The House and Senate continued Thursday trying to reach agreement on economic-development issues, with one of the sticking points involving tourism-marketing dollars being matched with small-county bed tax money.
Differences also dealt with oversight issues, as lawmakers consider $177 million proposals that would bolster tourism-marketing agency Visit Florida and create a new economic-development fund. Lawmakers are in a special session that started Wednesday and is scheduled to end Friday.
The House has teed up for a final vote Friday a measure (HB 1A) --- backed by Gov. Rick Scott --- that would provide $76 million to Visit Florida next fiscal year. The amount is up from $25 million in a bill that passed last month during the regular legislative session.
The proposal also includes redirecting $85 million to help draw businesses through a new “Florida Job Growth Grant Fund” for infrastructure projects and job training.
The Senate proposal (SB 2-A), which also is slated for a floor vote Friday, matches the House funding levels. But it would establish a wider array of regulations for the money Scott could allocate from the fund toward regional economic development and is expected to provide Visit Florida more leeway to work with counties.
Scott and House leaders battled throughout the regular session about economic-development programs, with the House seeking to eliminate Enterprise Florida and slash funding for Visit Florida. But Scott called the special session after working out the framework of a deal.
“In the media we hear a lot of talk about accountability from the House, that they want a better accountability for Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida, and we're only three or four months from when they were trying to abolish both of them,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala said Thursday. “And now they want to give them a lot of money. And some of what is in the House bill is virtually a blank check with no accountability, at least on the economic development side.”
Latvala said he's “sticking” to the provisions in his proposal that would impose more state oversight on infrastructure projects and provide small counties more access to state tourism marketing by allowing local bed-tax money to be used as a match for state tourism dollars.
“In big metropolitan areas, where you have big corporations, the Disneys and Universals that can directly enter into agreements with Visit Florida for the match, that's not an issue,” Latvala said. “But in Taylor County and Charlotte County, and places where there are small tourism outlets, small motels and restaurants, it's important to aggregate the funds received through the bed tax and match those.”
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, said the economic-development proposal from his chamber is “significantly different” from incentives in the past, and the oversight of how the state would approve the money is already in place.
“What we're doing now is we're giving a fund for the governor to go out there and do across-the-board infrastructure and education that benefits the entire state,” Corcoran said. “The desire or the oversight already exists. He's elected. The Legislature's elected. We go in every single year, and all those things can be looked at.”
House bill sponsor Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, said Visit Florida would have “more than enough room” because of required matches to continue to market small counties without the bed-tax dollars.
“They've got some leeway because we're funding them at $76 million,” Renner said Thursday. “But they're getting $140 million, not quite double, but they're getting a really good sum on the private side to meet their matches overall and still do what they need to do for the locals.”
Visit Florida has been in the crosshairs of lawmakers over its $11.6 million sponsorship of a cooking show hosted by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, a $1 million contract with rapper Pitbull, and ongoing sponsorship deals with London-based Fulham Football Club and an IMSA racing team.
Both bills would require Visit Florida contracts valued at $500,000 to be posted online. Contracts over $750,000 would go before the Joint Legislative Budget Commission and could be voided within 14 days by the House speaker or Senate president.
Renner defended the House proposal that would let the governor allocate money from the new trust fund for broad regional public safety or infrastructure projects, such as roads, airport runways and utilities. The spending would be based on recommendations from the Department of Economic Opportunity, an agency the governor oversees.
House leaders and Cissy Proctor, executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, said the measure would offer more flexibility than the Senate proposal.
Under the Senate plan, Enterprise Florida, in consultation with the Department of Transportation, would jointly review and recommend infrastructure and workforce-training projects with the Department of Economic Opportunity.
The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday amended the measure to require the Department of Economic Opportunity to set up additional guidelines, including performance conditions, for projects in the grant program.