The tweet that tanked tourism

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Florida’s tourism funding is in jeopardy, and more than 70,000 jobs are on the line. Learn how you can make an impact.

by Brian Kaissi

It all started with a tweet.

No, not the rise of our current Commander in Chief, but the ongoing legislative and political showdown over tourism funding for Florida’s core economic development organizations.

On December 15, 2016, popular Miami rapper, Pitbull, tweeted his $1 million contract with VISIT FLORIDA, an entity responsible for encouraging more than 106 million people to visit the state in 2015. Following this controversial social media post, Florida Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran (R-37) advocated to slash funding to both Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida, two job-creating organizations that aim to bring both visitors and commerce to the Sunshine State.

VISIT FLORIDA serves as the state’s official tourism marketing corporation and produces ads that attract both national and international tourists. Enterprise Florida is the state’s primary economic development organization and exists as a public-private partnership to make Florida a premier destination for both business expansion and relocation. Both entities rely on significant funding from the Florida government.

In justifying his surprising and unprecedented attack on both organizations, Speaker Corcoran characterized Enterprise Florida as “corporate welfare,” and argued that it serves to predominantly subsidize particular private companies, creating an uneven playing field for businesses in Florida. He also expressed skepticism towards the efficacy of VISIT FLORIDA. In fact, on February 6, 2017, he bluntly tweeted, “Spending more taxpayer money on VISIT FL (or less) has not demonstrated a direct impact on tourism.”

On the contrary, members of local tourism, hospitality and small business communities argue that robust tourism funding fosters explosive economic growth and job creation, and makes Florida’s tourism economy an exemplary model for the rest of the country. And the numbers speak for themselves.

In a recent press release, the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association (FRLA) stated:

“Per VISIT FLORIDA, in 2016 Florida set another record in tourism by welcoming the highest number of visitors in the state’s history with 112.8 million visitors. This is the sixth consecutive record year for visitation to Florida, exceeding the previous high of 106.6 million in 2015 by 5.9 percent.”

The Florida Office of Economic and Demographic Research agrees, and recently reported that every $1 the state invests in VISIT FLORIDA, it sees a $3.20 return.

To add, travel and tourism remains the No. 1 industry in the state of Florida, representing approximately 1.2 million employees. According to the Florida Tourism Development Council (TDC), just a 5 percent drop in visitors would lead to a loss of $5.5 billion in revenue, $563 million in taxes and 70,000 jobs.

Bad Legislation
Despite persistent efforts by advocacy organizations, business owners and workers, Speaker Corcoran and his colleagues easily whipped enough votes to definitively pass two detrimental bills through the Florida House of Representatives.

In March, HB 7005 was approved 87-28 to completely eliminate Enterprise Florida. According to Skift Magazine, “[The vote] was remarkable since many Republican legislators just a year earlier had voted in favor of a bill to keep Enterprise Florida intact.” It begs the question: What changed in one year that caused the chamber’s leadership to reverse course?

Supporters of HB 7005 claim popular opinion changed once they were given time to learn more about the program. However, the writing on the wall tells us that perhaps state legislators supported the initiative in fear of crossing Speaker Corcoran, a leader who possesses the power to place their political futures in jeopardy.

The House also passed HB 9, a bill that would subject VISIT FLORIDA to new and extensive restrictions, such as requiring that contracts worth $750,000 or more receive the legislature’s approval. In addition, this bill would cap salaries and require VISIT FLORIDA to publicly document contractual agreements.

Luckily, legislation must receive support from all three branches of Florida’s state government to become law. Right now, Speaker Corcoran is a lone wolf among his party’s leadership.

No state Senator has yet authored a “companion” bill to either HB 7005 or HB 9, leaving both proposals in legislative purgatory. Further, Florida Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala (R) has been an outspoken supporter of both transportation and tourism funding and continually asserts his support for the state’s core economic development institutions.

In addition, on Wednesday, April 13, the Florida Senate and House each passed their respective budget bills. The House’s proposed funding level for VISIT FLORIDA is $25 million, a 67 percent cut to the organization’s budget. The Florida Senate, however, matches the Governor’s recommendation to fully fund VISIT FLORIDA at $76 million.

