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As tourism surges, Rick Scott's marketing efforts for Florida come under attack

TALLAHASSEE — There is hardly a speech by Gov. Rick Scott that doesn't include praise for the state's growing number of jobs over the last six years or the state's record tourism.

But incoming Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran has already said he's against further funding for Scott's cherished jobs incentive program. Now he's taking aim at the state's tourism marketing arm.

Visit Florida has seen its budget grow from about $29 million to more than $78 million since 2009, a 169 percent increase in spending. Meanwhile, the number of tourists in Florida has grown from about 82 million to more than 106 million, a 29 percent increase during the same period.

Will Seccombe, president of Visit Florida, said Monday that the record tourism is proof the state's spending is working.

"The Florida tourism industry has done a tremendous job marketing the state both domestically and internationally during challenging times," Seccombe said in a statement. "It also shows that we will have to work even harder as a state and an industry to maintain that growth going forward."

Corcoran, however, says he anticipates a drop in tourism that is forcing him to consider slashing the state's marketing budget, which is ripe for second-guessing.

Visit Florida has come under fire over the last few years for failing to disclose how much it is spending on some of its marketing, including paying hip-hop star Pitbull to promote the state and sponsorship of a race car team and a soccer team in England. Officials with Visit Florida, which receives both public and private funding, have said they don't have to release details for those expenses because it is considered proprietary information. Even what Pitbull is being paid to do has not been publicly disclosed, let alone how much money he was paid in a contract that ended June 30.

State lawmakers don't know how much is being spent on those marketing efforts. Former state Sen. Nancy Detert, a Sarasota County Republican who chaired the Senate tourism committee earlier this year, said the agency never disclosed how much any of those "flamboyant" marketing efforts were costing taxpayers.

"I asked to see those contracts," Detert said. "I never saw them."

Regardless of what Visit Florida is spending, it's about to see some serious cutting, Corcoran said.

"Their funding, absolutely from a House perspective, would be cut," he said in a recent interview with the Times/Herald.

Pruning Visit Florida fits in with a broader mission Corcoran has espoused to crack down on "things government shouldn't be in the business of funding." Over the last two years, the House has refused to fund Scott's Enterprise Florida jobs incentive program, opposed incentives to lure film makers and has opposed what Corcoran called "stadium giveaways" to professional sports teams.

"Our state has a spending problem," Corcoran said.

With future financial forecasts showing budget deficits forming over the next two years if lawmakers don't cut spending, Corcoran said there is a big incentive to identify inefficiencies and waste in government spending.

"The forecast is probably going to get worse before it gets better," he said.

But Scott is signaling he will defend Visit Florida from cuts by continuing to emphasize the state's booming tourism numbers. Scott announced Monday that 85 million tourists visited the state during the first nine months of 2016. That's the highest nine-month total and 5.5 percent increase over last year — not bad for a year that saw two hurricanes, a Zika outbreak and the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.

Scott asserts that a straight line can be drawn between Visit Florida's spending and the tourism boom.

"Visit Florida does an incredible job of marketing our state," Scott said in a statement Monday. "Since I have been in office, we have more than doubled the funding for Visit Florida and these investments have helped bring more tourists to Florida and add more jobs for families in our state. We need to continue investing in our tourism industry so we can keep breaking records and add even more jobs."

Scott has not said how much he will recommend for Visit Florida next year. Scott must deliver a proposed budget before the Legislature meets in March. His office said they have not set a date for that release.

Visit Florida officials have said their spending is justified given the return on investment. For every $1 spent, Florida gets $3.20 back according to Visit Florida's latest annual report.

Corcoran pushed back against the state's tourism numbers. He told reporters that when the final numbers come in on the impact of the Zika outbreak on Miami-Dade's tourism industry, it will likely show a decline in sales tax revenues and that — plus other factors — will force lawmakers to reduce revenue projections between $500 million to $1 billion for the 2017-18 budget year.

"The budget I think is going to be difficult,'' he said Tuesday. "Once we see the Zika effect in our sales tax revenues, my hunch is that when we hit session in March that we're going to be at best flat-lined and at worse we could have a deficit."

Corcoran isn't alone in wanting to dig into Visit Florida's spending. Americans For Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group that has opposed stadium funding and film incentive programs, has also indicated it wants a closer review of how tourism marketing programs are operating.

"We're thrilled this is a conversation that's being had and we'll commend any legislator that strives to expand transparency to ensures tax dollars are being used effectively," said Andrés Malavé, communications director for Americans for Prosperity of Florida.

Contact Jeremy Wallace at jwallace@tampabay.com. Follow @jeremyswallace.

As tourism surges, Rick Scott's marketing efforts for Florida come under attack 11/28/16 [Last modified: Monday, November 28, 2016 12:29am]
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