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
Published: August 14, 2013
Those special interests’ sway is substantial. Every election cycle, industry associations and bigwigs pour millions of dollars into legislative and local races – not just to protect tourist taxes but also to fight gambling, boost marketing spending, prohibit mandatory sick leave and other causes. Disney alone donated more than $2.5 million in the state in 2012, almost all of it to Republicans. The Mouse has 16 registered lobbyists in Tallahassee. Universal Orlando has 13 of its own. The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association has another 15.
Closer to home, Disney and Universal lobbyists are among the top fundraisers for and donors to Mayor Jacobs’ re-election bid, and the Central Florida Hotel and Lodging Association presented her State of the County address in June.
Tourism officials claim they need every possible dollar to remain viable. Business is fine today, they say, but another recession or terrorist attack could put it in a tailspin. Already at least one trend line isn’t favorable: The convention business – “our foundation … our public economic engine,” as Jacobs recently called it – is dying.
For years, analysts have noted the convention industry’s seemingly intractable decline. As the Brookings Institution reported in 2005, “Many cities have seen their convention attendance fall by 40 percent, 50 percent, and more since the peak years of the late 1990s. The sharp drop has occurred across a range of communities, including a number of the historically most successful convention locales in the nation.” Between 2000 and 2010, the number of convention attendees nationally declined by 40 million, even though there’s 20 million more square feet of convention space. “Governments refuse to stop making convention centers bigger and hotels even more dazzling,” Steven Malanga wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2011, “arguing that whatever business remains will flow to the places with the fanciest amenities.”
The Orange County Convention Center is one of those places. Since opening in 1983, the OCCC has been in an almost constant state of expansion and renovation: phase two in 1989, phase three in 1996, phase four later in 1996, phase five in 2003, each costing hundreds of millions of dollars (adjusted for inflation). Last year, Orange County approved another five-year, $187 million capital improvement plan, and last week announced that it would fork over an additional $10 million.
Yet attendance is more or less flat. The 1.3 million people who visited the OCCC in 2012 is more than the 1.2 million in 2011, but less than in 2003 through 2006. Over the past decade, attendance numbers have hovered consistently between about 1.1 million and 1.45 million.
This is the wagon we’re hitched to, and where much of our tourism taxes go. In fact, most of the tourist tax revenues are already spoken for, at least for the next few decades: not just debt service for the convention center but also for the arena, the performing arts center, the Citrus Bowl and now perhaps the soccer stadium, not to mention marketing.
> Email Jeffrey C. Billman