Senate panel moves to keep Visit Florida alive

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A move to keep the lights on at the state's tourism-marketing agency for most of the next decade easily cleared a Senate committee Tuesday, but the future of Visit Florida remains in the House's hands.

The embattled public-private agency was forced to cut staff by one-third earlier this year and faces a corporate door-shuttering date of July 1, 2020.

"I'm standing by to see," Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, said when asked whether the House would sign off on the Senate's proposal.

"Every county in this state depends upon tourism in some part for its total economic health and wealth. Every county. I don't know of another entity that can make that boost that we cover every county," Hooper added, following Tuesday's Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee meeting. 

Hooper's proposal to authorize Visit Florida through Oct. 1, 2028 (SB 362) drew unanimous support from the committee, with backing from a large section of business lobbying interests.

A spokesman for the House didn't immediately respond to questions Tuesday.

The House and Senate engaged in a similar battle over the agency during the 2019 legislative session this spring, with the House eventually agreeing to extend the life of Visit Florida from last October through the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30.

Hooper's proposal doesn't include a request for annual state funding, which was cut by 34 percent -- from $76 million to $50 million -- as part of the legislative compromise earlier this year.

The largest voice in opposition Tuesday came from the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity-Florida, which has disparaged funding for the agency as "corporate welfare."

"The role of government is not to act as an ad agency," Americans for Prosperity-Florida Policy Director Phillip Suderman told the Senate committee members Tuesday. "It should focus itself on the core functions that society needs to operate. Visit Florida is not one of those vital roles."

Hooper argued the tourism agency plays a vital role in the year-after-year record number of visitors to Florida. State economists have projected the state funding has produced a $2.15 return on every $1 invested, Hooper said after the meeting.

"There is a lot of private involvement in Visit Florida, but somebody has to be the overall guiding force to make sure the message is consistent, that it's accurate and it gets to the place that the visitors come from," Hooper said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration has asked lawmakers for $50 million to fund Visit Florida during the upcoming 2020-2021 fiscal year. But DeSantis has also said he wanted lawmakers to settle the fate of Visit Florida, rather than string the tourism-marketing agency along through further one-year extensions.

"At some point, like, we just need to make a decision on it, rather than continuing to have it be hanging on a thread every year," DeSantis told reporters last month.

At the same time, the governor acknowledged House Speaker Jose Oliva's aversion to state spending on tourism marketing.

"Obviously, Jose is somebody that I think has legitimate philosophical disagreements with it. But I think we should just work through it," DeSantis said on Sept. 24.

In April, Oliva dismissed concerns that tourism would be hurt without Visit Florida's promotional efforts and said tourism growth in the state stemmed from factors such as people having more disposable income.

Responding to DeSantis' comments in September, Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, made clear his opinion hadn't changed.

"Visit Florida, like all other agencies and programs, is competing for limited resources. Some of those very same agencies and programs are clearly essential government functions," Oliva said in response to questions from The News Service of Florida. "For example, no one can argue that the Department of Children and Families request for an additional $275 million should take a backseat to Visit Florida. But Visit Florida also has an inverse result to funding pattern that clearly indicates zero correlation between Visit funding and the number of tourists visiting our state. If we set another tourism record with Visit Florida's budget cut in half, it begs the question, is it necessary at all?"

The House version of Hooper's proposal (HB 213), filed by Destin Republican Mel Ponder, is slated for three committee stops.