Visit Tampa Bay, the tourism agency for Hillsborough County, finally forked over records on Wednesday that House Speaker Richard Corcoran requested last month. It shouldn't have taken an exchange of words and the threat of a lawsuit by the House for Visit Tampa Bay to act. The speaker is questioning the value of millions in state money spent on tourism marketing, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out his intent in examining a local taxpayer-subsidized marketing tool for the hotel, restaurant and entertainment industries. Visit Tampa Bay is a nonprofit spending public money for a public purpose, and Corcoran and the public are entitled to see how it spends tax money.
Last month, Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, requested from 13 local tourist development agencies their fiscal year 2016 revenue and expense reports. Along with details of advertising and other expenses, the request included a demand for a list of employees and their salaries, and expenses on food and travel. Of the 13 jurisdictions, Corcoran said, Hillsborough was the only one that did not fully comply.
Santiago Corrada, president of Visit Tampa Bay, disputes that characterization. He said the records request was sent to the county, which provided some records, and not to Visit Tampa Bay, Hillsborough's nonprofit tourism promotion operation. Corrada also claims his agency is not legally required to release the data and describes it as "a small private company.'' But it would not exist without tourist tax dollars, and it is performing a public function that otherwise would be performed by government. It should be subject to Florida's public records law. Visit Tampa Bay finally provided a record of incomes and expenses Wednesday to House leaders and to the Tampa Bay Times.
Corcoran opposes spending state tax money on incentives for companies that create jobs and questions the millions spent on promoting tourism through Visit Florida. Now he is moving his attention beyond the state to local operations. Across the state, counties pay for tourism marketing with a bed tax collected on stays at hotels and other short-term locations. It is legitimate to examine how tourism agencies funded by local tax dollars — whatever their legal construct — spend public money and perform these functions on the government's behalf.
There is no sense playing a game of jurisdictional jujitsu with the speaker. Regardless of where Corcoran's request was routed, the agency should have recognized it had a proactive role to play in furnishing the House with the records it requested. It shouldn't have taken a second letter and a threat of a lawsuit from Corcoran for the agency to act. While Visit Tampa Bay is a nonprofit, it receives about $12 million from the county bed tax, which comprises 88 percent of the agency's budget.
Corrada has brought more transparency to Visit Tampa Bay, and Hillsborough continues to break tourism records that bring millions of dollars to the region's economy. But this episode underscores that private agencies working on the public's dime and the public's behalf cannot have it both ways. If Corcoran is looking to merely poke fun at these agencies or to trivialize their efforts, that will become obvious. But it shouldn't take a threat from the House speaker to put these records into the public domain — where they should have been all along.