ORLANDO — Is Florida tourism strong enough that it can survive, and thrive, without taxpayer money in the budget of a state agency that sells the Sunshine State internationally?
That’s a thorny question being debated by Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-led Florida House of Representatives, who are locked in a battle over the future of state funding for Visit Florida.
This week, the House Appropriations Committee voted to eliminate Enterprise Florida, the state agency that works to boost job creation, and significantly reduce state funding of Visit Florida, eliminating the agency’s budget by 67 percent. Criticism of the agency that works to promote tourism intensified last year when state lawmakers criticized Visit Florida’s former chief for secretly paying rapper Pitbull $1 million to record a new version of his “Sexy Beaches” song to include footage of Florida’s hotels and beaches.
Pitbull later severed his relationship with Visit Florida, confirming that he is no longer a paid tourism ambassador for the agency.
The House Appropriations Committee also voted to require Visit Florida to be more accountable on how it funds travel by its staff, and what their salaries are. Contracts signed by the agency would also have to be made public.
The measure now goes to the full House for a vote, but it will need to survive a veto threat by Scott, who issued a statement saying this measure would eliminate jobs in a state that relies heavily on tourism.
Scott called the vote “a job killer,” and added, “I know some politicians who have voted for this job killing bill say they don’t necessarily want to abolish these programs, but instead want to advance a ‘conversation.’ This is completely hypocritical and the kind of games I came to Tallahassee to change.
“Perhaps if these politicians would listen to their constituents, instead of playing politics, they would understand how hurtful this legislation will be to Florida families,” the governor added.
Last spring, Visit Florida noted that the state received the highest number of visitors ever during the first quarter of the year. Those 29.8 million tourists amounted to a 4.8 increase over the same period in 2015.
The governor’s office also noted that these visits represent a lot of jobs.
“The average number of direct travel-related jobs in the first quarter of 2016 was also a record high, with 1,231,100 Floridians employed in the tourism industry – up 3.8 percent from the same period in 2015,” the governor noted.
Despite that, the Appropriations Committee voted to reduce the agency’s budget to $25 million. Last year, the agency received $76 million from the state. The governor promised to fight the cuts.
“The Florida House is proposing a 67 percent cut to tourism marketing,” noted Jackie Schutz, communications director for Scott. “More than a million Florida families rely on jobs in our tourism industry and are threatened with this massive cut. Unfortunately, some politicians in the Florida House think fighting for jobs is simply hysteria and don’t understand that jobs are not expendable to families who have to put food on the table.”
Florida’s unemployment rate in December was 4.9 percent, slightly above the national average. Tourism and hospitality play a key role in job creation in the Orlando area. Last month, the governor’s office noted that the Orlando area leads the state in job creation, adding 48,300 new private-sector jobs in 2016. The December unemployment rate in Orlando was 4.2 percent.
The industries with the largest job growth over the year in the Orlando area were leisure and hospitality, with 16,000 new jobs created.
Conclusion: Tourism is the top industry in Florida and creates a lot of jobs, including in Orlando. Now the state’s political leaders will have to decide if tourism stays strong even without an agency to promote it.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Koby’s New Home”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.