KISSIMMEE – Beyond just the political implications, the decision by state Rep. Mike Horner, R-St. Cloud, to end his re-election bid could rob the hospitality industry of a vocal advocate for the entire region, several key tourism operators said on Tuesday.
In addition to his prominent role as the longtime president of the Kissimmee/Osceola County Chamber of Commerce and more recently as a state legislator for Osceola and Polk counties, Horner was frequently honored for his work on behalf of the tourism and hospitality industry. Last year, the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association presented Horner with the 2010 CFHLA Public Servant of the Year Award, given to an elected leader who has demonstrated dedicated service to the field.
Horner’s decision to withdraw his name from the Nov. 6 ballot, after his name came up on a client list in an investigation into an East Orange County prostitution ring, members of the vacation home industry said Horner’s absence from the Legislature will be a significant loss for their cause.
“It’s a shame,” said An Flamand, president of the Central Florida Vacation Rental Managers Association, the trade group that represents managers of vacation homes.
“To be honest, I think it’s always a loss, especially when it’s anybody who is an advocate or supporter of our industry,” said Flamand, who also operates USA Vacation Homes in Davenport. “No matter what the reason is they don’t run for re-election, in his case he was very proactive and very much behind what we did, and he always supported the CFVRMA. It is a loss. We just need someone that cares and thinks a little bit further than what’s right in front of them.”
“We’ve lost somebody who was very – what’s the right word – who understood the industry and realized how important it was,” said David Leather, the owner of Hayes Vacation Home Rentals in Kissimmee, and the past president of the CFVRMA. “That came out at our meeting last week. We all know how important tourism is – it’s the main economic engine in this area. When you look at what tourism accounts for, any other industry has a long way to catch up.”
Horner was first elected to the House, in a district covering parts of Osceola and Polk counties, in 2008. Prior to that he was best known for being the main voice for the Kissimmee Chamber.
His problems began on Monday, when Horner’s name surfaced in an investigation targeting Mark D. Risner, who has been accused of running prostitutes out of his home and charged with several felony counts that include racketeering.
Although Horner has not been charged with a crime, he issued a statement on Monday which read in party, “I deeply regret decisions I made that are causing my family unjustifiable pain and embarrassment,” and he announced that “I will no longer seek re-election to the Florida House.”
Prior to that, Horner was developing a reputation as a leading voice for the hospitality industry, someone who understand their issues from a legislative perspective and worked tirelessly on the industry’s behalf.
The vacation home industry, which is particularly prominent in Osceola and Polk counties, has its own unique concerns. The industry is made up of vacation homes rented to tourists on a short term basis, and last year the state was prepared to enforce new regulations requiring property managers to install sprinkler systems in every home – at a cost of $20,000 each. The CFVRMA turned to Horner, who was able to convince state lawmakers to exempt the industry from this costly regulation.
He also also instrumental in passage of the Pizza Flyer bill, also known as the Tourist Safety Act, which targeted organized crime rings that prey on tourists by hiring young people to distribute fake flyers for pizza deliveries at local hotels and vacation homes. The phone numbers on those flyers are fake, and used to get unsuspecting tourists’ credit card numbers. This bill had been a top concern for the hospitality industry.
In this past legislative session, Horner successfully sponsored a bill to increase funding for VISIT Florida, the state’s official tourism marketing agency, by 55 percent. The total allocation for VISIT Florida rose to $54 million during the fiscal year that started on July 1, compared to the current budget of $34.9 million.
Leather said Horner fully understood the vacation home industry as many other state lawmakers have not.
“As far as tourism goes, he’s done a good job,” Leather said. “Mike was certainly very approachable and you could talk to him and he’d think things out, and if he agreed or disagreed, he would tell us. What more can you want from a politician than that? I think Mike was very good at doing that.”
With Horner leaving the Legislature, the industry will need a new political leader to help further their cause, Leather said.
“You don’t get things pushed through without supporters,” he said. “But who it will be, I don’t know.”
Tourism and hospitality remain two of the leading job creators in Central Florida, Flamand noted, and as the sprinkler system issue demonstrated, onerous state regulations can seriously threaten that growth.
“If you would just take the vacation home market out of the picture, it would devastate Orlando,” she said. “It would really be a big loss to the economy. It takes a lot of people to stand behind us and push for us, and it would be a real shame not to have a strong supporter on these types of issues.”
It will now be up to the Republican Executive Committees in Osceola and Polk counties to select a replacement for Horner, said Jeff Goldmacher, the Republican candidate for the Osceola County commission seat now held by Democrat Brandon Arrington.
Goldmacher said the news about Horner not only has major political implications, but also impacts the region’s business community.
“We’re all devastated because he not only has been such a strong supporter of the hospitality and vacation home industry, but also for all of Osceola County as chairman of the Transportation Committee,” Goldmacher said. He noted that Horner brought millions to the county for road projects and was instrument in the creation of the Osceola County Expressway Authority.
The authority, which is going to oversee the construction and operation of the new Poinciana Parkway toll road, was created through legislation filed by Horner, Goldmacher said.
“And he’s built up the chamber,” Goldmacher said. “He’s increased membership every year, and that’s good for the chamber to help them do what they have to do. It’s a loss for everyone. We’re all sort of in shock over this, but we have to make sure we get a good candidate to hold that seat.”
Horner was being challenged in House District 42 by Democrat Eileen Game. Goldmacher said he worries about efforts by Democrats to tie the new GOP nominee to this scandal.
“At the polling stations, there will be a big sign that a vote for Mike Horner is a vote for whoever we put up, and especially those people who vote absentee will say ‘We don’t want Horner because of what happened,’ “ he said.
Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.