House panel votes to kill Visit Florida, Enterprise Florida
By Gray Rohrer, Orlando Sentinel, February 8, 2017
Tallahassee- Tourism industry officials from Pensacola to the Keys warned a House committee Wednesday that a bill to kill state funding for tourism marketing and other economic development programs would harm businesses and cost jobs.
The bill passed anyway on a 10-5 vote, but not before tourism promoters, who packed the room with more than 150 speakers, voiced their displeasure. Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing group that received $76 million in funding this year, would be eliminated under the bill.
In addition to Visit Florida, the bill wipes out Enterprise Florida, the agency that entices companies to add jobs in the state, and a slew of other economic incentive programs, including those targeting professional sports teams, the entertainment industry and a training program for workers.
Tourism industry supporters stressed that small businesses, not heavyweights such as Disney World and Universal Studios, would lose out if Visit Florida goes away.
Flagler County commissioner Amy Lukasik said Visit Florida stepped in after Hurricane Matthew, producing online video ads showing the area was up on its feet and open to tourism.
“The effort has shown dividends to our small business owners,” Lukasik said. “In just one month, our collections rose 16 percent over the previous year’s. This would have never happened without the support of Visit Florida.”
But other groups supporting the bill, including the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity, also made the trip to the Capitol. The free market advocacy group has sent mailers to lawmakers in the past chiding them for supporting economic incentive programs that “pick winners and losers.”
Orlando AFP member Lewis Salvati said he works in the service industry near Orlando International Airport and “understands the economic impacts” of the bill. But, he added, “our representatives are here to represent all of the Florida constituents, they are here to provide economic literacy.”
Bill sponsor Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, said he wants to remove specialized subsidies for favored industries such as tourism and focus on cutting taxes for all businesses.
“At the most basic level, economic incentives are fundamentally unfair to the millions, the vast majority of Floridians who work hard, try to run a business and will never see one dollar of economic incentives,” Renner said. “We want Florida to be a permanent incentive. The problem with economic incentives is they’re selective.”
Tourism officials weren’t the only ones taking notice of the vote. Gov. Rick Scott, who has consistently named funding for Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida among his top goals each year, tweeted his frustration.
“Politicians in [the Florida House] turned their back on jobs today by supporting job killing legislation,” Scott posted on Twitter.
Scott blasted House leaders, including House Speaker Richard Corcoran, on Tuesday for “lecturing” him on the free market and business growth. Sensing Corcoran is lining up a run for governor in 2018, Scott accused him of putting his political future ahead of the state’s economy.
In addition to Scott’s opposition, Senate leaders are skeptical of the House approach and would prefer to tweak the programs to provide more oversight rather than scrap them altogether.
Corcoran has been leading the push to apply more scrutiny to Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida, which received $18 million in funding from the state this year. He sued to unveil a secret $1 million contract between Visit Florida and rapper Pitbull to promote the state, prompting Visit Florida’s CEO Will Seccombe to resign in January under pressure from Scott.
“Right now, because of the issues and challenges that have taken place, the burden is on Visit Florida to justify their existence,” Renner said.
Corcoran thinks economic incentives are akin to “corporate welfare” that distorts the free market, but also points to disappointing results from Enterprise Florida’s programs. Some incentive programs, like one targeting high-wage jobs, get a positive return for taxpayers, but others, like those aimed at professional sports teams and that give cash to secure quick deals, don’t bring in as much revenue as they spend, he said.
Scott, though, is ramping up the pressure on lawmakers, including fellow Republicans. He’s released polls paid for by his political committee touting public support for his approach and claimed House members opposed to him “don’t care about jobs.”
Yet the rift within the GOP has some lawmakers looking for alternative solutions.
Rep. Mike LaRosa, R-St. Cloud, whose district in Osceola County contains a lot of tourism industry workers, voted in favor of the bill. He said he did so to “continue the conversation” and increase accountability for Visit Florida. But he also suggested using local government tourism tax revenues to pay for Visit Florida, avoiding a budget showdown between Corcoran and Scott.
“Any time you take a vote that’s going to affect the top industry in your district, it’s a tough vote,” LaRosa said.
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