Senate backs Visit Florida as House speaker balks

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A proposal to keep the state’s tourism-marketing agency open beyond this fall, with no change in funding, moved forward Thursday in the Senate.

But Gov. Ron DeSantis’ request to provide $76 million next year to Visit Florida, matching the current funding, doesn’t have the same support in the House.

House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, maintains the tourism agency’s funding should last until the agency’s legal authorization runs out, which is scheduled for Oct. 1.

“Right now, the only direction has been that we need to fund Visit Florida until it expires, and beyond that we haven’t had any intention,” Oliva said Wednesday.

Oliva added he doesn’t expect budget negotiations “to be contentious.”

The Senate proposal (SB 178), unanimously backed by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday, seeks to fund and reauthorize --- with no end date --- the Florida Tourism Industry Marketing Corp. which does business as Visit Florida.

Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican who is sponsoring the bill, said he hasn’t spoken with Oliva but hopes the House “comes around” on the agency.

“What Visit Florida does for our economy as challenges come up in all of our local areas, it’s critically important for our success,” Gruters said. “We are a tourism-driven economy, and they are our marketing arm. And when Florida is at its lowest points, they’re there helping prop us back and letting people know we’re back in business.”

Gruters intends to change his proposal to include a new “sunset” date for the agency, which several senators encouraged on Thursday. Setting such a date would likely require the agency to be reauthorized in the future.

Sen. Jeff Brandes said without a new sunset date, even if its eight or nine years out, the Legislature would lose oversight of the agency.

“Ultimately, I believe these types of entities should be reviewed, just largely because I don’t want the Legislature giving up that much leverage for future discussions,” Brandes said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, suggested that in a state teeming with entertainment venues there could be more requirements about the agency’s operations.

“This is a great time to rethink there are some improvements that could be made to the statute,” Lee said.

Lee also called the agency’s return on investment “low” compared to transportation projects.

Visit Florida, which is run by a 31-member board of directors, has averaged $76 million each of the past five years. If the public-private agency isn’t reauthorized, its assets --- after legal obligations have been met --- would revert to the state.

DeSantis said he considers Oliva’s stance on Visit Florida more of a negotiating posture.

“These things will get negotiated out,” DeSantis told reporters Tuesday. “Obviously, the speaker has a very strong and principled record on some of those things and I respect that a lot.”

In 2017, Visit Florida was put into the crosshairs as the House sought to abolish the tourism-marketing agency and the business-recruitment agency Enterprise Florida.

At the time, Visit Florida was under fire for numerous marketing contracts, including a $11.6 million deal to sponsor a cooking show hosted by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, a $2.875 million contract with an auto racing team known as Visit Florida Racing, and a $1 million promotion contract for Miami rapper Pitbull.

In the end, lawmakers altered the structure and contract-reporting requirements of Visit Florida, including establishing new rules that ended partnerships with several local tourism organizations.

DeSantis’ view on negotiations was shared by Visit Florida President and CEO Dana Young, a former state lawmaker from Tampa.

“We have such a positive story to tell that I can’t imagine that the elected representatives of the people of Florida would want to do away with a revenue generating agency like Visit Florida,” Young said on Thursday. “If the budget were cut to zero there would be a hole in the budget next year, rough numbers, $160 million out of general revenue.”

DeSantis said the longer he’s in office he may have a different view of the tourism agency, which recently announced record tourist numbers for the past year.

“After being in for a little bit, I’m going to be able to evaluate this better,” DeSantis said.