Governor Wants $100 Million, Some Legislators Want to Cut Request by Half: After a six-month battle last year that pitted Florida’s legislators against Gov. Rick Scott and almost all of the state’s tour and travel industry that also followed the departure of nearly every top official of Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing and promotion agency, they’re at it again.
Gov. Scott has asked for $100 million to fund the office; the House has a budget that calls for $76 million; and the Senate’s budget for Fiscal Year 2019 sets funding at $50 million.
In addition to the question of whether $100 million, $50 million or some level in between the two is a sufficient level of funding, the absence of certainty over a budget amount has the net effect of freezing any plans for new programs or promotions that would launch after a new Fiscal Year begins on July 1st.
The failure of state government officials to establish in timely fashion last year—no agreement was reached until June—put a choke on Visit Florida’s 2018 calendar of activities and programs.
Background: The saga of Florida’s budget woes had its de facto beginning with the forced resignation late in December 2016 of Will Seccombe, who was ousted from his position as president and CEO of the public-private sector organization over an expired $1 million dollar contract with a globally known rapper, Pitbull, whose efforts included a video of a scantily clad women performing with the rapper on the state’s beaches. (The video did not go over well with certain key members of the Florida legislature.) It seemed to conclude with the July 7 resignation of Alfredo Gonzalez, the organization’s vice president of global meetings and trade.
Seccombe was not the only December victim of the episode. Before he resigned, he had to terminate two senior agency officials—Vangie Fields, chief financial and operating officer; and Chief Marketing Officer Paul Phipps—who had the misfortune to be associated with the Pitbull contract and the organization’s refusal to make it public. Earlier in the day on which the three agency leaders were let go, state legislators had eliminated funding for the jobs of Phipps and Fields. The exodus of key officials seemed to conclude with the July 7, 2017 resignation of Alfredo Gonzalez, the organization’s vice president of global meetings and trade.
In the meantime, Visit Florida had a new president and CEO—Ken Lawson, a native Floridian who has no background in the travel and tourism industry, but whose resume included a tenure as U.S. Marine Corps Judge Advocate General, and who had spent 12 years in public service in numerous regulatory positions, including nearly six years as Secretary of the Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR).
state legislators finally gave into demands by Scott and the state’s tour and travel industry, there was further damage caused by language in the budget that called for the release of salary information from the agency’s member organizations; a fifth of Visit Florida’s DMO members left the state agency.
At the Moment: Shortly after the announcement of the State Senate’s budget mark, Gov. Scott issued a statement in which he said, “I completely oppose the Florida Senate’s proposal to cut Visit Florida’s budget by a third … After the devastating hurricane season we faced last year, we shouldn’t be playing games with our state’s tourism industry.”
Unlike the stand that state senators and legislators took a year ago, they seem to be slightly more conciliatory this year, with Sen. Wilton Simpson, chair of the tourism portion of the proposal in the senate budget, said the $50 million market was just a “starting point” for negotiations with Scott and the House.
The House is another matter. Last year, House Speaker Richard Corcoran held out for totally eliminating Visit Florida’s budget. He and Gov. Scott has a highly visible feud over the issue, which did not end until a special legislative session approved a $76 million budget—the same level proposed in the House for the upcoming 2019 Fiscal Year.