Tourism industry leaders hope to escape the Legislative Session with a least a reasonable portion of Visit Florida intact, notwithstanding hostility in the House toward economic incentives that many members consider corporate welfare.
“Never underestimate the power of the veto pen,” Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said during the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s Capitol Days symposium.
“I know for a fact that there are a lot of freshman legislators who really believe, ‘If I hold strong, I’m going to get these (local) projects to take home.’ At the end of the day, I think they’re forgetting that there’s this pen, and one man holds it. And we all know what he wants.”
She referred to Gov. Rick Scott’s insistence that the Legislature fund Visit Florida, Enterprise Florida, and other economic development initiatives he sees as the key to his jobs agenda.
David Hart, the Chamber’s vice president for government affairs, noted that the House wants to cut Visit Florida’s budget by $50 million — or about two thirds. The Senate — particularly budget chairman Jack Latvala — support the incentives.
Still, Hart expressed concern for what might happen when Visit Florida money lands in conference committee. He referred to reports that the economic incentives could become a bargaining chip for Senate President Joe Negron’s $2 billion Lake Okeechobee plan.
“That does get us in the zone of the governor’s veto and possible special sessions beyond as we go into May, June, July,” Hart said.
“That would be nuclear,” Dover said.
“I hope we’re not there, but it’s too soon to say that’s off the table,” Hart added.
When it comes to legislative triage, Dover said she supports Enterprise Florida but continued, “We only have so many chits in the basket when you’re a lobbyist. And my chits are in the Visit Florida basket.”
Visit Florida originally relied more on private dollars, and was created so marketers could escape the bureaucratic restraints the House now wants to impose, said Dan Olson, the program’s No. 2.
Dover, who sits on Visit Florida’s board, conceded missteps.
“As a board member, it never crossed my mind that, as we were getting more and more money from the government, we needed to shift our business model,” Dover said.
But the House bill would be too onerous, she said. For example, businesses contracting with the agency would have to disclose employees’ salaries.
“They’re just not going to do business with Florida. It’s too cumbersome,” Dover said.
“We’re not trying to say we don’t need to be transparent. We’re trying to take some of the real onerous, bureaucratic transparency that will shackle them from doing their jobs.”
During every recent crisis that might have dampened tourism — the Pulse shootings, two hurricanes, Zika — Visit Florida launched marketing campaigns within 24 hours to tell out-of-staters it was still alright to come.
The House bill would require sign-off for such spending from the governor and Legislative Budget Commission, which meets quarterly, she said.
“We could be sitting here with devastation from a hurricane, and we can’t do anything until all three branches of the government look at our plan and decide if we can spend the money.”
Is it time to panic?
Dover shook her head.
“I really believe in the House. I believe in Richard Corcoran,” she said. “I know that Land O’ Lakes is not a tourism (hub) but he is the speaker of the House.”