Members of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development showed little concern for philosophical arguments against government funding business and gave strong support Wednesday to a bill that frees up VISIT FLORIDA.
The panel approved a measure (SB 778) that would eliminate a sunset provision that has required the tourism marketing agency to continually justify its existence. The bill also would allow the agency to carry forward unspent money from one year to the next.
The bill and the enthusiastic endorsements that subcommittee members provided suggest lawmakers’ confidence that the agency has emerged from the time, at its worst three or four years ago, when it was beset with harsh charges of bloat, misspending, ineffectiveness, junkets, questionable bonuses, lavish celebrity contracts, infighting, and lack of accountability. The Legislature created the sunset clause as an alternative to an outright mercy killing that some had then promoted.
Besides the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Ed Hooper of Palm Harbor, Republican Sen. Loranne Ausley of Quincy, Democratic Sen. Janet Cruz of Tampa and the committee chair, Republican Sen. George Gainer of Panama City praised the agency, its current mission, and VISIT FLORIDA President Dana Young, a former Senate colleague.
Americans for Prosperity-Florida policy director Phillip Suderman warned against government handouts to corporations and concerns over government picking winners and loser in the marketplace, saying “the losers are every day citizens and small businesses who are forced to pick up the tab.” Otherwise, no one had anything negative to say. No Senators embraced AFP’s philosophical argument.
“I’ve always been a strong supporter of VISIT FLORIDA. And certainly in times like this, with the pandemic, we need to make absolutely certain that we have robust marketing for our tourist industry,” Ausley said.
Cruz argued that investing in VISIT FLORIDA is investing in future sales tax receipts. And she took Ausley’s argument a step further, noting she recently saw packed parking lots at a Tampa mall and yet also has also recently seen “dead, empty, completely empty” hotels in Orlando.
“Those of us in Tampa can get this false sense of security that we’re recovering. But you drive to Orlando and you stay at a hotel you’ll see that without these big conventions … there is a big, big difference in Orlando. So we haven’t turned the page on this,” Cruz said.
Hooper’s bill already cleared the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee and has only the full Senate Appropriations Committee left in its journey toward the floor.
Republican Rep. Rene Plasencia of Orlando is sponsoring the House companion (HB 675).