Blog: Florida Tourism interests collide in state Legislature

Jan 3, 2012

The following article was published in the Orlando Sentinel on Janaury 3, 2012:

Tourism interests collide in Legislature

By Jason Garcia

Florida’s tourism industry is bracing for two big battles when the Legislature convenes for its 2012 session next week — one with out-of-state casino developers, and another with itself.

Separate debates over whether to allow the construction of casinos in South Florida and how to tax hotel rooms sold by travel websites are expected to consume much of the industry’s attention during the 60-day session, which opens Jan. 10.

That’s not to say the industry won’t be seeking other things from state lawmakers during the next two months. The industry will also be lobbying to get more money for travel advertising and to block anti-immigration crackdowns, among a host of other issues. But the casino and tax debates are likely to be the loudest.

When it comes to casinos, the industry has formed a — mostly — united front. Individual businesses, chief among them Walt Disney World, and trade groups such as the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association and the Florida Attractions Association are all opposed to legislation that, as currently written, would authorize the construction of three multibillion-dollar casino resorts in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

The Genting Group, based in Malaysia, and both Las Vegas Sands and Wynn Resorts, based in Las Vegas, are lobbying in favor of the proposal.


Tourism leaders contend that adult-oriented gambling could damage the state’s family-oriented brand. They also fear huge casinos could cannibalize existing tourism businesses, eroding their income from conventions, Latin America and other niches.

“Any benefit to Florida will never outweigh the heavy cost,” the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association says in a position statement opposed to casinos.

The opposition is not unanimous. The Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association hasn’t taken a position, but the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce is seen as pro-casino, according to the Miami Herald. And while both Disney and SeaWorld Orlando are publicly opposed to casinos, Universal Orlando, whose parent company is business partners with Genting in Singapore, has so far remained neutral.

But those differences are nothing compared with the internal fissures that have opened up in the debate over how to tax hotel rooms sold by online-based travel companies.

On one side are the online travel companies such as Expedia, Orbitz Worldwide and Sabre Holdings (parent company of Travelocity), all of which negotiate wholesale rates for rooms with various hotels, charge a higher price to consumers, then remit taxes only on the lower rate. Supporting the online companies are Disney World and Universal Orlando, both of use a similar tax strategy for their sales of vacation packages.

On the other side are big hotel chains such as Marriott International and Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which want to steer more room rentals through their own websites but say the current tax system gives the online-based travel companies a competitive advantage. Joining them are county governments and local convention-and-visitors bureaus, which depend on hotel taxes to pay for everything from local tourism marketing to the construction bonds for convention centers and sports arenas.

Nothing underscores the division more than Florida’s two largest business groups — the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida. The Chamber, whose chairman is a Disney executive and whose members include Expedia, supports the online-based travel industry; AIF, which just this year signed up Marriott International as a member, is taking the hotels’ side.

Rep. Jason Brodeur, a Republican from Sanford, said he expects to file a bill as early as this week supporting the online-travel industry’s position. But it’s possible the Republican-controlled Legislature, wary of antagonizing one business interest over another in an election year, may opt to punt on the issue this session.

Getting a bill passed this spring will be “tough,” acknowledged Rep. Mike Horner, a Republican from Kissimmee who supports Brodeur’s legislation. But he added: “It’s going to come up every year until the issue is dealt with.”

Of course, the tourism industry’s priorities will extend beyond the casino and tax turf wars. At the top of that list, as it is annually, is securing funding for Visit Florida, the state’s publicly subsidized tourism-marketing agency.

Although Florida lawmakers have been forced to cut billions of dollars of government spending through the housing bust and recession, they have actually increased Visit Florida’s funding over the same period. And the early indications are again positive for the industry: Republican Gov. Rick Scott‘s proposed budget keeps Visit Florida funding at about $35 million, even as it cuts about $2 billion in overall state spending.

Disney, the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association and others will also lobby to prevent anti-immigration measures, which they fear could make it harder to find workers and damage the state’s reputation with some international travelers. The hotel-and-restaurant association is also lobbying for a bill that would prevent cities and counties from adopting laws giving workers a way to recoup wages that have been wrongfully withheld by employers.

Industry lobbyists have also discussed with legislative leaders a possible constitutional amendment to change or undo a 2004 amendment approved by voters that mandates annual increases to the state’s minimum wage.

Narrower issues are also likely to surface. Among legislation already filed in advance of the session is one proposal, sought by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, to allow hotel taxes to be spent building and marketing aquariums; another, backed by the American Resort Development Association, would crack down on time-share resellers.

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