Budget conference: Disputes remain on VISIT FLORIDA, jobs support

Captiva Island - 03 - 2019 (Stacy Hilton)
The House offered to match Senate's proposal of $0 for Jobs Growth Grant Fund.

Senate and House negotiators are facing disputes about providing money for VISIT FLORIDA and several other economic development programs including the Florida Jobs Growth Fund.

VISIT FLORIDA and other business support programs have been targeted by critics on both the left and the right as providing corporate welfare, sparking annual battles over the funding. That is showing up again in the negotiations between the Conference Committee on House Infrastructure & Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee and the Senate Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee.

Gov. Ron DeSantis asked for $100 million this year for the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund — Enterprise Florida’s workforce training and infrastructure grants, which the Governor ultimately controls. But the Senate budget offer and first counteroffer included no funding.

The House — after initially offering $25 million of general revenue for that program — in its first budget conference offer, now proposes to meet the Senate’s proposal: zero.

In the House’s proposal and continuing in its first offer, VISIT FLORIDA would get the requested $50 million, but only in a non-recurring trust fund allocation. The Senate proposal, and their counteroffer, would make it recurring money.

Florida’s tourism marketing and promotion agency has been struggling for years to restore credibility and confidence in its programs that, several years ago, were attacked as being bloated and unaccountable. While the agency has pushed to get its mission extended in law to 2031, it also has been fighting for more stable funding.

Not yet, the House is saying.

“Right now we have a bill going through the process in the House that would extend VISIT FLORIDA, but as of right now it ends this summer,” said Pace Republican Rep. Jayer Williamson, who chairs the Infrastructure & Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee. “So we didn’t see the need to put recurring dollars whenever a program is ending this summer. We’ll see how the bill does.”

The bill (SB 434), filed by Clearwater Republican Sen. Ed Hooper, is expected to pass the House on Wednesday. Its next destination is DeSantis’ desk.

Continuing operations money for Florida’s Reemployment Assistance Center — the unemployment benefits program operated through the problematic CONNECT system — is being offered $30 million by the House, in both its budget proposal and its first conference offer. The Senate is offering $15 million.

The Senate wants to provide $150,000 for the Entrepreneurial and Small Business Support program and $500,000 in loan money for the Regional Entrepreneurial Centers and Small Business Loan Fund. The House offered nothing for either.

The Senate offered $250,000 for the Florida-Israel Business Accelerator, and no money for the Florida Trade Assistance Center Export Database. The House initially offered $125,000 for each of them. Its first offer ups those proposed allocations to $250,000 each.

The House initially proposed $500,000 for the Supercharge Startup Growth Florida Fund serving Tampa Bay. The Senate offered nothing. So the House’s first negotiating offer upped its proposal to $1 million.

The two chambers’ budget proposals also remain far apart on a variety of housing and community redevelopment programs, even with the House’s first offer.

Initially, there were differences in how the two chambers wanted to provide funding for affordable housing programs. In its first negotiating offer, the House acquiesced to the Senate’s plan, providing all of the available housing money, $268.1 million, through the State Housing Initiatives Partnership (SHIP) program.

The House wants $500,000 for an anti-human trafficking assistance program based in Seminole called Empowered To Change International. The Senate offered nothing.

The Senate is providing $1 million to OCEARCH, a great white shark research center, for its new research and operations center in Mayfield. The House is including nothing.

The Senate is offering $500,000 apiece for the Senior Housing Assistance Repair program and for St. Lucie County’s Harbour Pointe District development. The House provides nothing.

The House is offering $400,000 for the Tacolcy Economic Development Corporation in Miami. Senate includes no funding.

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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