Lawmakers appear ready to match Gov. Rick Scott’s request for $85 million to replenish a new economic-development fund but might not meet his proposal for tourism-marketing money.
An initial House budget proposal calls for spending $76 million on tourism-marketer Visit Florida during the upcoming year, which is $24 million less than what Scott wants. Meanwhile, an initial Senate plan would provide $50 million.
Still, the proposals released Wednesday indicate that while negotiations and lobbying efforts will continue over Visit Florida, the debate won’t match a 2017 fight over the agency. That fight ultimately led to Visit Florida receiving $76 million for the current year.
House Transportation & Tourism Appropriations Chairman Clay Ingram, R-Pensacola, credited a change in leadership last year at Visit Florida for helping clear up most spending issues at the public-private agency. Ken Lawson, a former secretary of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, took over as Visit Florida’s president.
“Ken Lawson being sort of the reformer that he is, and the emphasis on transparency and doing things the right way and hard work, I think that helps a lot,” Ingram said. “I’m happy that they’re well-funded at the current level. If the decision is made to increase it, that’s a decision for the future.”
Ingram said confidence in the agency was boosted by a Jan. 10 study from the Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research that found Visit Florida has a $2.20 return on investment for every $1 spent.
The return was down from $3.20 in 2015 due in part to increased spending by the agency, which Ingram said was “part of the thought process” in keeping the funding at $76 million.
The governor’s office credited increased tourism spending for the state attracting a record 112.3 million visitors in 2016. In 2011, the state spent $35 million on marketing and drew 87.3 million visitors.
The proposals released Wednesday are an early step in a process that will lead to the House and Senate approving overall spending plans and then negotiating a final budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
During last year’s session, House Republican leaders clashed with Scott about the future of Visit Florida and the business-recruitment agency Enterprise Florida.
House leaders objected to Enterprise Florida receiving money to provide incentives directly to individual businesses. Also, they questioned several years of spending by Visit Florida on such things as cooking shows, a contract with Miami-based rapper Pitbull and sponsorships of a race-car team and a London-based football club.
After a special legislative session, lawmakers agreed to provide $76 million for Visit Florida and $85 million for the “Job Growth Grant Fund,” which was created as a compromise in the dispute about economic-development incentives.
The proposals released Wednesday would provide another $85 million to the job-growth fund.
“I believe that the governor has done a great job spending these dollars,” said Senate Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Appropriations Chairman Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican who also is Senate majority leader. “Today, most of that money has been appropriated or at least put towards projects that are going to be appropriated over the next few years.”
The fund has attracted more than 200 proposals, with requests totaling more than $750 million.
Scott dipped into the fund for the first time on Jan. 9, awarding $201,500 to Manatee Technical College for workforce training programs in manufacturing. According to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity website, that remained the only grant award as of Wednesday morning.
Sen. Audrey Gibson, D- Jacksonville, expressed concerns Wednesday over the pace of awards.
“I believe that if those dollars had been used for senators to make those decisions for their districts, it would have already been spent,” Gibson said. “And that just goes to the fact we know our districts better than the governor’s office. We’re there every day.”