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Cover 08/14

How the tourism industry and politicians keep Florida’s tax money from being spent where we need it most

State law does not allow tourist tax dollars to do anything but promote more tourism. The tourism industry wants it to make sure it stays that way

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Soskin’s also a critic of tourism in general – or more specifically, our region’s reliance on it. “There are no tourism industries that last,” he says. “There is a life cycle for destinations. They come and they go. We have to look beyond that point: Is it something that gets us there? It can’t be what we are.”

For all the revenue it generates, tourism isn’t without downsides. It requires a low-wage, low-education environment to thrive. “It’s in [the industry’s] interest to lobby as much as possible to keep wages as low as possible,” Soskin says. “They realize there are no high-wage tourism areas.” It’s no coincidence, then, that the Census ranks Orlando 45th out of 51 major metropolitan areas in median income.

Tourism, because it enables the state to eschew income taxes, also leads to a regressive tax system that penalizes the poor, who pay a larger share of their income in sales taxes than do the wealthy. Tourists clog roads and drain police resources. And tourism has high seasonal volatility, which means that, for instance, “Daytona Beach has four to five times the police force any other city its size has,” Soskin says, because it has to have cops ready when the crowds come.

As deferential as local and state politicians are to tourism interests, there’s a very real question of whether we’re getting enough out of this Faustian bargain.

Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell first raised that issue in March 2001, back when he was on the county government beat. Las Vegas, he reported, used $65 million of its tourist taxes every year on schools and roads. New Orleans used hotel taxes for education, too, and Chicago and Seattle spent it on infrastructure and other public works. Florida’s ironclad commitment to spending tourism taxes on tourism was an anomaly.

His reporting sparked what seemed to be building momentum for reform. Freshman state Rep. Andy Gardiner (R-Orlando) introduced a bill to broaden the tax’s uses. A Sentinel poll in April found that 70 percent of Central Floridians wanted the law changed. Even attendees at the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce’s annual HobNob that year – a pro-business crowd if ever there was one – voted 3 to 1 to spend tourism taxes on schools and transportation.

And then nothing happened.

Gardiner, now next in line to be Senate president, ran headfirst into the tourism industry’s clout. His bill didn’t even get a vote. The issue has come up a few more times over the years – in 2008, Key West asked the Legislature for permission to use this money for affordable housing; in 2009, the Miami-Dade County Commission wanted extra cops in its tourism district; Okaloosa County’s request earlier this year – but each time, the industry flexed its muscles and shut it down.

“This issue epitomizes the disconnect between public will and public policy as well as any I can think of,” Maxwell says. “We’re talking overwhelming public support, yet absolute inaction by our elected leaders, as a result of special interests.”

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