On Super Bowl Sunday, the NFL invited Gov. Charlie Crist and Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp to watch the game from a cozy suite at Raymond James Stadium, but neither one showed up.
A 12-seat skybox can't sit empty, so a few board members of the Florida Sports Foundation — along with their wives — went instead, a decision that roiled legislators this week.
The foundation (chaired by Kottkamp) is Florida's official amateur and pro sports promotion arm, a nonprofit that gets a paltry $200,000 in tax money, about $500,000 in private donations and $2.5 million in proceeds from the sale of those sports-related specialty license tags. The foundation gave some public money to the NFL to defray its Super Bowl costs, and the league offered a suite as a gesture of respect for the host state's top elected officials.
"That turns my stomach," said Sen. Ronda Storms of Valrico when she learned that Florida tax money helps subsidize what she described as a league of billionaire owners.
When Florida's budget is nearly $6 billion in the hole and record numbers of people are lining up for food stamps, it may not be the ideal time to tell legislators about free Super Bowl suites.
"That's wrong," Sen. Mike Fasano said.
That's why the Florida Sports Foundation became this week's VisitFlorida — a tax-supported program that seemed utterly tone-deaf to the economic pain Floridians are experiencing.
Larry Pendleton, the sports foundation's personable president and chief executive (salary: $190,000 after 18 years of experience), didn't try to fudge facts, but his efforts to emphasize the return on investment didn't impress senators.
In times like these, legislators have to appear compassionate, and one way to do that is to shine a bright light on groups that get taxpayer money.
As such, one of the least favorite places to be in the Capitol these days is Room 309, a small committee room where Fasano, a Republican from New Port Richey, holds court with help from Storms.
Fasano chairs the Senate budget committee on transportation and economic development, giving him and his six colleagues direct oversight of more than $10 billion in public money.
Most of that is in a single agency, the Department of Transportation, and Sen. Paula Dockery, a Lakeland Republican who serves on the committee, says senators need to be more vigilant about the department's spending on consultants, outside lawyers, public relations and other expenses.
"I won't assign any motive to it," Dockery said, "other than to say that this budget is so complex, it's much easier to ask questions of something that's two pages than something that's thousands of pages."
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Two influential GOP senators, Alex Diaz de la Portilla and Andy Gardiner, are so appalled by the way VisitFlorida officials have managed $35 million in tax dollars (an out-of-state call center, pricey board meetings, etc.) that they suggested in a letter that the state consider no funding next year.
The next day, on Friday, Crist released his budget proposal, which includes another $35 million next year. Crist's tourism expert, Dale Brill, said of the Senate's dissection of VisitFlorida: "I applaud the oversight and exchange of ideas."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.