House Speaker offers money for Visit Florida – with conditions

House Speaker Richard Corcoran is willing to allow Visit Florida to remain alive, at one-third the funding sought by Gov. Rick Scott and with a list of conditions attached.

A Scott spokeswoman quickly called the "massive cut" a threat to Florida families that rely on the tourism industry.

In the latest move in a feud between Corcoran and Scott, the speaker's office Monday released an amendment to a contentious bill (HB 7005) going before the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday. That bill seeks to abolish Enterprise Florida, the state's business-recruitment agency, and Visit Florida, the state's tourism-marketing arm.

The amendment would place a series of new requirements on Visit Florida, which would receive $25 million if it agrees to what Corcoran's office described as "accountability and transparency measures."

Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, called the amendment a way to end "business as usual" at the tourism-marketing agency through "unprecedented levels of accountability and openness."

However, the measure isn't truly an olive branch to the governor, whose budget request for next year includes $85 million that would go to Enterprise Florida for business-recruitment incentives and $76 million that would go to Visit Florida.

"Since this debate began, the defenders of Visit Florida have grown increasingly hysterical, complete with their 'Chicken Little' predictions of economic collapse, state income taxes, and tens of thousands out of work," Corcoran said in a prepared statement announcing the amendment. "I am skeptical that the most vocal cheerleaders of Visit Florida want anything less than the status quo. So we are going to put that to the test."

Corcoran added that the changes proposed to Visit Florida would end "its history of slush funds, corporate negligence, and secret insider deals."

Corcoran has questioned the need for the state to pay for tourism marketing and has pointed to examples such as a $1 million contract with Miami hip-hop artist Armando Christian Perez, better known as Pitbull, and ongoing sponsorship deals with London-based Fulham Football Club and an IMSA racing team.

Among the changes sought by the amendment: Visit Florida would have to post all contracts online; freeze agency employees' benefits at current levels and prohibit bonuses; remove public-records exemptions from marketing and research projects; and get approval from the governor for all out-of-state and international travel. Also, the Senate would have to confirm the governor's appointment of the agency's president, and the Joint Legislative Budget Commission, House speaker or Senate president could reject contracts worth more than $750,000.

The agency's annual operating budget would also have to go through the legislative budget commission.

Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said Scott has already been working on changes at Visit Florida, including a change in leadership.

"More than a million Florida families rely on jobs in our tourism industry and are threatened with this massive cut," Schutz said in a statement. "Unfortunately, some politicians in the Florida House think fighting for jobs is simply hysteria and don't understand that jobs are not expendable to families who have to put food on the table."

The amendment was released after Scott released an op-ed criticizing the House for "playing politics with families' jobs."

"This is no time to stand still," Scott wrote in the op-ed. "In business, you are either moving forward or you are moving backward. The Florida House is currently planning to take our state backward. I will fight to stop them, and so should you."

Scott has spent the past week criticizing House members who have supported abolishing the agencies. Corcoran has long labeled economic-incentive funding "corporate welfare."

Also on Monday, Rep. Joe Gruters, the only Republican who voted this month against the House bill that would eliminate Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida, introduced a proposal aimed at reforming the agencies.

The proposal (HB 889), which calls for more transparency from the agencies, was written with input from Scott's office, Gruters said.

"A lot of people, including some that voted against (HB 7005), said they wanted to talk about reforming the system," Gruters, R-Sarasota, said. "People want this arm of the government to continue on. This makes everything more accountable and in line with other (state) agencies."

When the House Careers & Competition Subcommittee voted 10-5 on Feb. 8 to back the 172-page bill that would abolish the agencies, some members said they expected the proposal to change if the agencies could quickly show they can be more transparent and focus more on small counties and small businesses.

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