Tourist bed tax bill advances in Senate even as opposition grows
Three counties along the tourist-friendly Emerald Coast in the Florida Panhandle could spend some tourist bed tax money for public safety under a bill that won a unanimous Senate committee vote Tuesday despite a lot of opposition from tourist groups.
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, is sponsoring the bill (SB 1520) to allow Okaloosa, Bay and Walton counties, all in his district, to use 10 percent of their tourist taxes -- "local money," he called it -- for police, fire and emergency medical costs. A Destin city official, Prebble Ramswell, said Destin's year-round population of 13,000 balloons to 100,000 in peak tourist season and the community's tax base can't absorb the increased costs of public safety.
Okaloosa Sheriff Larry Ashley also testified in support of the bill, which requires a County Commission vote to supplement, not replace, public safety costs, and only after a recommendation from the local tourist development council. But tourism advocates from Miami and Hernando County strongly opposed the bill and called it a "bad idea" that would set a dangerous precedent and undermine Visit Florida's strategy of marketing the state to visitors. Opponents predicted that tourism counties would soon want to use bed tax money for trash removal and other costs.
The House version isn't moving. But Gaetz's son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, included the provision in the House's tax cut package, a must-pass bill.
Passage of the bill could put Gov. Rick Scott in a bit of a box because all three Panhandle counties have been strong supporters but so has the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, which opposes the bill.