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Mr. Speaker, COVID-19 should end the war on VISIT FLORIDA

Thursday, March 05, 2020

It’s time to quit kicking the VISIT FLORIDA can down the road.

For the last couple of years, the state’s tourism marketing arm has faced an uncertain future as lawmakers have debated whether it should even exist.

We have all watched the war rage on, with Speaker José Oliva leading the effort to end the agency. So far, Oliva has been on the winning side.

Though VISIT FLORIDA is still pitching the state as a premier tourism destination, it has spent the last year doing so from its deathbed after lawmakers kowtowed to Oliva in the 2019 Legislative Session by slashing the agency’s funding by a third and leaving in place a July 1, 2020, expiration date.

The push to end VISIT FLORIDA has continued despite state economists warning that a downturn in tourism is the biggest risk to our economy. Government watchdogs such as Florida TaxWatch have issued the same caution.

The House has remained resolute even as the state breaks visitation records year after year and VISIT FLORIDA produces evidence showing direct links between tourism growth and its marketing efforts.

The argument to end VISIT FLORIDA has thus far been pitched as a fiscally responsible cause, yet it’s $50 million expense amounts to a drop in the bucket in the state’s $90 billion-plus budget.

But alas, here we are with less than two weeks remaining in Session with no decision on the future of Florida’s tourism agency.

Even as the Florida Senate unanimously passed the Governor’s recommendation by approving an eight-year reauthorization for VISIT FLORIDA, Oliva hasn’t allowed any debate on the topic.

Why not? Because his hubris won’t allow it.

Sources tell Florida Politics that the Florida House is ready to keep VISIT FLORIDA’s funding at $50 million but will only move to reauthorize the agency for another one-year period.

That was before COVID-19 showed up in Florida.

As I mentioned Sunday, when Florida Politics broke the news that the state had two presumptive cases of COVID-19, this year’s Legislative Session flipped upside down.

Now, the focus of the entire state is the threat of coronavirus transmission and the potential impact on our economy and way of life.

By this time tomorrow, half the country will know about the two presumptive positives in Florida, impacting spring break plans, summer vacations and more. VISIT FLORIDA is Florida’s only mouthpiece for fighting back and reassuring the world that our state is open for business.

The challenge brought by coronavirus should lead the House to fully embrace VISIT FLORIDA and its unique ability to positively message our state’s number one industry — tourism —  and a one-year reauthorization simply won’t cut it.

What is the rationale for simply kicking the can down the road? What private business or other government agency could possibly operate under those limitations? How could members of the House argue that leaving VISIT FLORIDA in a weakened position helps our state deal with coronavirus?

This needs to end.

Representatives should tell Oliva that they support reauthorizing VISIT FLORIDA for years to come. The threat of coronavirus should give the members of the House who support keeping the agency around) the ammunition they need to tell leadership that enough is enough.

If they don’t, they’ll return home after Session to questions on why they left VISIT FLORIDA hobbled. Especially when the organization is backed by the Governor and the entire Senate.

This presents a real liability for House Republicans because they didn’t bother to debate the issue during the last two Legislative Sessions.

Our state needs tourism and tourism needs VISIT FLORIDA, especially when coronavirus subsides and the state is clamoring for more economic activity. The risk to our tourism-driven economy from coronavirus and other disasters is too great to put an end to VISIT FLORIDA.

It’s time to end this war, Mr. Speaker.

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