At long last, Florida's tourism industry knows its fate. While Visit Florida will have enough funding to keep the lights on in the coming year, it faces a litany of new procedures and restrictions that will likely send reverberations to other state capitals across the U.S.
Visit Florida will survive another year to market the state’s destinations, from the Florida panhandle to Key West, after one of the most high-profile destination marketing funding battles in recent memory came to close on Friday.
The Florida Legislature approved on Friday afternoon a $76 million budget for Visit Florida’s for fiscal 2018 after a three-day special session in the Florida House and Senate.
That funding level is the same as fiscal 2017, although the governor had initially proposed a $100 million budget.
The special session followed a four-month long battle — which at one point involved a proposal to fund Florida’s statewide tourism board at $25 million — that had the most visited U.S. state’s tourism industry on edge.
Some state politicians said funding cuts would have put thousands of state jobs at risk and, if funding cuts had been approved, would have taken Florida from having the second-highest tourism budget in the U.S. to the seventh highest.
The debate grew out of Miami rapper Pitbull’s controversial $1 million contract with Visit Florida last year, and criticism that the organization operated with a lack of transparency.
Some of those transparency concerns have been addressed. For example, any contract worth $750,000 or more is subject to review by the Florida legislature.
Governor Rick Scott had originally called for a $100 million budget for Visit Florida earlier this year. But after some horse-trading, Florida House speaker Richard Corcoran, Senate president Joe Negron and the governor announced June 2 that they’d agreed on a $76 million budget.
The bill, like its original version in the regular session, now heads to the governor’s desk for a signature. The bill is set to take effect on July 1 and Peter Schorsch, the publisher of news site FloridaPolitics.com, said that the governor is expected to sign the bill before the July 1 deadline “but not immediately.”
Unlike last month when the fate of Visit Florida also rested in Scott’s hands, the governor made an appearance in both the House and Senate chambers on Friday to show his support and was present to applaud when both chambers’ bills, and the final bill, passed.
So, this time the governor seems on board with the Florida House and Senate’s decision to fund Visit Florida at $76 million — which is how much funding it received this year.
But there are some hefty caveats that come with that pot of gold.
Namely, Visit Florida’s funding is tied to a one-to-one match of all public and private contributions it receives and all contracts worth $750,000 or more are subject to approval by the Florida legislature.
“Visit Florida themselves conceded that they’ve had some concerns about accountability in their case,” said Florida state representative Paul Renner on the House floor on Thursday.
Visit Florida CEO Ken Lawson, who was appointed in January, issued a statement this afternoon that called the special session’s results a “huge win” for Visit Florida and thanked the governor for his support.
“Over the past few months, the Governor has traveled the state discussing the importance of tourism, and because of his efforts and those of our entire industry, we will be able to continue to attract record numbers of visitors to our state,” said Lawson, in a statement.
“Today’s victory will allow us to continue working with our industry partners to market Florida as a global destination and help us reach our goal of 120 million visitors,” he said.
Some highlights from the bill include:
- Visit Florida’s funding is tied to a one-to-one match of all public and private contributions it receives. Public contributions include all state appropriations to the organization. Private contribution matches can come from direct cash contributions, fees for services, cooperative advertising and in-kind contributions.
- If Visit Florida fails to meet its one-to-one match requirements it must revert all unmatched public contributions to the state treasury by June 30 of each fiscal year.
- Any contract worth $750,000 or more is subject to review by the Florida legislature. If the chair and vice chair of the Legislative Budget Commission, or the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, advise Visit Florida in writing that a contract is contrary to legislative policy and intent, Visit Florida may not execute the contract. Visit Florida also can’t enter into multiple related contracts to avoid this requirement.
- Visit Florida’s executed contracts must be publicized on its website and all contracts of $500,000 or more must be publicized on its website for review at least 14 days before its execution.
- Visit Florida employees, including the president and CEO, may not receive public compensation that exceeds the salary and benefits authorized to be paid to the governor. Any public payments of performance bonuses or severance pay to a Visit Florida employee are prohibited unless specifically authorized by law. Lawson’s salary, for example, is currently $175,000 while former CEO Will Seccombe’s salary was $293,000.
- Visit Florida can’t accept gifts from other destination marketing organizations.
- Lodging expenses for any Visit Florida employee on business trips can’t exceed $150 per day.
Florida State Senator Jack Latvala, who sponsored the Senate’s version of the bill, said the bill includes an important provision that was left out of the original bill which allows tourism boards across the state “to still be in the game in the local communities.”
“One of the objections I had to the House bill from the first day that we received it was the fact that it precluded the ability of local tourism development councils and local tourism agencies who derive their revenue from bed taxes collected in accommodations from tourists,” said Latvala on the Senate floor on Friday.
“This precluded those from being matched in the expenditures of Visit Florida,” he said. Visit Florida is set up now in the bill as having every dollar has to be matched before it can be spent. This will once again allow local tourist development councils to have their funds matched and this will open up a very important source of money for Visit Florida and especially in smaller and medium sized communities.”
While Visit Florida and the state’s entire tourism industry is likely breathing much easier after its funding escaped the chopping block, it still has its work cut out for it in the year ahead with new procedures to follow and more potential challenges to its funding in coming years.
Photo credit: Visit Florida's final budget of $76 million was approved on Friday and heads to the governor for a signature. Pictured are children playing on a beach in Clearwater, Florida. Visit Clearwater Florida