Ron DeSantis and Dana Young
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desire to look at the effectiveness of the state’s tourism-marketing arm could save Visit Florida for at least a year.
House Speaker Jose Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican who is among the leading critics of the tourism agency, signaled Friday he may be willing to go along with the governor’s request as time runs down on the legislative session.
“The governor’s office has expressed a desire to have it continued, to go forward, so that he would have the opportunity to make an assessment of his own of how unnecessary it is,” Oliva told reporters after the House floor session. “I don’t know about fully funding it, but obviously it is something that the governor wants to see and it’s something that he wants to be able to assess, and we want to be supportive of him.”
The House has not taken up a bill (SB 178) — approved 36-0 by the Senate on April 17 — that would reauthorize Visit Florida beyond its current legal expiration date of Oct. 1. The bill proposes extending the life of Visit Florida until Oct. 1, 2027 and providing the agency with $50 million next fiscal year.
As the bill foundered, the Senate agreed in ongoing budget talks to meet a House proposal of providing $19 million for Visit Florida. That would cover the agency’s expenses until Oct. 1, when it would be eliminated.
But Oliva said Friday that what is known as a budget “implementing” bill could be used to provide money for the agency for one more year. He said he doesn’t have “an exact number yet” of how much money could go to the agency.
“We remain optimistic that Visit Florida will be reauthorized and look forward to the ability to continue the good work that we do on behalf of Florida taxpayers,” Visit Florida President and CEO Dana Young said in a statement Friday after Oliva’s comments.
Young, a former senator and House member from Tampa, has lobbied legislators as they engage in budget talks, warning of “negative consequences” to the state’s economy if Visit Florida is eliminated.
On Wednesday, DeSantis said that while he sought $76 million in his proposed budget for Visit Florida, he’d “be fine” with the $50 million initially proposed by the Senate.
“I’ve talked with both leaders, and my indication was they were going to keep it for at least another year and maybe have the debate about reauthorization after that,” DeSantis told reporters at the Capitol. “The House can take up the Senate bill. Put it on the floor. Let people go up or down on it. My sense is it’s got bipartisan support and will probably pass the House.”
House members have focused in recent years on spending by Visit Florida. The agency was particularly in the crosshairs in 2017 because of revelations about spending that included a $11.6 million deal to sponsor a cooking show hosted by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, a $2.875 million contract with an auto-racing team known as Visit Florida Racing and a $1 million promotion contract with Miami rapper Pitbull.
Oliva has questioned the effectiveness of the agency, saying factors such as the economy, Florida’s weather and attractions are key to the state’s tourism numbers — rather than marketing efforts by Visit Florida.
The state has reported eight years of record tourism numbers, topped by 126.1 million visitors in 2018. In the same time, the agency’s share of state funding has grown from $35 million in 2011, when the state counted 87.3 million visitors, to $76 million in the current year.
Proponents of Visit Florida point, in part, to its ability to counter negative national media attention when areas have been impacted by disasters such as hurricanes and last summer’s red-tide outbreak.
The agency sent out a video on Thursday declaring, “Visit Florida driving visitation year-round,” generating $2.15 for each dollar invested.
— Staff writer Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.