Corcoran unveils bill to require more transparency from Visit Orlando

TALLAHASSEE — House Speaker Richard Corcoran on Thursday ramped up his push for greater transparency at Visit Orlando and other tourism development groups by unveiling a set of bills to impose new requirements on the tax-dollar-fundedagencies.

“The House is committed to following the conservative principles of transparency and accountability when it comes to all government contracts and expenditures,” Corcoran said. “They will be kept in the Sunshine.”

One bill filed Thursday (HB 3) requires local tourism and economic development councils across the state to get the approval of county boards for contracts of more than $250,000 and to post online any contract of more than $5,000. It would also require tourism development organizations to be audited every other year.

The proposal is similar to the accountability measures imposed by lawmakers this year on Visit Florida, the statewide tourism marketing agency, including a requirement that contracts of more than $750,000 be approved by lawmakers.

Visit Orlando officials declined to be interviewed for this story, but in an emailed statement, they asserted they abide by all existing transparency laws.

A statewide group said Corcoran’s reforms were unneeded.

“Adding more government bureaucracy and redundancy just adds costs,” said Robert Skrob, executive director of the Florida Association of Destination Marketing Organizations, a trade group whose members include Visit Orlando. “Our state tourism numbers are at record levels. The current structure is working.”

Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, has been seeking more spending information from Visit Orlando this year. He said earlier this month he was unhappy with Visit Orlando’s response to his request and threatened to file legislation or sue Visit Orlando over it.

Visit Orlando did respond to Corcoran by telling him it paid $76,500 to WOFL-Channel 35 in 2016 to advertise on a traffic and weather camera but said it is a private membership organization not subject to the state’s open-records laws.

Visit Orlando also has denied Orlando Sentinel requests to view its sponsorship contract with the U.S. Tennis Association, thought to be worth $7 million. The group posts financial information online but was required this year to release salary information for top executives, revealing that its CEO, George Aguel, made more than $607,000 last year.

Visit Orlando receives about $50 million in tourist development taxes, or bed tax revenues, paid by tourists each year. Its expenditures include sponsorship, travel and advertising, including with the Orlando Sentinel. WOFL also is the Sentinel’s media partner.

Corcoran last year sued the management company for Miami rapper Pitbull, forcing him to reveal he was paid $1 million by Visit Florida, the statewide tourism marketing agency, to promote the state. Visit Florida had blocked the contract from the public, saying Pitbull’s company claimed it was a trade secret.

Two other bills filed Thursday, HB 459 and HB 461, seek to redefine the term “trade secret” to require companies to get court approval to shield the information from the public.

“If that’s so burdensome to them, then don’t do business with the state,” Corcoran said. “We’ll have no shortage of vendors who will come and play by the open and transparent rules.”

The bills will be considered during the 60-day legislative session that begins Jan. 9.

Corcoran also filed a lawsuit against the City of Tampa on Thursday, alleging the city has assessed an “illegal tax” by adding a $1.50 charge to nightly hotel stays in a downtown taxing district. Corcoran said the city has no authority to add the fee, which it called a “special assessment.”

Corcoran said he sued to protect the rule of law but was also worried local governments throughout the state would enact similar fees if Tampa’s were allowed to stand.

“Is it possible for elected officials out there to see this happen and then go out there and it spreads like wildfire? I guarantee you that’s a possibility,” Corcoran said.