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House OKs VISIT FLORIDA, Enterprise Florida funding cuts

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House members on Monday approved a measure dealing with VISIT FLORIDA and Enterprise Florida funding on a 74-34 vote.

If vetoed, however, the “conforming bill” would need 80 votes to overcome Gov. Rick Scott‘s red pen.

Both chambers have begun discussing the 2017-18 state budget, which wasn’t completed on time to finish the 2017 Legislative Session last Friday. That caused a rare extension to Monday, using the weekend to count toward the constitutionally required 72-hour “cooling off” period before lawmakers can vote.

The proposed budget gives $25 million—down from around $75 million—in recurring operating funds for VISIT FLORIDA, the state’s tourism marketing arm, and $16 million to Enterprise Florida, the economic development organization.

Both are public-private entities but have historically received far more public dollars than private. The budget also zeroes out Gov. Rick Scott‘s favored business incentive programs for next year. It remains to be seen whether Scott will veto some or all of the Legislature’s budget.

Rep. Wengay Newton, a St. Petersburg Democrat, asked Rep. Paul Renner, a Palm Coast Republican, whether VISIT FLORIDA would be “able to function” at such a reduced amount.

“I think the word ‘function’ is in the eye of the beholder,” Renner said, adding that the agency would not be able to create new programs but all “existing programs will continue.”

Lori Berman, a Lantana Democrat, also asked Renner how new accountability measures would have prevented a contentious deal the agency cut with South Florida rapper Pitbull to promote tourism.

Speaker Richard Corcoran went to war against VISIT FLORIDA, threatening to sue after it refused to reveal a secret deal with Pitbull, who later voluntarily disclosed he was set to be paid up to $1 million.

The House majority has imposed measures including limiting individual employee compensation to $130,000 (equal to the salary of the governor), requiring Senate confirmation of new agency CEOs, disallowing new direct-support organizations, and requiring new contracts to be posted on the state CFO’s transparency website.

In addition, Renner explained that lawmakers could have nipped the Pitbull deal in the bud under a proposed 14-day “legislative consultation” period that “would have prevented it from going forward.”

House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz later argued in debate that she did not “believe $25 million is enough to sustain tourism at the level we’ve seen it in the state of Florida.”

“We’ve probably punished (them) a little too harshly” in this budget, she said.

Rep. Jay Fant, a Jacksonville Republican, has been the rare GOP House member who never bought into gutting the agencies, especially doing away with incentives. He suggested the proposed funding all but invited Scott to veto it.

The proposal “jeopardizes our entire budget, and bills and special projects, and it doesn’t have to be that way,” Fant said. “Why not compromise on some basic principle of business incentive? We can tailor it, we can negotiate it.”

But Renner said “it’s always still the taxpayers’ money … we’ve seen too many times that that has been forgotten.”

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Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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