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Senate backs keeping alive Visit Florida

House still reluctant

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Targeted for extinction by the House, Visit Florida would stay in business for at least eight more years under a measure unanimously approved Wednesday by the Senate.

The bill (SB 178), sponsored by Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, would allow the Florida Tourism Industry Marketing Corporation, better known as Visit Florida, to continue operating beyond Oct. 1.

Under state law, the agency must be reauthorized or it will go away on that date.

The future of the agency, supported by Gov. Ron DeSantis, will be part of upcoming budget talks.

The Senate has proposed setting aside $50 million for the agency during the 2019-2020 fiscal year, $26 million less than requested by DeSantis.

Gruters said the funding is essential.

"For every dollar invested in tourism, we get $2.15 return," Gruters said. "There are thousands of jobs that rely on the tourism that we bring to this state."

The House is offering $19 million, which would cover the agency’s expenses until Oct. 1.

House leaders have repeatedly taken aim at Visit Florida in recent years and want to let it expire.

In 2017, the House targeted several contracts Visit Florida used to promote the state, including a $2.875 million contract with an auto racing team known as Visit Florida Racing, and a $1 million promotional contract for Miami rapper Pitbull.

"I think that we've done a lot to reign them in, in terms of how they spend their money and how much money they spend over the past few years, which has been a good thing," said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach.

State and local tourism officials are fighting to keep the agency alive.

They have argued that Visit Florida has helped the state combat negative media reports about toxic algae blooms and hurricanes.

Also, they say partnerships benefit non-urban areas of the state that don’t have the resources to engage in national and international marketing efforts.

Visit Florida, which is run by a 31-member board of directors, has averaged $76 million in state funding over 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.