Visit Florida, beleaguered over its $1 million promotional contract with the rapper Pitbull, found a defender Thursday in Senate budget chairman Jack Latvala.
In light of a soft construction sector, “what’s kept the whole outlook from softening up has been our strong tourism economy,” Latvala told reporters after the Appropriations Committee heard about the financial demands the state faces during the next three years.
“That’s particularly important today in light of the criticisms that seem to be coming now on a daily basis of how our tourism promotion is being done,” he said.
“I don’t think we can stick our heads in the sand and stop advertising and doing things to keep people coming to Florida, bringing business to Florida, bringing movies to Florida.”
House Speaker Richard Corcoran is suing the rapper’s production company in hopes of clarifying that Visit Florida, the state’s tourism promotions enterprise, cannot allow trade-secrets claims to shield contract terms from legislative oversight.
Latvala said that for the past two budget cycles, House members sought more money than the Senate did for tourism promotion.
“Now I see kind of a backing up from that position, and it’s very puzzling to me,” he said.
For years, he said, tourism levels hovered below 80 million visitors per year.
“We put some extra money in, and now we’re consistently getting over 100 million visitors. And they’re top-quality visitors, who are spending money in the state. They’re staying a while. They’re going to upscale places. I just don’t think we can turn out back and retreat from that.”
Latvala conceded this much:
“I think they made a mistake with regard to content. I told the CEO of Visit Florida a year ago that he needed to make that contract public. But, you know, they pay baseball players a lot of money for getting three hits out of every 10 times at bat. One miss out of 10 is not bad.”
Tourism industry leaders agree Visit Florida is an asset, he added. And Thursday’s testimony about the state’s budget problems “lends credibility to the importance of having that promotion on an organized, consistent basis. Not hit and miss depending on how much we want to spend up and down,” he said.