Florida lawmakers made a final vote on Monday to cut Visit Florida’s budget by 67 percent, knocking the state from the second most well-funded in the U.S. for tourism promotion to the seventh.
Visit Florida, which will receive $25 million (down from $76 million) in funding under a budget bill that heads to the governor’s office for a signature, is responsible for helping market destinations in the most visited U.S. state.
The organization faces a series of changes that give more oversight and checks and balances to the state legislature. For example, any Visit Florida contract worth more than $750,000 must go through a 14-day consultation period with the state legislature, future Visit Florida CEOs must be confirmed by the state Senate, staff salaries are capped at $130,000, Visit Florida’s CFO must post any contracts of $35,000 or more online, and Visit Florida employees can’t receive gifts from vendors.
Visit Florida employee travel is subject to the same per diem rates for all state employees, a point of contention during the debate for the bill. “This alleviates concerns that this turns into a party on the taxpayers’ dime,” said Representative Paul Renner, a sponsor of the bill, during a floor debate before a vote on the bill on Monday at the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee.
The bill also contains “a number of significant differences” from its original version as lawmakers in both the Florida House and Senate listened to supporting and opposing arguments during the past few months for boosting and cutting Visit Florida’s funding, said Renner, a Republican.
Among the changes: Florida’s governor won’t need to approve international travel of Visit Florida employees and Visit Florida isn’t allowed to create new organizations that directly support it.
Funding for the state’s tourism board came under scrutiny earlier this year after Miami rapper Pitbull disclosed his $1 million contract with Visit Florida and three C-suite executives departed the organization.
Next Stop: Governor’s Office
City and regional tourism boards in Florida are concerned about their own work should Visit Florida’s funding get cut. Democratic Representative Janet Cruz, during the floor debate on Monday, said salary caps for Visit Florida employees are too low compared to other states.
A 67 percent Visit Florida budget cut is akin to when the state cut funding to its film incentives and promotion marketing, Representative Joseph Abruzzo said on Monday.
“All of a sudden, you saw states like Georgia attract more films because we weren’t working as hard to get them,” said Abruzzo, a Democrat.
Of the 120 representatives in the Florida House, 74 representatives voted yes on the bill while 34 voted no. Some 12 representatives weren’t present for the vote. The bill was part of a conference committee report that included the entire Florida state budget and had the support of delegations from both the Florida House and Senate.
Gov. Rick Scott, who has advocated for Visit Florida and believes a $25 million budget isn’t sufficient, could choose to veto the bill once it arrives at his desk. The legislature would need a two-thirds majority vote — or 80 votes — to override a governor’s veto, but based on Monday’s vote the legislature is still a few votes short of an override.
“The governor has said that he has a lot of options regarding budget action including full veto or line item vetoes,” a spokesperson for the governor said when Skift asked how he plans to respond to Monday’s vote.
While the state legislature, Visit Florida, and the tourism industry wait for Gov. Scott’s move, the legislature is likely preparing for a veto and working to line up more votes to get the state’s budget bill officially passed.