House begins looking at VISIT FLORIDA overhaul - Florida Politics

House begins looking at VISIT FLORIDA overhaul

House Democrats on Thursday grilled the sponsor of a bill that would overhaul and clamp down on VISIT FLORIDA, the state’s tourism marketing agency.

The full House began its consideration of the measure (HB 9) with questions to bill sponsor Paul Renner, a Palm Coast Republican.

“It is simply a bill about accountability,” he said. The agency is a public-private endeavor, but is overwhelmingly funded through taxpayers’ dollars.

Public money that goes to VISIT FLORIDA, he said, should be spent on promoting tourism—”not on bonuses, free trips and the like that embarrass this agency.”

The legislation has caused a war between House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Gov. Rick Scott, who oversees the agency. The speaker also is after the Enterprise Florida economic development organization, another Scott favorite. A bill to kill it and a slew of state business incentives will also be discussed today.

Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, had been gunning for the agency, threatening to sue after it refused to reveal a secret deal with Miami rap superstar Pitbull to promote Florida tourism.

The rapper later disclosed the terms, including his pay of up to $1 million. The ensuing controversy cost former agency CEO Will Seccombe his job.

Former Secretary of Business and Professional Regulation Ken Lawson now leads VISIT FLORIDA. He has opposed the legislation.

Meantime, Corcoran changed course, deciding to salvage the organization with stricter oversight, rather than eliminate it.

Among other things, the legislation limits employees’ travel expenses and would cap annual pay at $130,000.

The bill requires VISIT FLORIDA contracts “to contain performance standards, operating budgets and salaries of employees of the contracting entity,” and those deals would have to be posted online.

Stemming from the Pitbull deal, Renner’s proposal would delete a public records exemption for “marketing projects and research.” It would ban any promotional project from “benefit(ing) only one company.” And it would force the agency to be funded with more private dollars. 

State Rep. Katie Edwards, a Plantation Democrat, asked why Renner seemingly wanted to change VISIT FLORIDA back into a state agency.  

“If someone misuses a credit card, you don’t give it back to them without some pretty specific guardrails,” Renner said. 

The House later voted to accept Renner’s own amendment to impose reporting requirements only when VISIT FLORIDA funds a project slated to get more than 50 percent of its budget from tax dollars. The bill could be teed up for debate and a final vote as early as Friday.

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Jim Rosica covers state government from Tallahassee for Florida Politics. He previously was the Tampa Tribune’s statehouse reporter. Before that, he covered three legislative sessions in Florida for The Associated Press. Jim graduated from law school in 2009 after spending nearly a decade covering courts for the Tallahassee Democrat, including reporting on the 2000 presidential recount. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.
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