State Rep. Mel Ponder has filed a House bill seeking to reauthorize Visit Florida for eight more years, until Oct. 1, 2028. 

 

Ponder, R-Destin, who as a freshman lawmaker in 2017 was called out by Gov. Rick Scott in a visit to Okaloosa County for what Scott labeled a failure to support Visit Florida, said in a news release issued Monday that he was proud to sponsor legislation designed to protect and grow the state’s tourism industry.

“I have been such a strong supporter of the tourism industry throughout my career,” Ponder said.

Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Palm Harbor, signed on to sponsor identical legislation in the state’s upper chamber.

In 2014, state lawmakers created a sunset provision that impacted all direct-support organizations in the state, including Visit Florida, the news release said.

Under the law each affected agency would be dissolved unless “reviewed and saved from repeal by the Florida Legislature,” it said. Last year the Legislature extended Visit Florida’s sunset date until July 1, 2020.

This year the state Senate passed a bill that would have extended Visit Florida’s sunset by eight years, but the measure failed in the House.

A major obstacle to Visit Florida’s continued existence had been Richard Corcoran, who served as the state House Speaker from 2016-18. In 2017, Corcoran sought to curtail state funding for Visit Florida, calling it “corporate welfare.”

Then-Gov. Scott railed against the effort to gut Visit Florida funding, and spent time traveling the state to criticize representatives like Ponder who were endeavoring to remain in the Speaker’s good graces while trying at the same time to support the tourism industry.

Following Scott’s comments in 2017 – he asked the Destin crowd whether Ponder had campaigned on a promise to “vote to do away with Visit Florida” – Ponder said the governor had mischaracterized his position on the agency.

“I’d never be one to touch Visit Florida’s funding,” he said then. “I’m for them getting as much funding as they need to fulfill their mission.”

Martin Owen, a consultant to the Northwest Florida tourism industry, said he is confident this year the effort to reauthorize Visit Florida will be successful.

“My feeling is that this time around when they launch that bill the governor will come out earlier in support of it,” Owen said. “I just have a feeling the Speaker will just decide it’s a good thing to do, rather than follow the previous Speaker’s path.”