Richard Corocan’s $51 Million Tourism Bet Will Shape His Political Future

by | Apr 28, 2017

By slashing Visit Florida’s marketing budget, House Speaker Richard Corcoran (R-Land O’Lakes) is placing a nearly $51 million political bet that tourism numbers in Florida won’t suffer. That’s how much Corcoran will save taxpayers if he gets his way.

The wager comes with substantial downside risk, though.

Republican Governor Rick Scott and Visit Florida CEO Ken Lawson predict doom and gloom if Corcoran and the rest of the legislature agree to cut the Visit Florida budget down from about $76 million to just $25 million.

Because much of the state’s economy is dependent on tourism, any reduction in marketing the state to outside visitors could have a significant ripple effect that hits the hospitality industry particularly hard.

Tourism numbers are readily available, so it won’t take long before the impact of Corcoran’s big bet can be measured and analyzed.

“Tourists came to Florida before Visit Florida existed,” Corcoran once told a gaggle of reporters. “And they’ll keep coming to Florida.”

Political operatives will be watching closely, too. If Corcoran is right, and tourism numbers hold steady or grow, his allies and supporters will rightly be able to use the news to portray him as a champion of taxpayers and a good steward of public money.

But if Governor Scott is correct, and the state’s tourism industry suffers, Corcoran will be forced to own the disaster, possibly even precluding a run for higher office. And if he decides to run anyway? The TV ads portraying him as reckless and irresponsible will nearly write themselves. Interviews with restauranteurs, hotel workers, rental car companies, and others in the hospitality industry will saturate the airwaves with stories of layoffs and shattered dreams.

In making the bet, Corcoran is bold, but certainly not alone. To succeed in slashing the Visit Florida budget, he’s picked up plenty of support from his own House Members, including Rep. Clay Ingram (R-Pensacola), as well as support in the Florida Senate, all who say Florida’s tourism industry will be just fine.

But in leading the charge, Corcoran is the public figure who stands to reap the rewards or pay the political price.

Recently, Lawson gave a passionate plea to lawmakers at the Legislature’s tourism and economic development budget conference, asking they fund his agency at $100 million. Lawson says anything less will result in lost jobs and revenue for the state from tourists.

But for Ingram, the conference committee vice-chair, Lawson’s plea didn’t change things.

“There’s still business in action; there are still incentives in the pot to be paid out,” Ingram says. “And whatever happens in the future happens.”

During the conference, Lawson talked about the cuts to the Colorado Tourism Office and used a video that documents the downfall of Colorado’s summer tourism. Per the video, Colorado went from the number one summer destination in the country to number 17, and has yet to recover fully.

Lawson repeated himself with: “Don’t let that be the legacy of this Legislature. We’ve got to fight the competition coming after us.”

Every other state in America has a budget to promote visitors to their respective state. Leading the charge is Florida and California.

Florida: *most recent statistics available

  • Out-of-state visitor spending reached $108.8 billion in 2015, growing 3.9%.
  • 1.4 million jobs, with associated income of $50.7 billion, were supported by visitors in 2015.
  • These jobs represent 17.3% of total non-farm employment in 2015; 1-in-6 non-farm jobs in Florida is supported by out-of-state visitor spending.
  • Including indirect and induced impacts, out-of-state tourism in Florida generated $11.3 billion in state and local taxes and $13.0 billion in Federal taxes last year.

California: *most recent statistics available

  • Total direct travel spending in California was $125.9 billion in 2016, a 2.8 percent increase from 2015
  • Travel spending in California directly supported 1,090,000 jobs, with earnings of $44.3 billion
  • Travel spending in 2016 generated $4.9 billion in local taxes and $5.4 billion in state taxes

States like Michigan and Alaska, along with Florida and California, all have a heavy presence on different media platforms, trying to entice visitors.

The advantage of cutting the Visit Florida budget will save approximately $50 million in the next fiscal budget.

But according to Lawson and what happened in Colorado, that savings could turn into a longer term, costly decision.

Time will tell.

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