Tourism Leader Warns Budget Cut Could Cost Jobs

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/AP) — Florida’s tourism marketing chief says thousands of people may be out of a job across the state as he implored lawmakers to reconsider a funding cute for the agency.

“We have to fight the competition that is coming after us,” Visit Florida President and CEO Ken Lawson told House and Senate members on a conference committee working on tourism and economic-development budget issues.

Gov. Rick Scott has made funding for Visit Florida a top priority. He requested $100 million to help the public-private agency promote the state, after initially seeking $76 million — similar to the $78 million Visit Florida got in a budget passed last year.

However, legislative leaders this week reached an outline of a new budget that would provide $25 million to the agency next fiscal year. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, has spent months criticizing funding for Visit Florida.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who is chairing the conference committee on tourism and economic-development issues, said the state will monitor the impact on the tourism industry, but not to expect any change in the $25 million amount.

“These are negotiated items,” Brandes said.

Corcoran and other leaders have blasted the public-private Visit Florida about issues such as its $11.6 million sponsorship of a cooking show hosted by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, a $1 million contract with rapper Pitbull, and ongoing sponsorship deals with London-based Fulham Football Club and an IMSA racing team.

Lawson, “fighting for his organization,” said that simply having the public debate over the funding has led to increased efforts by other states and destinations to attract Florida’s tourists.

“California, Texas, Dubai, they’ve been going after us because they realize that there is an opening right now,” Lawson said. “Visit Georgia, two, three weeks ago came to Florida, went to Orlando, Miami and Tampa, coming after our visitors, saying ‘Florida is closed for business.’ ”

Florida officials estimate that the tourism industry is responsible for more than 1.4 million jobs, as tourist numbers have increased from 87.3 million in 2011, when Visit Florida received $35 million from the state, to nearly 113 million last year.

Scott attributes the increase to the state’s marketing efforts. Corcoran and other legislative leaders have credited an improved economy.

Lawmakers are also rejecting Scott’s request for $85 million in business-incentive money for Enterprise Florida, the state’s public-private economic development agency.

The negotiated plan also would reduce funding for the operational budget of Enterprise Florida from about $23 million in the current year to around $16 million. The operational funding comes after the House approved a bill (HB 7005) last month that would have abolished the agency — an idea the Senate rejected.

Rep. Clay Ingram, a Pensacola Republican who is the top House member on the conference committee, said the money will allow the agency to “close out what they’re doing, if nothing else.”

“Whatever happens in the future will happen,” Ingram said.

On Thursday, Scott said lawmakers are “turning their backs” on Floridians for failing to meet his budget requests.

“I cannot believe that legislators don’t understand the value of continuing to market the state,” Scott told reporters Thursday. “We’ve gone from 82 million tourists a year before I got elected (to) last year almost 113 million tourists. That’s a lot of jobs.”

(The News Service of Florida’s Jim Turner contributed to this report.)

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