The Center Square

By John Haughey

(The Center Square) – A House bill that would allow local Florida governments to direct some tourist tax revenues into flood control and mitigation projects has advanced through its first hearing despite a rising tide of objections from state hoteliers.

“The tourism industry, the only way they would support this bill is if it were dead. Let’s be honest,” Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Miami Springs, told the House Ways & Means Committee Monday.

“So,” he continued, “they will constantly advocate that this is not the right course of action. But in reality, this might turn out to be their saving grace.”

Avila and Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecantro, are co-sponsors of House Bill 1429, which passed through the panel Monday in a 17-0 vote, placing it one hearing before the Senate Rules Committee from reaching the chamber floor.

HB 1429’s Senate companion, Senate Bill 2008, sponsored Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, has not thus far been heard during the session, which convened March 2 and adjourns April 30.

Under state law, cities and counties are allowed to collect TDDs, or “bed taxes,” on such things as hotel stays to generate revenues for tourism promotion, advertising, beach improvements and building convention centers and stadiums.

Under HB 1429/SB 2008, local governments could use TDDs to mitigate rising sea levels, which not only threaten an estimated 300,000 Florida homes and their $145 billion in taxable property over the next 30 years, but the coastal areas that are the foundation of Florida’s $90 billion tourism industry.

Avila unsuccessfully tried to incorporate a similar expansion of TDD uses for water quality projects in the tax relief package last year when he chaired the Ways & Means Committee.

The bill is a rare departure from the Republican-controlled Legislature’s frequent use of preemption to handcuff local governments’ regulatory and taxing powers to give cities and counties discretion to use TDD revenues to augment funding for flood control infrastructure.

Avila agreed to a strike-all amendment to remove a provision that required TDDs and convention development taxes (CDTs) be re-approved by voters every five years.

He said the bill does not give local governments license to raise TDDs specifically for flood control projects nor does it mandate any city or county do so use TDDs for sea level mitigation efforts.

“This bill does nothing to make the local governments do anything,” Avila said. “It doesn’t redirect. It does nothing of that sort. It simply provides an additional option for those local governments, if they chose to.”

Rep. Michael Grieco, D-Miami Beach, said it’s odd that businesses most affected by rising sea levels are objecting to using taxes they already pay to preserve what people come to Florida for.

Without massive investment in flood control and mitigation “there is no Florida to visit and there’s no cities to visit if they’re underwater,” Grieco said.

Tourism industry representatives said TDDs should only be used for expenditures that are directly related to tourism which, in their view, flood control is not. Several predicted if adopted, the bill would lead to unanticipated consequences.

“With every additional use that we adopt into the statute, we dilute the usefulness and effectiveness of these dollars,” Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association attorney Samantha Padgett told the panel.

She said the bill will “fundamentally create what is a slush fund for issues and projects that haven’t otherwise been prioritized in our funds” before noting she agreed with at least one of Avila’s statements.

“Yes, there is probably nothing that would allow us to agree to support additional TDT uses,” Padgett said.

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