TALLAHASSEE -- Florida’s tourism-marketing agency is closer to having its doors closed this fall as a Senate budget proposal Tuesday matched the House’s stance to eliminate Visit Florida.
Sen. Travis Hutson, a St. Augustine Republican who oversees tourism and economic-development funding, said there is no reason to push for additional money until the House takes up a Senate-approved bill (SB 178) that would extend the life of Visit Florida beyond Oct. 1.
“If Visit Florida is going to sunset, there is no reason to agree any further than that,” said Hutson, who chairs the Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee.
And so far, the House isn’t rushing to take up the Senate bill. Under state law, Visit Florida is authorized to continue operating through Sept. 30. Without legislation such as the Senate bill, the agency will go away.
House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said late Tuesday that he wouldn’t “discount completely” the House taking up the bill, which was never heard in a House committee. But he also didn’t raise the prospects that the bill would be heard with a little more than a week remaining in the 60-day legislative session.
“At this point, it’s going to be a little more difficult because we never took up that bill,” Oliva said.
House leaders have attacked past spending by Visit Florida, and Oliva on Tuesday night dismissed concerns that Florida’s tourism figures would be impacted without the agency’s promotional efforts.
“I would point those people to the world before Visit Florida ever existed. I would point to fluctuations in the funding of Visit Florida and how they in no way correlate to the fluctuations in our tourism,” Oliva said. “And I would also point out to them, what we found in the last couple of years is that a great deal of that money was not even being used to promote Florida. So, whatever amount of money was being used to promote Florida, was not having a direct correlation on tourism.”
House members have continued to focus on spending by Visit Florida. The agency was particularly in the crosshairs of lawmakers in 2017 because of spending that included a $11.6 million deal to sponsor a cooking show hosted by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, a $2.875 million contract with an auto-racing team known as Visit Florida Racing, and a $1 million promotion contract with Miami rapper Pitbull.
Oliva added that the economy, along with Florida’s weather and attractions, have a bigger impact on the state’s tourism numbers than the marketing efforts of Visit Florida.
“In a trillion-dollar economy, a few million dollars put towards advertising a few different places cannot possibly have a direct correlation with tourism,” Oliva said.
“There’s a whole series of factors. Visit Florida is probably least among them,” he concluded.
The agency has reported eight years of record tourism numbers, topped by 126.1 million visitors in 2018. In the same time, the agency’s share of state funding has grown from $35 million in 2011, when the state counted 87.3 million visitors, to $76 million in the current year.
Proponents of Visit Florida point to its ability to counter negative national media when areas are impacted by disasters such as hurricanes and last summer’s red tide outbreak.
Unless something changes in upcoming budget negotiations, Hutson said Visit Florida would get $17 million in the 2019-2020 fiscal year, enough to cover its expenses until Oct. 1.
The Senate had earlier proposed $50 million for the agency, $26 million less than requested by Gov. Ron DeSantis. That would allow operations to continue beyond Oct. 1.
The Senate-approved bill would allow the Florida Tourism Industry Marketing Corporation, better known as Visit Florida, to continue operating until Oct. 1, 2027.