WEEKLY ROUNDUP – A VOLATILE VISIT

(Recap and analysis of the week in state government)

By KEITH LAING, THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

www.newsserviceflorida.com

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Feb. 13, 2009………Valentine’s Day may be quickly approaching, but love was definitely not in the air for Visit Florida when the tourism agency’s budget came before lawmakers this week.

Instead of getting candy and flowers, Visit Florida got a visit to the Capitol doghouse when an angry Senate committee grilled officials for two days about the organization’s tourism promotion budget, which apparently included paying people in Missouri to take calls from people and tell them to come to Florida.

Lawmakers also questioned whether Visit Florida should be spending tax dollars on travel to trade shows and were stumped about why the state should spend money to bring travel writers, tour bookers and travel agents to Florida to try to drum up visits.

Visit Florida responded that there’s no better way to promote Florida as a destination than to have it show up in travel articles or have travel marketers recommend it. The agency said that there’s no better way to get that done than to have those writers and travel professionals “experience the product.”

However, those explanations were hardly good enough to stop the flogging. A Senate panel chairman suggested with a straight face that the tourism agency’s budget be reduced to a big goose egg. Once tempers cool, it’s not likely that the public-private organization will end up completely defunded, but the agency’s travel budget could be severely curtailed. Its marketing budget may be too.

Already, Senate Transportation and Economic Development Committee chairman Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, insisted that no one at Visit Florida get bonuses paid by state tax dollars,and if the agency wants to fund any travel by non-employees, it should find private dollars to pay for it.

Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, joined the fray, saying some state agencies just don’t seem to look at things from the average taxpayer’s perspective. When taxpayers are making sacrifices, they get angry when it doesn’t seem that government is too, she said.

“There’s a simmering rage,” Storms said. “They feel like there’s a tone deafness. Our own agencies are shipping jobs to Kansas City. To me, that’s fatal. Last year, when you made this decision, people were losing their jobs in the state of Florida….. This represents some of the worst of what we’re doing.”

After the beating Visit Florida took this week, the tourism agency would probably like to have the opportunity to revisit 2008..

The Visit Florida budget debate was the most visible, but not the only spending under scrutiny this week. With regular session fast approaching, lawmakers sat down to start paring down the state’s budget for next year as some lawmakers project a shortfall as high as $5 billion.

For the next two weeks, appropriations committees will examine every program that can be cut or terminated. Instead of making the case for why a given program should receive more funds, school teachers, health care workers and police officers will have to tell lawmakers what can go.

Senate and House budget leaders laid out the parameters for cutting the budget this week.. They told members to keep in mind constitutional requirements and programs that can bring in federal matching dollars when looking at what can be cut, but acknowledged that it would not be an easy task.

It was only weeks ago that cutting $2.3 billion from the state budget seemed daunting. It became apparently this week that January’s budget cutting special session was only the beginning..

TAKE YOUR FARM AND GO HOME

After much debate, the state’s largest private property insurer learned this week that it will be allowed to pull its roots out of the Florida property insurance market.

State Farm created quite a storm when it announced last month that it was being forced to retreat from the property insurance market by its inability to get approval for higher rates. Company officials said huge losses after major hurricanes made it unprofitable for the company to write policies in the state without the higher premiums, but some lawmakers said the state could not bear to buy the farm if the insurance company skipped town.

However, this week state Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty approved a two-year withdrawal plan by State Farm with several conditions. The company’s policies must be transferred to private companies, not Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the state’s last-resort insurer, and its agents must be free to write policies by other insurers.

McCarty also said the Office of Insurance Regulation has been negotiating with companies that have agreed to take up the bulk of the policies written by State Farm. McCarty said most policy holders will be able to receive new policies at private companies at or below the rates offered by State Farm, so the company’s withdrawal was actually a win for policyholders.

But it probably would not be wise to bet the farm on that.

A STIMULATING ACT OF KINDNESS

The national debate about President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus plan came to Florida this week, when the president brought his campaign for the plan to Fort Myers, where the economic hardships are as bad as just about anywhere in the country.

The president who promised bipartisan may not have found much success on that front in Washington, D.C. His stimulus plan garnered just 3 Republican votes in the U.S. Senate and none in the House the first time around. But Obama appeared to have better luck on the changing the tone in the Sunshine State. Obama was introduced at his nationally televised town hall by Florida’s own popular populist Gov. Charlie Crist.

Obama hailed Crist, saying the self-proclaimed “people’s governor” shares a conviction with the president that in a fire you should “grab a hose.” Obama said that’s what Crist was doing as he tried to help the president drum up support for the stimulus.

Many of Crist’s Republican colleagues in Washington, including Sen. Mel Martinez, oppose the measure. The retiring Martinez, who many would like to see replaced by Crist in 2010, made news this week by suggesting on the floor of the U.S. Senate that the governor did not understand the Democrats’ stimulus bill. Crist responded that it was an American issue, not a partisan one.

Several attendees at Obama’s Florida rally became national media sensations, including a homeless woman who asked the president for help and got it instead from the unexpected generosity of a state lawmaker and his wife.

Rep. Nick Thompson, R-Fort Myers, and his wife Chene attended Obama’s event, which was held in Thompson’s district. After hearing Henrietta Hughes’ story, the couple decided to allow her and her son to move into a vacant home owned by their family. Hughes made national news when she asked Obama during his event if his stimulus plan would help her find a place to live that was better than her car.

Despite being moved to action by Hughes’ story, however, Thompson said it did not make him more likely to support the stimulus plan.

“This didn’t have anything to do with the stimulus,” Thompson said this week. “The president was there to present it, which is what brought the lady into the auditorium, but this is something my wife did out of the goodness of her heart. It shows what can happen if people pull together and help each other out. It didn’t take a government program or stimulus for her to walk over there. If we do that as Americans, without government interference, we can do a lot of good for each other.”

It’s not often that someone has an extra house to spare, so while the stimulus debate raged on in the nation and in Florida, this week turned out to be a lucky one for Henrietta Hughes.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Lawmakers in both chambers took Visit Florida on a trip to the woodshed this week, demanding explanations from the tourism agency about its use of an out-of-state calling center and trips taken by officials.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “I’m going to start out with a budget where Visit Florida gets no money,” a visibly outraged Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, during a long grilling of Visit Florida’s director Bud Nocera, Chief Operating Officer Chris Thompson and other agency officials.

–END–
2/13/2009

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