BRADENTON, Fla. - Florida Gov. Rick Scott called on the state’s bond director to help convince the Legislature that continuing to fund tourism marketing is necessary to protect state and local ratings.
Lawmakers, who stumbled this week bartering the fine details of an $83 billion budget, have proposed $25 million for the state tourism agency, Visit Florida, in fiscal 2018.
Scott, who is on a trade mission to Argentina this week with another state agency on the chopping block, initially sought $76 million for Visit Florida. He boosted the request to $100 million last week.
In recent years, the state has approved an average of $75 million to market Florida, a strategy that has resulted in record numbers of tourists, Ben Watkins, the director of bond finance, said in a two-page letter to budget negotiators Tuesday.
“It is possible that any cut to Visit Florida could have negative impacts on bond ratings across the state,” wrote Watkins, who also said that the state’s triple-A ratings depend in part on state sales tax revenues boosted by tourist spending.
Watkins did not recommend a budget amount for the tourist agency, although he did say the lower amount proposed by the House in the budget could negatively impact ratings.
Florida’s economy depends on tourism, and tourism spending drives the tax revenues that some local governments use to back bonds, he said.
“Some cities and counties have leveraged tourism-related taxes to make long-term investments in infrastructure by issuing bonds secured by tourism-based revenues,” Watkins wrote. “These bond ratings are particularly vulnerable to any adverse consequences from a reduction in tourism, which may result from cutting funding for Visit Florida.”
Last week, Scott asked lawmakers to allot Visit Florida $100 million because he said the state has more money available in the budget to spend on tourism marketing.
“We’ve got to continue to market,” Scott said in a promotional video released by his office, “so we get more tourists here so we get more jobs for Florida families.”
The governor has spent much of this year traveling the state drumming up support for Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida, two agencies he chairs that have come under fire for spending excesses and the lack of transparency.
Enterprise Florida, the economic development agency that organized the Argentina trade mission, would have funding for operations in the proposed budget but no money for incentives the agency uses to lure new business to the state.
Scott, who has sought full funding for Enterprise Florida, also has line-item veto authority over the Legislature's budget - a privilege he has used in year’s past to cut spending for special projects sought by lawmakers.
Budget negotiators have until Tuesday to nail down specific spending plans and release the final budget in order for the full Legislature to vote on it before session ends May 5.
Negotiators agreed on some major expenses, but have met in secret the last week ironing out spending for top priorities and hometown projects.
Over the weekend, talks stalled to the point that the House offered the Senate a “continuation budget” that would have kept most spending in fiscal 2018 at current levels.
However, a tentative agreement was reached Tuesday on an $83 billion budget.
If the amount holds, it would be Florida’s fifth straight year of record spending.