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Don't slash tourism budget over Pitbull deal, key senator warns




It would be a huge mistake for Florida to slash its tourism marketing budget just because of one ill-advised deal with pop music star Pitbull, a key state senator with influence over the state budget says.

For sure, Visit Florida made a mistake in striking a $1 million deal with the Miami music celebrity - then keeping it secret - to promote the state’s beaches, State Senate Appropriations chairman Jack Latvala said. But the Clearwater Republican said in light of the shaky economy, the worst thing Florida could do is slash tourism marketing.

“What has kept our whole financial outlook from softening up has been our strong tourism economy,” Latvala said.

On Thursday, state economists said economic growth from construction has slowed, but record tourism has helped make up for that and kept the state from slipping into a worse financial situation.

Latvala said Visit Florida has mostly done a good job in marketing the state and growing both the number of tourists and attracting tourist who spend more, thus helping Florida’s economy. In each of the last five years, Florida has set records for the number of tourists. One bad deal shouldn’t result in a retreat from an agency that has been producing results, Latvala said.

“I didn’t ever understand why we were using him,” Latvala said of the Pitbull deal.

Since 2009, the Florida Legislature has increased Visit Florida's budget from $29 million to $78 million. During that same period the number of visitors to Florida grew from 82 million to 106 million and visitor spending it up $30 billion.

New Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran has threatened to zero out Visit Florida’s entire budget and has questioned whether taxpayers paying for marketing is truly a proper role of government. The Pitbull contract has added to the tension. Visit Florida had refused to release the contract publicly saying it was a trade secret to protect Pitbull. Corcoran sued Pitbull earlier this week, and Pitbull responded by releasing the details of the $1 million contract on Twitter.

The House’s sudden outrage over Visit Florida is “puzzling” Latvala said. He said in each of the last two years (when Corcoran was the House Appropriations chairman), the House proposed increasing Visit Florida budget by millions more than what the Senate suggested. Now he said the House is apparently reversing course on their own philosophy.

Corcoran said Visit Florida’s budget increases were a tradeoff in years past, and not necessarily something he supported. He said accomplishing other conservative goals required having to “swallow tourism promotion funding for a year or two.”

“But, just because we fund something one year doesn’t mean we’ve given up the fight,” Corcoran said.

Visit Florida officials say the money to Pitbull, a British soccer team and a race car team are all based on market research and trying to grow its share of international tourists and millennials that are increasingly harder to reach through traditional marketing programs. But those deals have also produced some of the harshest criticism who worry the agency is getting to loose with taxpayer money and taking too many risks.