VISIT FLORIDA extension clears first Senate panel
VISIT FLORIDA Welcome Center near Pensacola. Image via VISIT FLORIDA.

Welcome Center I-10
Sen. Ed Hooper's bill would keep VISIT FLORIDA alive until at least 2031.

A Senate proposal to extend the life of VISIT FLORIDA to at least 2031 cleared its first panel Tuesday, with unanimous approval from the Committee on Commerce and Tourism.

Republican Sen. Ed Hooper‘s bill (SB 434) would postpone the sunset date for Florida’s tourism marketing agency from the current 2023 to 2031.

“VISIT FLORIDA is as important to the economy and economic wealth of our state as any other endeavor that I can possibly think of,” said Hooper, who chairs the committee but handed the gavel to Republican Sen. Tom Wright for the SB 434 hearing.

“The hard part for that agency, with only a two-year sunset, attracting and retaining qualified, the best-of-the-best people at the agency is really difficult,” Hooper said. He later added that he expects the House companion to his bill to extend VISIT FLORIDA through 2028.

The Legislature has been keeping VISIT FLORIDA on a rolling, two-year lifespan, grudgingly moving the sunset clause forward every year, for several years, since scandals in the mid-2010s gave the agency a reputation for out-of-control slush-fund spending and lack of accountability. The agency was particularly disliked by former House Speakers Jose Oliva and Richard Corcoran.

With several years of operation the Legislature now largely views as much more responsible — and effective in marking Florida as a tourist destination — calls have been increasing to take the agency off its short-term life cycle. That sentiment may be stronger in the Senate than in the House, which last year gave little support to a bill that would have done away entirely with the sunset clause.

The measure drew widespread praise at Tuesday’s hearing from senators as varied as Democratic Sens. Victor Torres and Jason Pizzo, and Republican Sens. Wright and Travis Hutson.

The only objections raised came from the conservative organization Americans for Prosperity, which argued any government subsidy for private industry is a matter of the government picking winners and losers.

“What our position is, is that these are concentrated benefits and diffused costs. When that happens, the government is picking winners and losers,” said AFP Florida Policy Director Phillip Suderman.

Samantha Padgett, general counsel for the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said VISIT FLORIDA’s marketing programs jumpstarted Florida’s tourism economy coming out of the coronavirus crisis of 2020. She said extending the sunset provision to 2031 would help Florida businesses plan for the long term.

“Our members of all sizes, in markets large and small, have benefited from VISIT FLORIDA’s coordinated marketing platform,” she said.

Wright revisited an inquiry he and Pizzo raised last month when VISIT FLORIDA President Dana Young outlined the agency’s agenda for the committee, that VISIT FLORIDA extend its focus from just tourism to broader economic development, seeking to attract out-of-state workers to address labor shortages in various sectors and locales.

Young had responded last month that if VISIT FLORIDA were to take on such a secondary mission, it would need a lot more money.

Wright urged an amendment that would have VISIT FLORIDA’s marketing messages in snow country, particularly the upper Midwest, to say something like, “Please come and visit Florida. And Stay.”

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected].


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