(AP File Photo)
It is hardly a reprieve, but Republican leaders in the Florida House took a symbolic step that might keep the doors to the embattled Visit Florida around for years to come.
Three weeks ago, GOP leaders filed a bill that would completely eliminate that tourism marketing agency and Enterprise Florida, the state’s primary economic development agency. Then last week, they changed course and agreed on a new version of the bill to keep Visit Florida, but were ready to force it to survive on a $25 million budget - a more than $50 million cut in programs that would have decimated the agency.
Now comes another step back. House leaders on Monday said they have a new plan to have a different bill that will separate the Visit Florida debate completely from the Enterprise Florida one. And the new Visit Florida bill drops the insistence on a $25 million budget. The bill would still require new transparency efforts to assure larger contracts - like the controversial $1 million deal with Pitbull or $2.8 million advertising deal with a racing car team - go before the Florida Legislature leaders before they are approved and assure the head of Visit Florida has to be confirmed by the Florida Senate in order to hold the position, among other changes.
Politically keeping Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida in the same bill was becoming a problem for some House members from tourism rich areas. Even if they wanted to kill Enterprise Florida, they couldn’t swallow killing Visit Florida in the process. State Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, was among those last week in a committee hearing on the issues who told Republicans backing the bill that he would be “happy to kill” Enterprise Florida with them, but he’d couldn’t support a bill that also risks Florida’s tourism industry.
“I would love to see these two things split into two different bills so we can talk about them separately,” Richardson said.
That is exactly what State Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, opted to do on Monday. He filed a new bill - House Bill 9 - that deals only with Visit Florida. House Bill 7005 will be amended to become only a bill dealing with Enterprise Florida and related economic incentive programs. Renner has been leading the legislation on both issues because he has called both a version of the government getting too involved and favoring some businesses over others in the private marketplace.
Still, both bills face tough roads to become law. Even if the Florida Senate passed the same bills (which they have shown no signs of doing) the legislation would have to go to Gov. Rick Scott for his approval. Scott has been so offended by the House Republicans’ efforts that he has used political campaign donations to fund automated phone calls and visited the districts of key members to publicly call them out for trying to kill the two agencies, both of which he credits for helping the state’s economy rebound since he took office in 2011. Scott is unlikely to sign a bill into law that would kill the two agencies he’s relied heavily on to try to fulfill his campaign promises.