House budget panel weighs raids on trust funds, Visit Florida’s future

in Statewide by

A House budget panel debated sweeping money from housing, transportation and economic development trust funds to meet spending cuts imposed by House leaders.

The House Transportation & Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee also entertained a suggestion that Visit Florida, the state’s tourism promotion arm, operate on local tourism taxes, instead of state general revenues.

Rep. Mike La Rosa, a St. Cloud Republican, came up with the idea as a way out of the contretemps between Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran over the wisdom of spending state tax dollars to promote economic and tourism development.

“Have it funded locally, so there’s a secured funding mechanism for Visit Florida,” La Rosa explained following a committee meeting.

“Hopefully, that gives a little more buy-in for local tourist boards. Then, the state can decide what role it wants to play, ultimately, in Visit Florida,” he said.

“There would have to be some policy changes,” La Rosa conceded. “I haven’t gone that far and started to think about who’s ultimately going to control it. Is that the locals 100 percent, or does the state still buy in and still have some general direction in it?”

La Rosa sits on the House Careers & Competition Subcommittee, which was scheduled later in the day to take up legislation supported by Corcoran and other House leaders to eliminate state spending on economic incentives, including Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida. The bill is PCB CCS 17-01.

The transportation and tourism panel heard leaders of the agencies under its purview — the Department of Economic Opportunity, the Department of Transportation, the Department of State, the Department of Military Affairs, and the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles — explain what Scott’s $83.5 billion proposed state budget would mean for their agencies.

Then it took up an excercise in budget cutting imposed by House leaders worried that state spending is outpacing tax collections. The subcommittee has bad-case and worst-case targets — $156.2 million, and $321.2 million, respectively.

Hitting the larger target will mean dipping into large trust funds, chairman Clay Ingram, a Republican from Pensacola, said.

“It’s an exercise, to put thought into, if we have to make cuts in future years, where we would look at doing it,” Ingram said.

“To get to that big number, you would have to take, in some way, shape, or form, money from either the SEED Trust Fund, which fuels economic development,” he said, referring to the State Economic Enhancement and Development fund.

“And then there’s the Transportation Trust Fund — it’s the biggie. It’s roads, bridges, things that we all need. So it’s not like it’s wasteful spending, either,” Ingram said.

La Rosa’s Visit Florida proposal would save $76 million dollars in state general revenues — that’s the number Scott has requested for the agency during the budget year that begins July 1.

“That legitimately moves the ball,” Ingram told the panel, and might avoid the job cuts Scott warns would come if the state cuts back on Visit Florida and other economic incentives.

Democrats on the panel joined Republicans in skepticism about economic development spending. Ranking Democrat Evan Jenne, of Dania Beach, referred to it as “corporate welfare” — echoing Corcoran — and said: “We have to look at the actual returns we’re getting there.”

Joseph Geller, a Democrat from Aventura, was reluctant to dip into the housing fund. “People have to have a place to live,” he said.

Al Jacquet, a Democrat from Lantana, said his staff fields plenty of calls from constituents having trouble with housing. He was frustrated at lawmakers’ tendency to divert housing money for other uses. “It rarely gets used for that purpose,” he said.

Geller observed that another way to balance a budget is to raise taxes. He zeroed in on the 2015 repeal of the communications services tax — which, he said, saves consumers about 61 cents per month but costs the state $450 million per year.

“Maybe we should look back and correct that mistake,” Geller said. “I don’t think anyone is going to miss 61 cents.”

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.