TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (NSF) - Florida’s tourism-marketing arm will get an extra nine months --- and a $50 million budget --- to prove itself to the governor.
Legislative budget chiefs agreed Monday to fund the beleaguered Visit Florida through June 30, 2020, keeping the agency in business beyond an Oct. 1 date when it otherwise would have been eliminated.
The House, which has long been critical of Visit Florida, wanted to let the agency die. But House and Senate negotiators reached agreement on the extension until the end of the 2019-2020 fiscal year amid final budget talks.
Also, Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley and House Appropriations Chairman Travis Cummings, both Fleming Island Republicans, agreed Monday to continue funding for an economic-development effort, known as the Job Growth Grant Fund, that was created under former Gov. Rick Scott.
The agreements on Visit Florida and the Job Growth Grant Fund came as House and Senate leaders raced to finish a roughly $90 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The budget has to be finished Tuesday for the legislative session to end on time Friday because of a mandatory 72-hour “cooling off” period.
Meanwhile, most higher-education issues had been resolved Monday. But one major area of concern for House Speaker Jose Oliva and other House leaders continued to be Public Education Capital Outlay, or PECO, funding for building projects.
As for Visit Florida, House leaders had maintained a hard-line stance against the agency, pointing to questionable contracts from several years ago and questions about the effectiveness of the tourism-marketing efforts. The House wanted to provide just $19 million for the agency, enough to cover expenses until Oct. 1, the date when Visit Florida would be eliminated if it was not reauthorized under state law.
The House stance changed Friday as Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said he was willing to yield to a request from DeSantis to keep the agency around for another year.
“As we get into the next session, we’ll have to determine whether it’s something that’s renewed on an annual basis,” Cummings said Monday.
Oliva told reporters Friday that the governor’s office had asked to keep the agency afloat for another year “so that he would have the opportunity to make an assessment of his own of how unnecessary it is.”
Two days earlier, DeSantis said that while he sought $76 million in his proposed budget for Visit Florida, he’d “be fine” with the $50 million initially proposed by the Senate.
Asked Monday about Oliva’s comments as the budget chiefs agreed to the extra money and time, Visit Florida President and CEO Dana Young said the agency will continue to provide a “great” return on investment with the funding available.
“We have great, talented people who work for our organization, and we are very good at what we do, and I have no doubt in my mind that we will continue to produce great results,” said Young, a former House and Senate member from Tampa.
Meanwhile, Bradley said putting $40 million toward the Job Growth Grant Fund --- less than half of what had been provided the past two years --- was made simply to honor a request by DeSantis.
“This is a situation where you have three parities at the table, the House and the Senate and our new chief executive, and that was something that was important to him,” Bradley said.
In 2017, lawmakers created the Job Growth Grant Fund after a battle between Scott and House leaders over economic-development spending. The funding for the current year, which Scott depleted shortly before DeSantis took office, was in the Department of Economic of Opportunity.
DeSantis has backed keeping the fund, at least for another year.
The House also has been highly critical of the way some universities have managed money for building projects. Oliva reiterated Monday his desire to restructure the way building projects are funded following a financial scandal at the University of Central Florida. House investigators found university officials misused millions of state dollars for a construction project.
“As you know, our area of most concern was the PECO area and how we restructure that in a way that is sustainable so that universities and colleges have buildings that they can afford,” Oliva said.
Oliva remained firm on having his higher-education policy proposals accepted by the Senate. One thorn is a proposal requiring universities and colleges to have escrow accounts to back future building maintenance of new construction projects.
Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, expressed frustration with that specific policy area, saying he had expected to see some resolution Monday morning.
“I am eager to see what is left in this budget process and work with the speaker of the House to get this thing together and printed and have us go home on time,” Galvano said.