Florida tourism execs get roasted by Senate again


For a second day, officials of VisitFlorida, the state’s tourism promotion agency, were roasted Wednesday by a Senate committee hunting for ways to save money. For an hour and 15 minutes, tourism executives withstood a storm of critical, probing questions from Sens. Mike Fasano, Alex Diaz de la Portilla, Ronda Storms, Chris Smith and Andy Gardiner.

The meeting of the Senate Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations panel got under way with Diaz de la Portilla recounting how he phoned a Kansas City-based VisitFlorida call center five times and kept getting wrong answers about Florida destinations (four of the five operators could not name Tallahassee as the state capital). Storms accused VisitFlorida of a “fatal flaw in judgment” by paying a Missouri company $600,000 to manage a call center when Florida companies desperately need work.

VisitFlorida gets $35 million from Florida taxpayers, which turns out to be more than half of the $64 million in cash at the public-private agency. Legislators feel the walls quickly closing in on them as they confront a two-year shortfall of more than $5 billion, so it’s a very dangerous time for bureaucrats to be defending salary bonuses, extensive travel and other perks.

Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, added some proportion to the debate, noting that the tourism agency gets $35 million from taxpayers and the road-building agency, DOT, spends $8.6 billion a year. “I only wish we could give them this level of scrutiny,” Dockery said.