‘Tourism Day’ fails to sway Florida House Speaker

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – House Speaker Jose Oliva appeared firm in his stance against Visit Florida as tourism officials, with the backing of Gov. Ron DeSantis and Senate President Bill Galvano, tried to showcase the importance of the industry on Wednesday.

Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, maintained his opposition to funding Visit Florida as “Florida Tourism Day” events took place in Tallahassee. Oliva has pushed to eliminate the agency, arguing that state money isn’t needed for tourism marketing.

“I think statistically the evidence is the evidence,” Oliva told reporters Wednesday afternoon. “Whether at the end it continues or not, I don’t think that will ever change my understanding of what the full role of marketing is and the amount of dollars that are involved and the role they play in that.”

Oliva has long argued the state does not need Visit Florida to draw tourists, despite Visit Florida President and CEO Dana Young saying Wednesday that “tourism is the foundation of the state’s economy.”

Earlier in the day, DeSantis and Galvano told tourism officials they’re fighting to keep the agency’s doors open beyond the end of the current fiscal year.

“If you have something that is working, something that is necessary, something that is especially unique to your state, you should make sure that it’s stable, it’s predictable and it has the resources to go forward,” Galvano said during a brief morning appearance at the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center.

In deciding the fate of Visit Florida, DeSantis also said it’s important the agency’s authority not be subject to year-to-year renewals.

“Hopefully, we'll be able to get that done now this legislative session,” DeSantis told the tourism-industry crowd at the civic center.

Oliva didn’t attend the tourism-industry events and has focused early in the legislative session on other issues, such as a proposal (HB 607) that would allow advanced practice registered nurses and physician assistants to practice independently of physicians.

When asked later by reporters if Oliva might be willing to trade the nurse practitioner proposal for extending the life of Visit Florida, DeSantis said, “We'll just see how all that stuff works through.”

“I know the speaker has some strong views on some of these other things. I think he expressed those in pretty colorful language when he opened the session,” DeSantis said.

“I know he's got a slew of bills and we'll take a look at that,” DeSantis continued. “But you know, the process is the process and you know, we try to get our priorities, they're going to try and get their priorities. We did a good job last session, and so hopefully we'll be in a situation where we leave this session having done things that are really significant, everyone's happy.”

Oliva dismissed the possibility of an exchange of Visit Florida funding for approval of his nurse-practitioner proposal, a trade that he said “would be easy.”

House leaders in recent years questioned some of Visit Florida past contracts, and Oliva wrote a newspaper column in December that said tourists would still be drawn to Florida without the taxpayer-funded promotional efforts.

“The Spanish built St. Augustine and they came. Henry Flagler built a railroad to nowhere and they came. And a man from Missouri named Walt built in the middle of Florida and they came by the millions,” Oliva wrote. “Florida is the ‘it’ that people want to come see. And there are plenty of private and government marketing efforts underway every day.”

But proponents note that the state Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability estimated Visit Florida generates a $2.15 return on every $1 invested in marketing, based on numbers from three consecutive fiscal years starting July 1, 2013.

A proposal (SB 362 and HB 213) intended to keep the tourism-marketing agency operating through Oct. 1, 2028 has started to move forward in the Senate but has not appeared in a House committee.

Lawmakers during the 2019 session cut Visit Florida’s funding from $76 million to $50 million, leading to layoffs. DeSantis has proposed maintaining the agency’s funding at $50 million in the 2020-2021 fiscal year.

DeSantis and Galvano have said, in part, that Florida must be able to market its tourism industry against negative images of hurricanes and polluted waters.

“Literally, even within the Panhandle after (Hurricane) Michael, you could’ve gone to a lot of places, just to Panama City Beach because of the way the storm came in,” DeSantis told the travel professionals on Wednesday. “So, having a tool like Visit Florida can be beneficial in that respect.”

About the Authors: