The tourism industry pushed Wednesday to keep the doors open at the state’s tourism-marketing agency as House and Senate budget committees advanced competing spending plans for next year.
The House wants to fund Visit Florida only through Oct. 1, when the agency will be eliminated unless it is reauthorized by the Legislature. That stance drew officials from tourism-related organizations to the Capitol as House and Senate appropriations committees took up their proposed budgets.
Overall, the House is proposing to spend $88.9 billion during the fiscal year that starts July 1, while the Senate is proposing to spend $90.3 billion. The proposals include differences in a variety of areas such as education, health care, affordable housing, hurricane response, transportation and the environment.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley said all the differences are “manageable.” The proposals are expected to go to the full House and Senate next week, setting the stage for leaders to negotiate a final spending plan before the May 3 end of the legislative session.
“I’ve seen the spread a lot greater than it is now,” Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said after his committee meeting. “I’m very confident that we’re going to have a budget that everybody can be comfortable with and meets everybody’s priorities.”
The House in recent years has questioned some Visit Florida contracts — including $1 million for rapper Pitbull to market the state and $11.6 million to sponsor a cooking show hosted by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse — and is offering $19 million to cover the agency’s expenses until Oct. 1.
When asked about the House’s position, Transportation & Tourism Appropriations Chairman Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, noted, “We have a history with Visit Florida in this particular chamber.”
The Senate has proposed $50 million for Visit Florida. That is short of the $76 million provided to the agency during the current year — an amount that Gov. Ron DeSantis has proposed to continue.
“We’ve had things like red tide, we’ve had Zika (virus), we’ve had hurricanes, we’ve had nightclub shootings, all of which get sensationalized in the media,” Visit Florida Chairman Lino Maldonado, vice president of Wyndham Vacation Rentals in Panama City, told the House panel Wednesday morning. “There is no other voice that has the reach or the strength to combat the sensationalism that occurs when these types of things happen in our state. Visit Florida has assumed that role.”
Beyond the need for reauthorization, tourism officials want lawmakers to meet DeSantis’ $76 million funding request.
Visit Florida President and CEO Dana Young, a former state lawmaker, argued the agency has a $2.15 return on investment for every dollar spent, was responsible for a record 126 million tourists visiting Florida last year and is the first line in countering negative media coverage of hurricanes and toxic algae outbreaks.
“We benefit the entire state, not just members of the tourism industry,” Young told the House committee.
Visit Florida was a focus of public comments in both committees and one of the key topics of discussions among lawmakers.
As with Visit Florida’s funding, much of the proposed spending plans will require trading between chambers in the coming weeks. The current year’s budget totals $88.7 billion.
“There are some areas that we’re going to be flexible on and some areas we’re not going to be flexible on,” said House PreK-12 Appropriations Chairman Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater.
The House is offering to raise per-student funding for schools by $167, while the Senate is proposing a $350 increase.
Latvala noted the House spending proposal for mental-health services for students in $69.2 million, the same as in the current year, That is about $30 million below the Senate proposal.
The mental-health issue is receiving additional attention following a pair of recent suicides by survivors of the Feb. 14, 2018, massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
“No increase is not acceptable,” said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach.
Bradley said discussion of suicide prevention will be handled in conference talks between the chambers.
“We’ve always said since Parkland that we are embarking on a several-year initiative and that it’s always going to be a work in progress,” Bradley said.
Also, in response to a high-profile financial scandal at the University of Central Florida, where $85 million was improperly transferred for building projects, the House is proposing to remove funding for 18 of 32 higher-education construction projects.
Of those, 13 would be able to continue by carrying forward money from the current fiscal year. Five would be eliminated from the state’s spending plan — renovations to the Music Building at the University of Florida, renovation of the Engineering Building at UCF, renovation of the Applied Research Center at Florida Polytechnic University and work at the safety building at Florida Gateway College and the performing arts building at Pasco-Hernando State College.
With Gov. Ron DeSantis wanting to spend $625 million for Everglades restoration and water-quality projects, the House contends its environmental spending would reach $658.5 million. The Senate has proposed $656 million.
The Senate is proposing $100 million for the state’s natural springs, $45 million for the Florida Forever land-preservation program, $44.4 million for beach restoration, $15 million for state park improvements and $8 million for citrus greening research.
The House wants $50 million for springs, $20 million for Florida Forever, $50 million for beach repairs, $48 million for state park repairs and $14.6 million toward citrus greening research.
The House also is offering $58.1 million for citrus-canker payments to residents in Lee and Orange counties, something that isn’t in the Senate proposal. Those payments stem from a long-running legal battle about the state cutting down citrus trees as it fought citrus canker.
The chambers also have differences in health care spending, including how hospitals are paid.
While the Senate budget doesn’t cut hospital funding, the chamber is proposing a policy change about how Medicaid funds are distributed. The Senate budget plan would have a larger negative impact on the state’s safety-net hospitals than the House’s proposal. The House budget would reduce inpatient and outpatient Medicaid rates by 3 percent across the board, which totals about a $111 million cut.
Spreadsheets circulated by the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida show that the Senate’s plan to redistribute funds would reduce funding at large public hospitals by nearly $80 million. The House plan would reduce funding at public hospitals by $22 million.
Neither chamber, meanwhile, has agreed to continue $138 million in one-time funding that was given to nursing homes last year. The funding is set to expire June 30 unless lawmakers agree to continue it. If the money doesn’t continue, nursing-home groups say facilities could lose an average of $300,000 in the coming year.