Even if legislation is signed into law, it isn't eligible for change

Sarasota County's tourism promotion agency was breathing a sigh of relief Tuesday that it won't have to share its marketing funding.

State legislation passed Sunday and awaiting the signature of Gov. Rick Scott would allow counties to spend some of the 6 percent tax collected from hotels, known as the bed tax, on infrastructure such as roads and bike paths.

But a late addition to the bill would let counties use the tax revenue that way only if they already spend at least 40 percent of that revenue on marketing.

By a tiny margin, Visit Sarasota County did not reach that threshold. Information about Manatee County's spending was not immediately available.

Sarasota County's fiscal year 2018 budget has 9.8 percent of its Tourist Development Tax funding going toward cultural arts grants administered by the Arts & Cultural Alliance, said Visit Sarasota County president Virginia Haley. Visit Sarasota County receives 29.6 percent of the tax revenue. Both — a total of 39.4 percent — count toward the threshold.

Asked if it was just a coincidence that Sarasota County's funding just missed the minimum, Haley said, "The Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association worked very hard to make sure there was a bare minimum TDT going to tourism promotion with this expansion of use, and it just so happens that is our number here in Sarasota.

"We were watching the TDT expansion closely out of concern that the tourism promotion budget could be reduced for capital projects at the very time we are adding new hotels rooms in Sarasota County and really need the additional marketing," Haley said.

Sarasota County's TDT revenue for fiscal year 2017 was $21.4 million, said spokesman Jason Bartolone.

The tourist tax provision was part of a $170 million tax cut plan legislators approved Sunday.

The 40 percent rule was a late addition in response to opposition from the lodging association, which voiced concerns about spending money on infrastructure instead of on marketing and advertising, Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, the bill’s sponsor, told the Orlando Sentinel.

Current law allows counties to spend bed taxes on tourism marketing, beach renourishment, convention centers, sports arenas, zoos, aquariums and other tourist attractions.

But Fine pushed to free up the money for other infrastructure, saying it didn’t make sense to spend tourism development tax money on a convention center, for instance, but not on a new road leading to the convention center. Fine filed a bill earlier in the session that would add more flexibility for bed taxes after his county’s tourism board refused to spend money to clean up the Indian River Lagoon. The change would apply to Brevard County.

“It’s important because the goal of tourist development tax is to grow tourism. We wanted to free up TDT councils to make the right decision what would grow tourism,” Fine said. “That might be an infrastructure project.”

Haley was focused on her organization's work to make the most of tourism-related facilities the area already has.

"Many of our new assets which were paid for with TDT funds, such as Ed Smith Stadium, Nathan Benderson Park and the new Braves facility, all require promotional dollars to bring events to the facilities and to promote them," she said.

Information from the Orlando Sentinel was used in this report.