Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desire to look at the effectiveness of the state’s tourism-marketing arm could save the embattled state tourist agency Visit Florida for at least another year. Meanwhile, a decision must be reached before “sine die” on Friday.
House Speaker José Oliva – one of Visit Florida’s leading critics -- signaled Friday he may be willing to go along with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ request to keep it open, as the legislative session approaches the 11th hour.
“The governor’s office has expressed a desire to have it continued, to go forward, so that he would have the opportunity to make an assessment of his own of how unnecessary it is,” Oliva told reporters after the House floor session. “I don’t know about fully funding it, but obviously it is something that the governor wants to see and it’s something that he wants to be able to assess, and we want to be supportive of him.”
The House has yet to take up Senate Bill 178 — which would reauthorize Visit Florida beyond its current legal expiration date of October 1st. Approved 36-0 by the Senate, the measure would extend the life of Visit Florida until Oct. 1st, 2027, and provide the agency with $50 million next fiscal year.
As the bill foundered, the Senate agreed in ongoing budget talks to meet a House proposal of providing $19 million for Visit Florida. That would cover the agency’s expenses until its demise on October 1st.
“What I think is important is that we separate out the fact of Visit Florida and tourism markets; I think we can have a broader conversation as we move forward throughout the rest of the session, as budget negotiations continue to go back and forth,” says House Majority Leader Jay Trumbull of Panama City.
“The reality is where, maybe [Visit Florida] have not done things in the past where we’ve hashed things out,” said Turnbull. “We have to separate this out as a body and our conversations as we go back and forth with the Senate that we focus on issues as it relates to tourism marketing specific to areas ravaged by a Category-5 hurricane.”
The Governor said last week that while he sought $76 million dollars in his proposed budget for Visit Florida, he’d “be fine” with the $50 million initially proposed by the Senate.
“This decision to potentially defund the agency is going to have very serious negative impacts on our Florida economy,” said Dana Young, Visit Florida’s new President and CEO. She points to the state of Colorado defunding its tourism and marketing agency several years ago, which sent billions in tourism spending to neighboring states.
“Utah increased their tourism marketing budget and their market share increased dramatically,” Young said. “So I would think that Georgia; Texas, South Carolina, Alabama, they are cheering this decision because it’s going to increase their market share, at the detriment of Florida taxpayers.”
More than 82 million people visited Florida in 2004 when the agency received $25.5 million from the state. With the funding of $76 million last year, more than 126 million visited Florida. And they bring their wallets, spending $112 billion 2016, the latest figures available.
“I am optimistic; I’m familiar with this process,” said Young, a former state lawmaker. “Members are still talking; this is very much still in play. So we’re just going to continue making sure that people understand the positive impact that Visit Florida has on the economy.
“They’re like the bandleader in the state; they’re the ones that really pull everyone together in the state to talk with commonality and messaging,” says Steve Hayes, President and CEO of Visit Pensacola. While not receiving any direct funding from its state counterpart, the ancillary help provided to local tourism agencies would take a hit if Visit Florida goes away.
“When you look at some of the advertising opportunities out there, Visit Florida may have a co-op – where the cost for us is lower to participate than if we went and bought it on its own,” Hayes says. “We could probably go in there on our own, but that cost would be greater, which means it would limit other things that we go through and do.”
Opponents claim funding Visit Florida is a mishandling of tax dollars. They contend the state's reputation as a tourism hot spot is enough to entice travelers.
In other words, Florida “sells itself.”
“I would also ask legislators that have their own businesses if they feel that you don’t need to the advertising or the marketing,” said Hayes. “People would just find them naturally? Do they go through and cut the advertising in their own business?”
Gov. Ron DeSantis has said he wants to continue funding Visit Florida at the current $76 million. Hayes says that status quo would be acceptable.
“The 76 million is what they had the last – I want to say – three to four years,” said Hayes. “One of the things that I commend Visit Florida on – they take a look at their messaging and they go back through research. They can document what they’re doing, the things they’re involved in, what is that return on investment.”
House members have been on Visit Florida’s case since 2015 – when rapper Pitbull was signed to a secret, $1 million endorsement deal. Others drawing fire include $12 million to sponsor a cooking show with celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse; and $3 million to back an auto racing team called Visit Florida Racing.