Coronavirus concerns prompting some changes in Tallahassee

TALLAHASSEE — Visit Florida, which could still be on the chopping block as lawmakers work on a state budget, has redirected marketing money from China to areas where a trip to the Sunshine State might not require air travel.

The state’s tourism-marketing agency halted promotional efforts directed at China as the coronavirus, or COVID-19, began to unfold in January.

Visit Florida spokesman John Tupps said this week the agency is using $377,000 intended for China to open an advertisement campaign targeted at people who live closer to Florida’s beaches, theme parks and other attractions. He said other money also is being used to attract those tourists.

“This domestic campaign has a heavy emphasis on attracting visitors from east of the Mississippi, the Northeast, Midwest and drive markets, such as Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Birmingham.” Tupps said. “We want to encourage all visitors who are seeking a sunny vacation to come to Florida, including those who may be less inclined to fly.”

Tupps noted Wednesday that revenue from spring travelers is vital to communities across the state and that the tourism-marketing agency hasn’t heard or seen “massive” cancellations.

The future of Visit Florida and its current $50 million a year in state funding remain among a number of issues still being hammered out as legislative leaders try to reach agreement on a budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The Senate is pushing a bill (SB 362) intended to keep Visit Florida operating through Oct. 1, 2028.

But House leaders have continued to question the need for spending state money on tourism marketing and want to close Visit Florida at the end of the current fiscal year, June 30.

Bye-ing time

As hard-fought bills die and the prospect of legislative overtime looms to complete the budget, departing lawmakers — due to term limits or other plans — have started taking a few moments of floor time to say goodbye to their colleagues.

That means Capitol watchers can expect to hear often self-congratulatory refrains and comments about the work lawmakers have accomplished.

“We have done well and we have done much in the last two years, much more than I can mention in this speech, but there is always much more that needs to be done,” said Rep. Ana Maria Rodriguez, a Doral Republican who is running for the Senate this year instead of seeking another term in the House.

Rodriguez was among the first lawmakers given time to address the House on Wednesday as the exit speeches got underway.

Rep. Wengay Newton, a St. Petersburg Democrat known for singing on the House floor, talked of the need for civility, and Rep. John Cortes, D-Kissimmee, called for help for the corrections system “because they’re in the toilet” and for lawmakers to honor local-government home rule.

The speeches, at times tear-filled, run about five to 10 minutes each in the House. Senators get a lot more time.

The Senate opened its first farewell address with a video montage for term-limited Sen. David Simmons, who is known for thought-out-yet-drawn-out comments about policy issues.

The farewells will continue into next week, concluding when portraits of Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, are unveiled.

Books closed for primary

More Floridians continue to translate into more voters.

Book-closing numbers for the March 17 presidential primary elections show 13.7 million registered voters in the state, according to the Florida Division of Elections.

The number is up from 13.28 million for the November 2018 general election and 12.9 million for the November 2016 general election.

And with the competitive presidential primary on the Democratic side, it might not be a surprise that Democrats have added more voters in the latest count.

The tally for this month’s primary has the Democrats at 5.1 million voters, or 37.3% of registered Floridians, compared to 4.82 million Republicans, of 35.2%.

Since the 2018 general election, Democrats have added 160,566 voters, compared to 142,949 for the GOP.

Voters with no party affiliation have increased since 2018 by 71,419. That brought the number to 3.62 million, or 26.4% of the overall count.

Such “small-I” independents have been the biggest gainers since 2016, adding 530,584 voters since President Donald Trump got elected. Republicans have added 274,236 in the same time and Democrats grew by 227,684.