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House speaker takes aim at tourism, jobs boards, college groups

Having secured the scalp of Visit Florida's CEO, House Speaker Richard Corcoran is quickly moving on to other equally inviting targets of fiscal scrutiny: Florida's tourism councils, economic development boards and college and university foundations.

Dozens of groups are receiving letters on the official House letterhead that demand a wide array of information, in some cases under the threat of subpoena if they don't comply very quickly.

"Recent spending abuses and unwarranted secrecy in the tourism and economic development arena in Florida raise legitimate concerns among both taxpayers and elected offiicials," Corcoran wrote to tourism leaders in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Pinellas, Hillsborough and other large metropolitan areas, referring to the once-secret Pitbull contract that cost Visit Florida's Will Seccombe his job. "Recent news media reports have only heightened that concern and reinforced my belief that it is time we take a close look at where development money is being spent, how it is being spent and whether these expenditures are returning value to the taxpayers."  

Corcoran wants annual dollar amounts from tourism boards for tax revenues, grants, advertising, travel, lobbying, employee salaries, bonuses and reimbursements by Feb. 1. His demands include this love note: "If you choose not to provide this information, please be advised that pursuant to s. 11.143, F.S., you may be compelled by subpoena duces tecum to produce such information." Corcoran wants to see spending for "each event including the number of participants per event and the specifics of the expenditure, for example, food and beverage."

One of the most obvious targets of Corcoran's tourism industry wrath is in Hillsborough County, where Corcoran has threatened to "zero fund" Visit Tampa Bay, the county's tourism arm, funded largely through tourism bed tax revenues, for stonewalling requests for payroll data and other information, as WFLA-Channel 8 has reported.

Some of the information Corcoran is demanding is exempt from disclosure under Florida's public records laws, and colleges and universities are nervous about the potential impact on donors. But the Legislature has life-and-death control over higher education spending, so they will comply by a Jan. 23 deadline.

"They are preparing a response," said Browning Brooks, a spokeswoman for the Florida State University Foundation.

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