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Joe Henderson: Corcoran tourism threat isn’t a bluff

in Statewide/Top Headlines by

House Speaker Richard Corcoran is right on the money, so to speak, with his latest fiscal gambit.

Corcoran has put 12 tourism development agencies throughout Florida on notice that they better have an accurate and public accounting of how they spend taxpayer dollars — and quickly. That includes big ones in Miami, Orlando and Tampa Bay.

Call it a tactical move if you want to enhance Corcoran’s possible campaign for governor. Call it political grandstanding. And, sure, it’s proper to bring up the fact that Corcoran, a champion of public transparency, negotiated a last-minute budget deal this year in secret.

None of that means what he is doing this time is wrong.

“Let me be painstakingly clear, if you spend one dime of taxpayer money you will do it in a transparent and accountable way,” Corcoran said in a statement.

“It should also alarm every Floridian that these 12 organizations in particular, funded with hundreds of millions of dollars of your money, made the choice to hide from transparency rather than embrace it.”

Local residents usually don’t think about how bed tax money is spent because it is primarily paid by tourists. But in a state like Florida, the pot of gold from these taxes can quickly swell into something close to $1 billion and that demands tight scrutiny.

Among other things, the money finances the local development agencies, who then are supposed to use the cash to push for things that lead to more tourism. It also helps fund some local projects throughout the state.

But it can also lead to some nice cha-ching on payday for top executives like Visit Tampa Bay CEO Santiago Corrada. Last year he made $338,000 in salary and bonuses. Of course, we all remember (or should) that rapper Pitbull had a $1 million contract with the state to promote tourism. That only came out after Corcoran brought a full-court press for disclosure.

None of this information would have come out without digging by reporters like WFLA-TV’s Mark Douglas and pressure from Corcoran. Tourism leaders have long argued that disclosing anything more than the fact we have great beaches puts Florida at a competitive disadvantage with other states looking to poach the snowbirds who annually flock here.

Baloney. It’s public money and there has to be full transparency about how it is spent.

Corcoran told Douglas that while some tourism organizations have complied with his demand for financial disclosure, others have been slow to respond. The Speaker said they better hurry.

“If we don’t hear from them in the next week or two we’ll reach out to them and say what’s your response,” he said. “If they don’t have a response, then obviously we’ll take the next steps.”

One thing we know about Corcoran and issues like this: He isn’t bluffing.

Joe Henderson has had a 45-year career in newspapers, including the last nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. He covered a large variety of things, primarily in sports but also including hard news. The two intertwined in the decade-long search to bring Major League Baseball to the area. Henderson was also City Hall reporter for two years and covered all sides of the sales tax issue that ultimately led to the construction of Raymond James Stadium. He served as a full-time sports columnist for about 10 years before moving to the metro news columnist for the last 4 ½ years. Henderson has numerous local, state and national writing awards. He has been married to his wife, Elaine, for nearly 35 years and has two grown sons – Ben and Patrick.

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