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Budget conference: VISIT FLORIDA funding ‘closed out,’ now up to chairs

“It will be up to our budget chairs.”

Funding for VISIT FLORIDA is “closed out” and won’t be revisited unless the main budget heads decide to do so, Sen. Travis Hutson told reporters Friday morning.

He spoke after the sixth and final meeting of the Conference Committee on Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development/Transportation & Tourism. The St. Augustine Republican is its chair.

Spending issues that conference committees can’t resolve “bump” up to the respective Appropriations chairs, Republicans Rob Bradley in the Senate and Travis Cummings in the House, both of Fleming Island.

The House hasn’t moved from its position of $19 million in funding for the beleaguered tourism marketing agency, which the Senate already has acquiesced to. That’s estimated to be enough to keep it running only for the first quarter of fiscal year 2019-20.

Indeed, for now a push for more money would be fruitless: The House hasn’t taken up a Senate bill (SB 178) that would reauthorize the public-private organization past Oct. 1 of this year. Without that approval, VISIT FLORIDA “sunsets,” in Capitol parlance.

Proponents say the agency pays for itself by lending a hand, financially and otherwise, to local tourism boards and in its own international reach, promoting the state to potential visitors especially after events like the recent red tide and blue-green algae outbreaks that befouled waterways.

The House, on the other hand, has had it in for VISIT FLORIDA the last couple of years after, slamming it for questionable spending (think Pitbull’s $1 million deal for “Sexy Beaches”) and a lack of transparency. The agency, however, has made significant reforms since 2017, including heightened openness and contract accountability measures.

VISIT FLORIDA “is closed out and it will be up to our budget chairs to determine if they want to open that back up,” Hutson said.

In other matters:

— The conference decided to bump a decision on money for “planning and redesign” of the state’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in Tallahassee. The House is willing to spend $1.5 million; the Senate would dedicate $1 million.

— Lawmakers closed out a line item for $500,000 in state funding toward a Pulse memorial in Orlando, to honor the lives lost in a 2016 mass shooting at the gay nightclub.

— The conference committee bumped a decision on funding affordable funding, with respect to how much to give the State Housing Initiatives Partnership Program (SHIP) and State Apartment Incentive Loan Program (SAIL).

Conference committee vice chair Jay Trumbull, a Republican House member from Panama City, has said he wanted more funding for rental properties.

Written By

Jim Rosica is the Tallahassee-based Senior Editor 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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