One of the big controversies swirling around Tallahassee during the 2017 legislative session centered on House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s vow to slash funding for Visit Florida, the statewide tourism council. Corcoran pitted himself against Governor Rick Scott who initially sought an increase to Visit Florida’s budget. The two ultimately reached a compromise – Visit Florida’s budget was set at $76 million subject to strict transparency requirements, including disclosure of board salaries.
Corcoran was able to win those transparency requirements in part because of public reaction to revelations – first reported by the Orlando Sentinel – that Visit Florida had signed a $1 million contract with the rapper Pitbull. The Speaker had to go to court to force production of that dollar amount, which financed a risqué video titled “Sexy Beaches.”
But secrecy in the tourism industry doesn’t yield easily to sunshine.
The Sentinel recently reported that a number of local tourism agencies, including Visit Orlando, cut ties with Visit Florida in response to the new transparency law. Last week, Speaker Corcoran set each of those agencies a letter, demanding they release more information about how they spend our money.
Visit Orlando and the local tourism boards are so entrenched in secrecy that they’d rather abandon their partnership with the state than disclose information on how they spend our tax dollars.
As originally conceived, Visit Orlando and the 11 other local tourism organizations were to be public-private partnerships promoting tourism within their regions. The organizations would raise funds from private sources and government would match that money with taxes levied on hotel bills. By law, their budgets were secret, meaning there was no way to track what they spent and where – or why — they spent it.
According to Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell, the partnerships quickly became lopsided: in 2015, Visit Orlando received $49 million in public tax dollars in 2015 and contributed less than $3 million in private funds. As Maxwell notes, that’s hardly a “partnership.”
But how Visit Orlando and other agencies spend their money remains shielded from public view. And they want to keep it that way.
Speaker Corcoran is arguing – and the First Amendment Foundation agrees – that these agencies can’t have it both ways: they can’t take our money and then refuse to disclose how it’s spent. With public funds comes public accountability, and the only way we can assure ourselves that our tax dollars are wisely spent is through budget transparency.
We also agree with the Speaker’s assessment of the need for oversight and the responsibilities of the tourist councils as stated in his letter to them: “The fact that Visit Orlando is so concerned about what this financial information would reveal is further evidence that immediate oversight is necessary. The revocation of partnership agreements with Visit Florida in no way protects your organization from Legislative inquiry, accountability or transparency.” We would simply add that Visit Orlando and the tourism councils are equally accountable to the public.
Speaker Corcoran deserves our support for his efforts to hold Visit Orlando and the 11 other local tourism agencies accountable, and this week the First Amendment Foundation wrote the Speaker, thanking him for his stand on transparency and accountability.
Of course, all expenditures of tax dollars should be public, and all decisions concerning how and why that money is spent should also be open to public scrutiny. We expect that Speaker Corcoran’s call for accountability by local tourism agencies will also be reflected during the 2018 Legislature’s appropriations process. [READ MORE]