Just a little more than a year after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, Gov. Rick Scott says the Panhandle is experiencing its best tourism year ever.
Scott made the case on MSNBC's Morning Joe, where he chatted with host and former Pensacola-area congressman Joe Scarborough.
"We've got, I think, the highest bed tax ever in the history of the state in the Panhandle this year," Scott said.
"This summer it was hard to get a room; restaurants were packed," Scott added. "I sat down with BP, and they gave us $30 million to market the Panhandle. We used it well. Tourism has come back.''
At PolitiFact Florida, we decided to fact-check Scott's claim that the Panhandle collected more bed tax money than ever before.
For starters, Scott said "highest bed tax ever" and omitted a key word: "collections." Having the highest "rate" wouldn't be something that a governor brags about if he wanted to lure more tourists to the area.
Bed tax refers to the tax tacked onto visitors' hotel bills that help fund activities that promote tourism. In Florida, they can add between 0 and 6 percent to an overnight stay.
BP gave $25 million for tourism in 2010 to then-Gov. Charlie Crist, who dispersed various amounts to counties. The Northwest Florida Tourism Council that represents tourism development organizations in the Panhandle — Bay, Escambia, Franklin, Gulf, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton counties — received $7 million in August 2010. In April 2011, the council got an additional $30 million, according to Craig Savage, BP spokesman.
The BP money allowed tourist development councils to do additional outreach. For example, Visit Pensacola used marketing dollars in more expensive media markets such as Chicago and Washington, said spokeswoman Laura Lee.
To back up the claim, Scott's office pointed us to a Sept. 2 news release from the Northwest Florida Tourism Council that boasted about summer bed tax collections. "Summer 2011 has been a season of remarkable recovery for the tourist destinations of Northwest Florida, which are recording all-time highs in bed tax revenue," it said.
But Scott said "this year," not just "summer." So we decided to compare 2011 with past years.
Those figures come from the state's Department of Revenue, which tracks bed tax collections across the state. Using the state's most recent data, which covers January-July 2011, we compared bed tax collections in the seven Panhandle counties with previous years.
In 2011, bed tax collections have totaled about $33.9 million through July, compared with about $27.5 million for the same period in 2010. We also checked the numbers against 2006 and 2007 — before Florida dipped into an economic slump — and found that the first half of 2011 remained higher.
Some of the increase can be attributed to the fact that most of the counties increased their bed tax rates in recent years. Bay County, for example, raised its bed tax rate from 3 percent to 5 percent in 2009, meaning that if all other factors were equal (room rates, and number of overnight stays), Bay County's bed tax collections would have increased 67 percent.
But to compensate for rate changes, researchers at the University of West Florida created a bed tax collection analysis built around hypothetically holding the bed tax rate constant at 2 percent. The study did not include Franklin and Gulf counties, but found that bed tax collections, when normalized, remain highest in 2011, said Phyllis Pooley, associate director of the university's Office of Economic Development and Engagement.
So Scott has his numbers right, but he's leaving out a couple of things. Tourism officials in the Panhandle admit that the boost is partly artificial, created by the temporary influx of BP dollars.
And while bed tax collections are the highest they've been, occupancy rates were higher in the Panhandle in 2006 and 2007, and hotel operators were able to charge higher prices for their rooms in 2007 and 2008.
With those minor points, we rate Scott's statement Mostly True.