Governor Rick Scott (R-FL), whose 2017-2018 budget proposal allocates $85 million for Enterprise Florida and $76 million to VISIT FLORIDA, is the most outspoken about his disapproval of Speaker Corcoran’s plans to cut tourism funding. Governor Scott’s willingness to expend considerable resources to oppose Speaker Corcoran’s agenda has, if nothing else, set the stage for a ruthless battle between two prominent leaders, each with long-term political ambitions.

Political Warfare
If you live in Florida, chances are you’ve been exposed to intense political ads between the House and Governor Scott’s political committee. The former portrays rampant, “runaway” government spending towards economic development organizations, and the latter paints House leadership as misguided and politically opportunistic.

At the Florida State Capitol on February 7, Governor Scott lashed out at his House colleagues to a group of reporters. According to Jeremy Wallace of the Miami Herald, Governor Scott said:

“When the House wants to stop Enterprise Florida, they are hurting our poorest communities. They’re hurting our rural communities. When they want to say we don’t want to do any more marketing for Visit Florida what they are saying is that we don’t need any more jobs in tourism. Now what we’re seeing is, we’re seeing people that just want to run for higher office. They’re not concerned about what happens to other people.”

It is no secret that Governor Scott’s second and final term ends in 2018, and that Speaker Corcoran is a likely contender to pursue the governor’s mansion. Governor Scott, with support from President Trump, might challenge U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) that same year for an office in Washington, D.C.

Conclusion
Since taking office, Speaker Corcoran has prided himself on making Florida’s government more accountable and transparent. Under his leadership, the legislature has instituted a six-year lobbying ban, tightened disclosure requirements for lobbyists and banned House members from riding on private jets owned by lobbyists. Perhaps, one might argue, that his desire to slash tourism funding is a pure, yet misguided, prescription to improve accountability for state-funded programs.

Ultimately, we are either witnessing one of Florida’s most powerful elected officials undermine Florida’s core economic institutions for personal gain, or on the contrary, we are seeing fundamental, ideological differences in the Florida Republican Party leadership’s approach to governance. Or both.

While this question may provoke an interesting debate, it ultimately makes no difference to Florida hoteliers and small business owners who work hard to create jobs and invest in their communities. Tourism funding equals jobs, and vigorous tourism promotion allows hoteliers to thrive.

AAHOA members have already sent more than 1,000 letters to state elected officials advocating for sufficient tourism funding, and have attended rallies and legislative fly-ins to promote both Enterprise Florida and VISIT FLORIDA. AAHOA will continue to partner with local organizations to protect and preserve necessary tourism funds that puts heads in beds, creates jobs, and gives small business owners opportunities to provide for their families and invest in their communities.               ■

Brian Kaissi is the Government Affairs Manager for AAHOA. He can be reached at brian@aahoa.com.

Views from florida hoteliers

Danny Gaekwad

  • AAHOA Member
  • Executive Board Member, Enterprise Florida
  • Chairman, Marion County Visitor and Convention Bureau
  • Chairman, Marion County Tourism Development Council
  • Executive Board Member, Visit Florida


What does tourism funding mean to small business owners in Florida?
“Without sufficient tourism funding, small cities like Ocala, Lake City, Leesburg and others will have no way to compete. It would be impossible to reach major U.S. markets, let alone international markets. Visit Florida is the only way for us to reach these tourists to show them who we are and what our state has to offer.”

“I am thankful for Senator Jack Latvala and Governor Rick Scott’s leadership to save tourism. Hoteliers must get involved in state and local politics to protect our industry!”

Bharat Patel

  • AAHOA Florida Regional Director
  • Member, Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association (FRLA) Suncoast Chapter
  • Appointed Member, Sarasota Tourism Development Council


What does tourism funding mean to hoteliers in Florida?

“The leading sector of the economy in Florida is tourism. A decrease in tourism funding to Florida hoteliers would lead to a major loss in jobs. The reduction in tax revenue would generate less infrastructure spending on roads, schools and hospitals in our communities.”

What will happen if tourism funding is significantly decreased? 
“Any funding reduction would negatively impact tourism immediately and drastically. Even a 2 percent cut will reduce travel spending by $2.2 billion.”

 

Please stay tuned for future calls to action, and be sure to call your state legislators and encourage them to support tourism funding!

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