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Rick Scott announces record tourism numbers, criticizes marketing budget cut

A record number of tourists — 31.1 million visitors — came to Florida during the first three months of 2017, a 2.5 percent increase over the same period in 2016.

Gov. Rick Scott released the latest numbers Monday at Miami’s Jungle Island.

Nearly 113 million tourists — most of them from the United States — visited last year.

However Scott warned that potential cuts to Florida’s tourism marketing agency could doom continued growth. State legislators recently voted to cut funding to Visit Florida by 67 percent.

“This historic number would not have been possible without the significant funding we have invested in Visit Florida over the past few years,” Scott said.

“Now is not the time to take our foot off the gas. In business, you would never stop marketing when you start to see great results. Instead of decimating funding to Visit Florida, we should be investing in tourism marketing so we can continue to bring record visitors to our state,” Scott said.

Scott has signaled that he might veto the Legislature’s $83 billion state budget. Otherwise, it would take effect on July 1.

Meanwhile, the agency would “continue to focus on the task at hand, which is successfully marketing small, medium and large communities so the tourism industry can continue to create jobs,” Visit Florida president and CEO Ken Lawson said.

“Our organization is going to have to make tough decisions in the coming weeks and will not be able to compete with destinations like California and Texas,” Lawson said.

“We will strive every day so Florida does not become another case study like other states who lost billions of dollars in revenue due to cutting tourism marketing dollars.”

Legislative leaders have defended the cuts by pointing to questionable Visit Florida contracts.

According to Scott, a record 27.1 million domestic visitors traveled to Florida during the first quarter of the year, a 3.2 percent increase over last year’s first quarter.

There were 2.7 million overseas visitors and 1.3 million Canadians.

Total boardings at Florida’s 18 major airports increased by 1.6 percent, reflecting a record 22.7 million passengers.

There was a 2.2 percent increase in the number of hotel rooms sold, for a 0.7 percent increase in the occupancy rate compared to this time last year.

Airbnb Florida policy director Tom Martinelli issued a written statement congratulating the governor “for infusing economic development and jobs through increased tourism.”

“We are so proud to have contributed to this progress, having welcomed a record-setting 657,000 guests in Q1 via our home sharing platform, representing 69 percent growth over Q1 2016,” Martinelli said.

“Gov. Scott has our commitment that we will continue doing our part to grow the pie and help elevate Florida’s brand as a global, family-friendly tourism destination.”

This article contains material republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Personnel note: Mike Sole appointed to fish and wildlife commission

Mike Sole, the former secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, is headed for a seat on the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Gov. Rick Scott announced the appointment Friday.

Sole served at DEP from 2007 to 2010, then went to work for Florida Power & Light Co. and NextEra Energy, where he has been vice president for environmental services.

He succeeds Charles Roberts III for a term ending Aug. 1, 2021.

“On behalf of the thousands of families and visitors that enjoy Florida’s incredible fishing and wildlife each day, I appreciate Chuck Roberts’ years of service and dedication to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission,” Scott said in a press release.

“I am confident that Mike Sole will help carry on FWC’s goal of protecting and managing our incredible natural resources for generations to come.”

The appointment is subject to confirmation by the Florida Senate.

David Rivera banks another $110,000 for April

Former state representative and congressman David Rivera banked $110,750 last month toward his 2018 run for House District 105, campaign finance records show.

The April take follows a $100,000 loan. Rivera is looking to replace term-limited state Rep. Carlos Trujillo in the Republican-leaning district.

His only competitor, Republican Ana Maria Rodriguez, collected $36,800 for April, bringing her total to $51,425.

Rivera served in the Florida House for four terms before heading to the U.S. House where he served 2 years before losing his re-election bid to former Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia.

Rivera was the subject of a federal investigation alleging he ran a campaign finance scheme in his 2012 congressional re-election campaign, but the Miami U.S. Attorney’s office has so far declined to indict him.

He attempted to get back into the Florida House last year, but fell 54 votes short in the HD 118 contest against Democratic Rep. Robert Ascensio.

Transportation board settles on three for next FDOT head

The list of names to be the next secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation is down to three.

The Florida Transportation Commission, the department’s advisory board, interviewed five applicants Thursday and is set to recommend three to Gov. Rick Scott.

They are Richard Biter, a former assistant secretary of the transportation department; Phillip Gainer, FDOT’s District Secretary for northwest Florida; and Florida Transportation Commissioner Ron Howse.

The panel will officially vote to recommend those candidates next week.

More than 120 people had applied for the open position, created when former Secretary Jim Boxold resigned in January to join Tallahassee’s Capital City Consulting firm.

Adam Putnam fundraising panel notches over $800,000 for April

The political committee of Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam posted more than $800,000 in contributions for the month of April, the state’s campaign finance website shows.

Florida Grown reported $809,156 in fundraising and $276,479 in expenditures for the month.

That brings the committee’s total take since its February 2015 formation to $11.3 million in contributions. It also spent nearly $3.1 million, records show, for a cash-on-hand amount of about $8.2 million.

Putnam, the sitting Agriculture Commissioner, announced his candidacy Wednesday in his home of Polk County.

August A. Busch of Anheuser-Busch fame gave $100,000 in April, as did the Florida Chamber of Commerce‘s political arm.

Florida Lottery made $528 million in April, for strongest quarter to date

The Florida Lottery sold more than $528 million in tickets during April, contributing to its strongest quarterly returns on record, officials announced Thursday.

That was $100 million more than the April returns five years ago, and meant more than $130 million to the state’s Educational Enhancement Trust Fund.

“I am extremely proud of our Florida Lottery team and retailers as we continue to shatter previous records,” Florida Lottery Secretary Tom Delacenserie said in a press release.

“In addition to their winning experiences, our players should take pride in knowing that with the purchase of every lottery ticket, they are making a difference in the lives of Florida’s students,” he said.

The news followed a strong 2016, when the lottery surpassed $6.2 billion in sales. That set a record for annual sales.

Lottery administrators have predicted a hit to sales under new legislation requiring warnings against gambling addiction to be printed on tickets. Assuming a sales slump of 1 percent to 3 percent, they projected a revenue decline of between $16 million and $50 million.

During the past 15 years, the lottery has contributed more than $1 billion to education — 6 percent of state spending on schools.

Race to replace Jim Boyd gins up big numbers

Contributions for candidates in the race to replace House District 71’s Jim Boyd topped $115,000 for April.

Will Robinson, a Bradenton Republican, bested Sarasota Republican James Buchanan for the month, pulling in a whopping $97,600 to Buchanan’s $15,300, records show. And Bradenton Democrat Randy Cooper put up $2,210.

Boyd, a Bradenton Republican, is term-limited, having been first elected in 2010.

Buchanan is the son of five-term U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan. The younger Buchanan founded James Buchanan Realty after graduating from Florida State University with degrees in finance and entrepreneurship.

Robinson, an attorney at Blalock Walters law firm, kicked off his election effort by lending his campaign $100,000 in February.

Cooper is a civil engineer with a degree from the University of South Florida and served 11 years with the Florida National Guard. He’s also  a volunteer firefighter in Hillsborough County.

Jeff Atwater announces new record — $275 million — in returned property

The state has returned $275 million in unclaimed property thus far this fiscal year, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater announced Thursday — setting a new record with a month and a half yet to go.

The returns represented more than 425,000 individual claims, and surpassed the previous record $271.8 million returned during 2015-16.

“Month after month and year after year, our unclaimed property team has continued to raise the bar,” Atwater said.

“Their dedication and commitment to putting these forgotten-about funds back into the hands of Floridians is unmatched, and I am proud to announce their latest feat. Millions more lays waiting to be claimed and I hope that all Floridians will take two minutes to look on our website for an unclaimed property account in their name.”

Atwater’s office has returned more than $1.57 billion since 2011 — more than half the total in the program’s 56 years.

The property represents dormant accounts with banks, insurance and utility companies, securities, and trust holdings, plus watches, jewelry, coins, currency, stamps, and other stuff in abandoned safe deposit boxes.

Atwater directed people to to search for unclaimed property, or to call (888) 258-2253 or (850) 413-5555.

Here is a county-by-county breakdown of unclaimed property.

Miami Republican Vance Aloupis hoists $31,150 in April

Vance Aloupis’ second finance report shows a fundraising slowdown to $31,150 in April from just over $103,000 in March.

But the Miami Republican, vying to replace the term-limited Mike Bileca in House District 115, still eclipses the competition for the seat, which has raised a total of $250 among three candidates.

All of Aloupis’ reported contributions for April are $1,000 or under, including $500 from Florida East Coast Industries.

The University of Miami law school alumnus spent several years practicing law before joining the Children’s Movement of Florida in 2010.

That organization, founded by former Miami Herald publisher David Lawrence Jr., Aloupis and others, fights for increased education funding and parental training for Florida children during their first five years of life.

In 2016, the 33-year-old Aloupis took over Lawrence’s position as CEO of the Children’s Movement. This is his first foray into politics. Gov. Rick Scott appointed him to the board of Volunteer Florida in 2012.

Aloupis also posted $3,380 in expenditures for the month, including $2,000 to his political consultant, Flagler Strategies. It’s led by Michael Cantens, formerly a lobbyist with the Corcoran & Johnston firm.

After strong start, Ed Hooper raises just $640 in April for Senate bid

Call it an April slowdown.

Ed Hooper, the former Republican state representative and Clearwater city commissioner, posted just over $600 in April after two consecutive months of five-digit fundraising.

Hooper, aiming to replace term-limited Jack Latvala in Senate District 16, put up only $640 in contributions and showed $20 in expenditures for the month.

That’s after bringing in more than $25,000 and $24,000 for February and March, respectively.

Hooper, however, still has no opposition for the seat, which covers much of north Pinellas County.

All told, Hooper has raised $65,736, spent $2,721, reported $3,220 in loans and in-kind donations.

The former firefighter served four terms in the House before being term-limited. He lost a combative race in 2014 for the Pinellas County Commission to Democrat Pat Gerard, and has since maintained a public profile in local GOP circles.

Just over a year ago, Hooper filed for Latvala’s seat, when redistricting resulted in an opening after Pasco County’s former state Sen. John Legg chose not to run against Latvala, a popular figure in Pinellas County politics.

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