Flanked by House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron, Governor Rick Scott announced at a Friday, June 2 press conference what appeared to be an agreed-upon outline for a three-day special Legislative session. Included in this agreement was the creation of a job growth grant program funded at $85 million and the restoration of $76 million in funding to VISIT FLORIDA – up from the 67% cut passed during the regular session.
The goal of the special session was to resolve differences between the three leaders on contentious education and economic development legislation that was hastily approved during the extended regular legislative session. Many legislators left Tallahassee on May 8, 2017 with heartburn over voting for a budget package that included a massive cut to VISIT FLORIDA funding and a “government takeover” of the organization’s operations, a hefty scaling back of the state’s economic development arm - Enterprise Florida- and significant funding cuts to public education in favor of school choice initiatives.
As the special legislative session began on Wednesday, June 7, 2017, the Capitol was buzzing again with many House and Senate members unhappy about a three-day special session to what some referred to as a rubber stamp of the agreement between the House, Senate and Governor.
The Senate's first action was to override Governor Scott's veto of $11 billion in state spending for the public education budget, as well as $75 million in projects at state universities and colleges. Meanwhile, House leadership made it clear they had no desire to override the Governor's veto. In addition to the differences over education funding, House and Senate committees advanced the economic development bills (HB 1A by Rep. Paul Renner and SB 2A by Sen. Jack Latvala) to restore $76 million to VISIT FLORIDA's budget and create a new $85 million grant fund for job-related construction and workforce training called the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund to be administered by the Department of Economic Opportunity. The call was also expanded to include implementation legislation of the medical marijuana Constitutional Amendment.
VISIT FLORIDA CEO Ken Lawson appeared before the House Appropriations Committee and testified in support of HB 1A along with a handful of local economic development boards and other members of the tourism community. However, one of the key differences between HB 1A and SB 2A was the Senate proposal allowed small counties the ability to continue to access state tourism marketing money by using local bed-tax revenue towards the required one-to-one match. Backed by support from FAA members from all over the state, Senator Jack Latvala insisted that any legislation passed regarding VISIT FLORIDA would have to allow this match. He went on to question staff from the Department of Economic Opportunity when they appeared before the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee and noted that they sidestepped questions about whether or not the agency supported the provisions of SB 2A.
Ultimately, the gap between the House and Senate approaches to VISIT FLORIDA and the new Florida Job Growth Grant Fun began an unraveling of the “agreement” represented by the Governor and House Speaker barely a week prior and also opened the door for President Negron to opine to the media that he had not agreed to a deal and just “attended the press conference at the request of the Governor”.
Early on the morning of Friday, June 9, it appeared the special session was again collapsing and might be forced into overtime. However, a last-minute “backroom deal” was announced that would allow the Legislature to complete the special session on time. Included in this “agreement” was the implementing language for the Constitutional amendment on medical marijuana and $50 million for completion of the Herbert Hoover Dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee. The project was to be included in the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund bringing the total of that fund to $135 million. At 4:42 PM on Friday, June 9 -just shy of the 6:00 PM deadline - the Legislature adjourned Sine Die, bringing the 2017 Special Session A to a close.
Without the continued efforts of individual FAA members who made the case to their local House and Senate members to fully fund VISIT FLORIDA and oppose the unnecessary and detrimental barriers to tourism marketing in Florida, the fate of Florida’s tourism industry may have been met with a very different outcome. FAA members must stay vigilant as the 2018 regular legislative session is just around the corner.