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Critics of Florida tourism agencies pleased with new accountability, transparency measures

By   /   June 16, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

A public-private agency that promotes Florida’s tourism industry won full funding from the state legislature despite criticism that the state support amounts to corporate welfare.

But the $76 million approved for Visit Florida during a special session of the legislature last week came with stiffer reporting requirements aimed at making the agency’s activities more transparent.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, has been critical of both Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida, which doles out taxpayer-funded economic incentives designed to bring more jobs to the Sunshine State.

“As we’ve said, spending more taxpayer money on VISIT FL (or less) has not demonstrated a direct impact on tourism,” Corcoran said in a Twitter post in February.

An earlier version of the state budget that the legislature passed in May slashed funding for Visit Florida to $25 million. But Scott, a strong supporter of promoting tourism, called for a special session to restore full funding to the agency, along with other legislative matters.

“The speaker believes the oversight and accountability measures passed this session will ensure that Visit Florida spends taxpayer dollars appropriately and transparently,” Corcoran’s spokesman, Fred Piccolo, told Watchdog.org.

The legislation passed in the special session contains a number of transparency provisions, including a requirement that all the agency’s contracts be placed on the corporation’s website for public viewing, as well as limitations on expenses and matching requirements between public and private contributions.

“My sense is that Visit Florida’s main problem is its lack of transparency,” Ben Wilcox, research director for Integrity Florida, told Watchdog.org.

At one point, Corcoran had to sue Visit Florida to get the details on what turned out to be a $1 million contract the corporation signed with rapper Pitbull to promote tourism, Wilcox said. And the agency also came under fire for spending nearly $3 million on a promotion involving a car-racing team.

The fallout from such controversies led to the resignation of Visit Florida’s CEO in January.

Wilcox’s organization, a nonprofit watchdog group that aims to expose public corruption, has done research on Enterprise Florida but not on Visit Florida. In turn, he couldn’t pass judgment on the tourism promotion agency, but Wilcox said the argument could be made that certain tourism promotions might create the appearance of the state government choosing winners and losers in the economy.

Another group, Americans for Prosperity – Florida, has been critical of projects funded by Visit Florida in the past, but spokesman Andres Malave put the outcome of the special session in a positive light.

“We’re excited to see that the legislature is working for additional accountability measures for an organization that is clearly in need of them,” Malave told Watchdog.org.

The passed legislation helps to assure taxpayers that additional oversight will be given to how taxpayer dollars are spent, he said.  In general, though, Malave said the legislature needs to focus on funding core needs in the state, such as infrastructure and education, adding that tourism attractions in Florida have the ability to do their own marketing without bringing in tax funds.

But Scott sees a direct correlation between the efforts of Visit Florida and rising tourism numbers in Florida. In the first quarter of this year, Florida had 31.1 million visitors, a 2.5 percent jump over the first quarter of 2016 and a new state record, Scott said.

Those figures would not have been possible without the efforts of Visit Florida in recent years, the governor said at the time. Any cut in Visit Florida’s operating budget could threaten families and businesses in the state that depend on tourism dollars, Scott said.

“Instead of decimating funding to Visit Florida, we should be investing in tourism marketing so we can continue to bring record visitors to our state,” he said in a prepared statement.

The reaction of the Florida Chamber of Commerce followed a similar line.

“Prior to the start of (last) week’s special session, Florida Chamber President and CEO Mark Wilson urged legislative leaders to fully fund Visit Florida’s proven, high-yield tourism marketing efforts with at least $76 million …” the chamber said in a statement emailed to Watchdog.org.

“Florida’s taxpayers were the big winners of the special session,” Fred Walker, the chamber’s vice president of government affairs, said. “By passing Florida chamber-backed pro-jobs, pro-business legislation, lawmakers … made the most of their opportunity to protect and enhance Florida’s competitiveness, and sent a signal to the country that Florida remains open for business.”