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Florida Times-Union: Gov. Scott to veto proposed Visit Florida tourism funding cuts

Friday, June 02, 2017

By Drew Dixon

Gov. Rick Scott Friday said he is going to veto proposed funding cuts to the state’s tourism bureau Visit Florida, demanding state legislators return the budget to $76 million during a special session he’s calling for state lawmakers that is set to begin Wednesday.

“During the special session, I am calling on the Florida Legislature to consider new legislation that funds Visit Florida at $76 million,” Scott said in a prepared statement.

Scott’s announcement comes as the state’s tourism industry was bracing for a reduction in funding in Visit Florida. The proposed legislation would have reduced Visit Florida funding from $76 million to $25 million annually.

Gil Langley, chairman of the Florida Association of Destination Marketing Organizations and CEO of the Amelia Island Convention & Visitors Bureau welcomed the news of Scott’s veto move.

“Florida’s tourism industry is greatly encouraged by [Friday’s] announcement that Gov. Rick Scott has called the Florida Legislature together for a special session to discuss measures and funding related to tourism promotion,” Langley said in a prepared statement.

“Restoring Visit Florida’s funding to $76 million and removing restrictions that hindered operations will not only keep tourists and revenue flowing into Florida, it will preserve the jobs of the 1.4 million Floridians who count on tourism for their paychecks,” Langley said.

On May 17, the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau held its annual state of tourism event at the World Golf Village Renaissance resort where Visit Florida CEO Ken Lawson railed against the proposed funding cut.

“My mission is to market Florida. What we do is market small, medium and large communities across the country and across the world. Certain things, like emerging markets and reaching out to China and India, I can’t do with $25 million,” Lawson said at the event that drew about 250 tourism industry leaders. “We are going to stand up and fight. We are not backing down.”

Richard Goldman, CEO of the St. Johns County tourism bureau, acknowledged that Visit Florida dollars do not go directly to his operation. But the state agency is essential to promoting and marketing areas that are heavily reliant on visits from tourists. Goldman said any chance to restore full funding of Visit Florida is welcome.

“Legislators will have another opportunity to craft a bill that assures that the economic engine of tourism continues to benefit northeast Florida. We are optimistic that they will, in pledging more funds to Visit Florida, not hamper its ability to raise matching funds by excluding co-op dollars from destination marketing organizations [DMOs] such as the [convention and visitors bureau], Visit Jacksonville and the Amelia Island Convention & Visitors Bureau,” Goldman said in an email Friday.

“Those DMOs spend Local Option Tourism Development Taxes, imposed only on visitors, for the direct benefit of marketing the businesses that collect the tax as well as other tourism related businesses, not to mention funding amenities enjoyed by residents like beaches and parks,” Goldman said.

In turn, those businesses pay higher property taxes which drives revenue to local governments, Goldman said.

The proposed Visit Florida budget cuts also are pending when the tourism industry is on a record-breaking upswing. About 31.1 million people visited the Sunshine State in the first three months of 2017, a record for any three-month tally of tourist visits and up 2.5 percent from the same time in 2016, a news release said.

All three coastal First Coast counties — Duval, St. Johns and Nassau — that focus on tourism reported similar trends.

Given those trends, Langley said stopping the Visit Florida funding cuts could help keep an increase in tourism figures.

“This is an incredibly positive step forward. We look forward to working with legislative leaders in the coming week to bring Florida’s tourism promotion budget back in line with competing states,” Langley said.

Drew Dixon: (904) 359-4098.

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