Flanked by leaders of key tourism and business advocacy groups, Florida Gov. Rick Scott sought to break a deepening political rift and budgetary impasse about tourism marketing money on Tuesday — by raising the stakes.
The governor said he is now pressing both the Florida Senate and House for $100 million in Visit Florida marketing dollars in next year’s budget.
State lawmakers, particularly House members led by Speaker Richard Corcoran, have instead sought to slash Visit Florida’s budget, allotting just $24 million for next year. The Senate’s allocation is more, $76 million, but still 25 percent less than what the governor called for on Tuesday.
“We have plenty of money,” Scott insisted about the state’s capability of allocating $100 million. “When we invest in Visit Florida, it helps us grow our economy.”
The governor has spent months rallying state tourism and business leaders to pressure lawmakers. On Tuesday, the governor’s call for an increase in Visit Florida’s budget drew quick applause from proponents.
“We wholeheartedly support the governor’s effort to provide the right level of funding to Visit Florida,” said Jorge Pesquera, president and CEO of Discover The Palm Beaches, the county’s tourism marketing organization. “This is critical, so the state can continue to attract record numbers of visitors, adding thousands of new jobs and improving the quality of our life in Florida.”
House leaders, however, attribute the growth in tourist numbers to an improvement in the economy and people having more disposable income. The House initially sought to eliminate Visit Florida but passed a measure (HB 9) that would overhaul the structure and contract-reporting requirements of the tourism marketer.
Glenn Jergensen, executive director of Palm Beach County’s Tourist Development Council, said Visit Florida allows the county to extend its tourism marketing budget, helping the county attend trade shows and buy advertising that reaches both domestic and international tourists.
“We can leverage a lot with Visit Florida,” Jergensen said. “It allows us to make our dollar go further.”
The county’s tourism industry has seen record growth in recent years. A record-breaking 7.4 million visitors came to Palm Beach County in 2016, a 5.8 increase over 2015’s level. The increase was driven largely by an increase in domestic travelers, tourism officials have said.
It marked the eighth consecutive year of tourism growth in the county.
Without Visit Florida’s marketing efforts, Jergensen said he fears other warm-weather vacation destinations — such as California and Arizona — will try to poach travelers from Florida, a move that would hurt the state’s economy.
“These other states are just looking at that point in time,” Jergensen said. “They are going to pounce on our potential tourists.”
In February, Palm Beach County’s tourism industry employed 91,500 people, up 4 percent over Feb. 2016, according to the tourist council.
In fact, in his remarks following a closed door round-table discussion with business and tourism advocates inside the Capitol, Scott ratcheted up the pressure on lawmakers by employing a bit of fear factor on jobs and economic growth.
Scott pointed to ads running in Florida for tourism destinations in Michigan and California, as well as Utah’s “Big Five” national parks as proof that other states are ramping up their sales pitches for visitors.
“We’re seeing nice ads from Utah, Michigan and California,” Scott said, emphasizing that gutting tourism marketing risks losing tourists, dollars and jobs to other states. “These are nice ads that make you interested in going to those states.”
Ken Lawson, the CEO of Visit Florida, standing to the governor’s left during a press conference, pledged that under his watch Visit Florida would be “accountable and transparent” — a nod to Republican lawmakers’ criticism of his predecessor and previous deal-making, including a once-secret, $1 million contract with Miami performing artist Pitbull.
Lawson pointed out that Georgia tourism officials were recently in Tampa, Orlando and Miami. “They came to take our visitors away,” he said. “We’re not going to let that happen.”
Scott again insisted the state gets a valuable return on its tourism marketing dollars. He pointed out that increases in tourism marketing budgets have increased the number of annual tourists in Florida from about 80 million to just more than 113 million this past year.
He also reiterated points he has been making during the past several months, saying that tourists support 1.4 million jobs in the state, contribute to sales-tax and gas-tax revenue, and benefit small businesses.
Business leaders supporting the governor, including Mark Wilson of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, agreed.
“Tourism makes cash registers ring across the state,” he said.