampa Bay and the Florida Keys–ending their partnerships with Visit Florida on July 1. The local boards were concerned about having to follow the new transparency rules imposed by the Legislature on the state marketing agency.
The speaker sent a letter to those local boards in August telling them they can’t hide from state rules if they take tax dollars.
Corcoran is ready to send that message again to local boards in the form of new laws.
Also Thursday, Corcoran announced a lawsuit filed by the House against the city of Tampa over what the speaker calls an “illegal tax” on hotel rooms in that city.
“To say that this is one of the most egregious cases of spitting in the face of the (state) constitution is an understatement,” Corcoran said of a $1.50 fee assessed at downtown Tampa and Ybor city hotel rooms to help pay for marketing the area.
Corcoran told the city of Tampa that if it wanted to assess a new bed tax on visitors, the city first needed to get the approval of the Legislature.
“What makes America great?” Corcoran said. “Rule of law matters. The constitution matters. You can’t just spit in the face of the constitution and expect society to survive.”